Can Plaid Cymru deliver Welsh independence?
Congratulations are again in order for YesCymru, who reached 16,000 members this weekend. Special kudos has been awarded to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a recruitment officer based in Westminster, London, for demonstrating that an English nationalist government prepared to throw Britain off a cliff edge may not be in the best interests of the Welsh public.
Mark Reckless was also highly commended, after this week he took great pride in showing contempt to the parliament where he sits, and once again the Welsh Conservative party, who have apparently been asking parliamentary candidates how they’d vote in a referendum to abolish the Senedd. Nothing surprises me anymore.
Legislative challenges to our devolved settlement, a No Deal Brexit, the breakdown of relations between Cardiff and London, and challenges to our democracy are no jokes, either. These political earthquakes have driven the surge of support for groups like YesCymru and the broader independence movement over recent months, although most attention concerning the nationalist question has been paid to Scotland, where the SNP are almost certain to be back in government in May, possibly with a majority.
Unlike our Celtic cousins, the Welsh have curiously not flocked to support our main nationalist party this year. There are, of course, clear differences between Plaid Cymru and the SNP to acknowledge. One party has been in government since 2007, the other has acted as the second or third party in parliamentary affairs for close to a decade. One party operates in a country where Labour has been decimated electorally, the other has to compete with a party that resonates with soft-nationalists and unionists alike.
One party has campaigned for Yes during a referendum on independence (and lost), while the other has only managed to utter the word in recent years. No prizes for guessing which one is which.
And now, while Downing Street continues its self-implosion and Nicola Sturgeon’s PR machine propels the SNP’s popularity into the stratosphere, Plaid Cymru are nowhere to be seen. As Professor Richard Wyn Jones has already convincingly articulated, the party is some distance from reaching a position to enter government, and Adam Price has also ruled out coalitions with parties he would need to form an administration.
Independence, as the Plaid Cymru leader has already admitted, is therefore more popular than the main party that champions it. Neither command the support of the majority. It’s safe to say that there is good reason for Price to be worried (if he isn’t already) about the party’s prospects at next year’s Senedd elections.
That perhaps explains the rationale behind a keynote speech on Friday, where Price pledged that Plaid Cymru would hold an independence referendum in its first term, should it win in May. Scotland will certainly get theirs before long, and a united Ireland is a growing possibility post-Brexit.
So, why not? As the union looks to be crumbling, Wales should not be last out of the starting blocks – or else risk being tied to the United Kingdom of England and Wales in 2030.
The commitment also made sense politically too. Since no major party has gone into a Senedd election committing to hold a referendum before, Plaid Cymru have certainly set out their stall: it is only with us in power that independence is possible. Adam Price desperately needs more of YesCymru’s members to come to him too, and also to attract those indy-curious voters who may be out there. The policy is independence and the priority is government.
The problem? Neither seem likely. Most members of the public would struggle to articulate what Plaid Cymru’s policies would be for government, and aside from the advisory Independence Commission report, there is no clear detail on what an independent Wales looks like. Although I have some sympathy for the Plaid Cymru leader, who is operating in a nation that has long experienced the impact of a stark democratic deficit, he must realise that even his own central policy of independence is not going to cut through. It is a part of the political mainstream, that is clear, but it is nowhere near the top priority of Welsh people.
So although May 2021 is an indyref election in Scotland, Plaid Cymru will find it difficult to make it so in Wales. Welsh Labour have so skilfully tied Wales to Westminster at arm’s length these past two decades, deploying the ‘clear red water’ rhetoric when it suits them. Nationalists have struggled to make space for themselves.
And now Mark Drakeford has an immense platform afforded to no other Welsh politician this century. He satisfies the beliefs of those who want to have the insurance policy of the UK, but also want a government in Cardiff that does not follow Westminster blindly. Some will be forgiven for asking: why vote Plaid Cymru?
At least it was fitting that the Adam Price’s address came on the 11th December, 738 years to the day when the last native Prince of Wales was killed at Cilmeri. After half an hour, we heard the story of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s downfall, and how we should treat the ivy the Tywysog’s severed head was crowned with as a symbol of Celtic rebirth that can be applied today. We can use our “tragic” history as inspiration for the future, apparently.
I doubt such naked romanticism of the Welsh past resonates with any voters beyond Plaid’s core base. Price is astute enough to know that, too. This need to break from the past also probably explains Electoral Commission filings show that the party is looking to rebrand; we are likely to hear more then of Plaid Cymru Newydd – New Wales Party ahead of May 2021.
Can a name change rescue Plaid Cymru’s hopes, when there are other sizable internal issues of transphobia and anti-Semitism that continue to taint the party at the same time? You decide.
My favourite moment of Price’s address was the moment when the staff at the St. David’s Hotel were clearly so fed up with the talk of reviving the spirit of Llywelyn that they put the fire alarm on. “I’m all for a sense of urgency, but I think this is taking it too far!” Price quipped. But the situation facing his party is no laughing matter: those words capture exactly what those outside the indy-movement – the majority of the Welsh public – would have felt watching clips of this speech.
Wales is not yet ready for an independence referendum or, most importantly, a Plaid Cymru government to deliver it. On the latter, it is possible we will never be. That should set alarm bells ringing.