Carrie Harper, Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Queensway ward on Wrexham Council
A post-Brexit YouGov poll for ITV Cymru Wales and Cardiff University has delivered some significant results that point to a polarisation of views amongst Welsh voters as regards both Welsh Independence and devolution.
The poll released this week shows growing support for Welsh Independence, now up to 27% (omitting don’t knows, not voting and refused to answer). But this was countered by another result which has raised a few eyebrows. The poll also showed that 33% would vote in a referendum to abolish the Senedd altogether.
The figures also suggest that support for abolishing the Senedd is at its highest in the north of Wales. Of course, it’s important not to overreact to small regional sub-samples in individual polls, but a growing disillusionment with devolution chimes with what I’ve heard here over the past few years.
In the north-east where I live, the ‘everything goes down south’ and ‘Cardiff doesn’t care’ lines feature regularly in conversations on the doorstep and increasingly so. This frustration stems from the sorry state of transport, the health service, the lack of television coverage, as well as a general sense of disenfranchisement.
And this spike in frustration is undoubtedly down to the failure of the Labour Government that’s been in power since 1999 to deliver what people want, or indeed to articulate any kind of vision at all. It’s been so lacklustre in fact that a growing number of people are clearly now questioning the validity of the institution itself.
In terms of Welsh Government economic policy, Government Ministers such as Ken Skates relentlessly tout north Wales as an add on to the north West of England. He is obsession an “east-west economic axis” but has spectacularly failed to set out a genuine economic vision based on building on our strengths and aspirations. A plan that amounts to better links with England is lazy economics, especially given that the north-east accounts for a third of Welsh exports.
There is also a growing sense of a democratic deficit too. People feel that housing and planning are being dictated by a distant Welsh Government with no understanding of the impact it will have on communities. Add to that a health board in meltdown with seemingly no hope of recovery under the current Labour Government and we have the recipe for a large-scale backlash.
These frustrations have been brewing for a long time and aren’t all unique to this part of Wales. But if we’re not careful, we may just see a Brexit style boil-over here, with people ready to kick out at any institution within reach. Many blame devolution itself for this long list of failures and neglect, rather than the political party that’s presided over it for 22 unbroken years.
This is an issue that now needs tackling head-on, we need to acknowledge and address the concerns people are raising. As it stands Plaid Cymru are the only party who have attempted to do that, with policies proposing legislation for fair spending and ideas such as devolving Government around the country.
It’s not time to panic about the future of devolution. It’s clear from the poll results that a majority of Welsh people in the north as elsewhere do support devolution and also that support for Independence is on the rise. Opposition to devolution has always been there and we have come a long way from 1997 when half the population didn’t want any devolution at all.
It’s also heartening that among the youngest in the population support for scrapping the Senedd is at its lowest and support for independence is at its highest.
However, we’d be foolish not to notice that the danger of such a campaign to overturn devolution and return us to full Westminster control is there.
Key Welsh figures such as historian and broadcaster John Davies have long described the north-east as a crucible of Welsh identity, and he was exactly right. We now stand at a political crossroads which could see this rich identity grow and thrive, or alternatively we could see it lost unless we gain political power over our own future.
We have to give people confidence that as a fundamental principle, we can and should chart our own course. The alternative is both the Tories and Labour pushing us in the opposite direction – assimilation.
Stand-alone polices won’t be enough going forward, it’s clearly time for a more in depth analysis of the challenges we face, with a view to producing a cohesive plan of action for the next phase of devolution. One idea would be the establishment of a commission for the north of Wales, which could examine all the dynamics touched on here and set out a longer-term vision of integration and empowerment for this part of Wales.
In the midst of the current frustration with politics in general which is undoubtedly bubbling away, there are also opportunities. There is an appetite amongst the people I talk to for solutions, along with a growing sense of Welsh identity and curiosity about Independence.
We now have a unique opportunity to knit these threads together and give people the answers they’ve long been asking for.