Bandwagon jumping politicians threaten the Welsh independence movement’s grassroots appeal
Ifan Morgan Jones
Just over a week ago 8,000 people marched in Caernarfon for Welsh independence, an occurrence that might have seemed unthinkable as recently as the beginning of May.
And this week both the Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles and former First Minister Carwyn Jones came to the National Eisteddfod and made what can only be interpreted as deliberately positive noises about independence.
They did not go as far as endorsing the idea of independence – their own Labour MPs would be in revolt if that happened – but they gave the national movement a nod and a wink.
If Brexit does go ahead “any sensible government would have to reassess Wales’s place in a changed UK,” said Jeremy Miles.
Carwyn Jones said on Tuesday that he did not oppose independence “on principle” but rather for “practical reasons”. He also said that Wales “isn’t too poor to be independent – no.”
It is clear what is going on here – Welsh Labour see the way the wind is blowing and are re-aligning their own electoral sails accordingly.
Their response to any suggestion of Plaid Cymru’s possible electoral success has always been to roll their tanks further up Plaid Cymru’s lawn.
However, their readiness to even countenance independence shows how much of a sea change there has been in Welsh politics since the beginning of Spring.
Even as Wales seems to be at its most powerless in the context of UK politics – or perhaps, because of it – it feels as if the Welsh national movement has all the momentum at the moment.
There is a danger for the Welsh national movement here, however, that it falls into the trap of being seen as project driven by, and for, a minority within Wales.
The reason why the Welsh national movement has never really taken off is that it has been seen, up until now, as a middle-class, mainly Welsh-speaking movement in a mainly working-class, English-speaking country.
YesCymru has so far managed to avoid being tarred with this brush in the same way as Plaid Cymru.
But while the march in Caernarfon was a huge achievement and impressive in its size, the movement needs to be careful that it does not become too associated with the cultural nationalism of the north-west.
And while the movement needs Welsh Labour’s voters – it does not necessarily, at the moment, need the same politicians who have been in charge for much of the past 20 years.
There is a danger that if the politicians get on board before the people do it will be seen as a vehicle for maintaining privilege rather than radical change.
While Welsh Labour’s movement towards the idea of Welsh independence is to be welcomed, the danger is that it too quickly becomes associated with the political status quo.
This is why All Under One Banner Cymru’s next venue, Merthyr Tydfil, is such an excellent choice.
Because if they want to avoid hitting the buffers, the independence movement needs to make inroads beyond cultural nationalists and beyond the middle class.
As Carrie Harper recently argued so effectively, the movement’s continued success means breaking into non-Welsh speaking, working-class areas which nevertheless have high numbers of Welsh identifying people.
‘Populism’ has become a dirty word because of its association with the far-right. But the Welsh national movement must at least offer the people of Wales a radical change.
My hope is that the choice of venue for the next march will give the movement an opportunity to articulate a vision that really does appeal to those who have been rendered politically, culturally and economically powerless.
Waving an Owain Glyndŵr flag may get the crowd’s blood pumping in Caernarfon but is likely to fall flat in Merthyr – the speakers at this event need to lay out how Welsh independence would offer people real hope.
I have always made it clear that I’m not a fan of Brexit. It would not, at least in the hands of Johnson and Farage, improve the lives of the people of Wales. However, just canning Brexit isn’t enough. Brexit is a symptom, not the cause, of the current political ructions.
The root cause is that people are unhappy with the current status quo, who feel powerless, and need political leaders who will empower them and offer them radical change that will improve their lives.
This does not, of course, mean that YesCymru should overcompensate and allow itself to be hijacked by populist ‘anti-elite’ extremes.
National movements are only successful if they yoke together the interests of the middle-class and working-class.
In the age of Brexit, when the country is hopelessly divided, such a manoeuvre is probably as difficult as it has ever been.
The Welsh independence movement can, however, heal this divide if it presents a vision of Welsh independence that everyone in Wales can rally around.
Welsh independence needs to be what Brexit pretends to be – a real attempt at returning political, economic and cultural power to everyone in Wales.
But if it perceived to be about more power for a small number in Cardiff Bay and the psychological satisfaction of nationhood for the cultural nationalists, it will never cut through.