Cool heads now – why for YesCymru, a slow burn could be better
Ifan Morgan Jones
When I set Nation.Cymru up in 2017 the main aim was to provide Wales with something that it was lacking – a national public sphere.
That is, a stage where people could discuss and debate the nation’s direction on some of the most important issues of the day, from Brexit, to Welsh independence, to the environment, equality, farming, and so on.
No doubt these debates were already going on – we had a national parliament, after all, and a number of national Welsh language publications. But what percentage of the population was this national debate actually reaching? 15%? 10%?
With the English language press historically locally based, the arguments were more of the ‘why is this wind farm being built here?’ variety than ‘what is our national strategy for renewable energy, anyway?’
I don’t think it’s possible to objectively measure what contribution Nation.Cymru has made during the last four years – perhaps it has just been a symptom of something that was happening anyway, rather than the cause of it – but that national debate is now definitely happening.
And, dare I say it, it’s had a knock-on effect on other media, with a realignment of the debate around national audiences and issues elsewhere too.
The most visible manifestation of this change has been the growth of the Welsh independence movement from a few chin-stroking academics at a Plaid Cymru summer school to a full-blown national campaign. It could be argued in the past that it was never a mass movement – it is, clearly, one now.
The flickering flame of Welsh nationhood carried through inclement Welsh weather over the centuries by various political causes has now ignited. It could well run out of oxygen as soon and as suddenly as it started, but it could well burn out of the control even of those who have been methodically throwing soggy planks on it over the decades.
And the question now is, of course, well, once you have a mass movement, what now? And this is one I think a few contributors to Nation.Cymru have been grappling with over the past few weeks, some – like Brooks, Davies-Lewis and Antoniw – perhaps who are rather pleased to see the fire burning so bright but are rather alarmed at the speed of the spread.
Some fear a Pyrrhic victory – the Welsh independence movement burns bright and clear but out of control and, when the ashes are cleared, we find ourselves in a black, sooty landscape where we didn’t want to be.
But another common theme of these worries is the imagined sight of Unionist forces, their eyes caught from London by the flickering beacon of the mass independence movement on the horizon, trundling over with a big bucket of water. Perhaps Boris Johnson will finally get to use that water cannon he ordered as London Mayor.
Ultimately I think that those who wanted this national debate have to accept that one of the side-effects of it is that it will also provide a platform for people who want completely different things to you.
And what has been striking is that no one just seems to want to keep the status quo. I’m yet to receive a single submission to Nation.Cymru along the lines of ‘the devolved settlement we have at the moment is OK, actually’.
This debate is healthy. And it will also force every side of the argument to respond by putting a bit of meat on the bones, which is something that in most cases just isn’t there at the moment.
The pro-independence side have clearly done the most work on this, publishing a number of booklets and pamphlets laying out their plans for a post-independence Wales. However, for as big an undertaking as Welsh independence, it’s clear that a more definite sense of direction is needed. Perhaps us academic chin-strokers may become useful in the end game after all.
Those who would rather scrap devolution altogether have no plan apart from destruction. One possible logo submitted by the Abolish the Assembly party to the electoral commission was of a wrecking ball hitting the Senedd. That seems to be about the scale of their ambition – destroy what is there, with no sense of what comes in its place (and we must remember that Wales had significant powers even before 1999, and its own administrative institutions as far back as the Acts of Union).
Least impressive of all, at the moment, is the case put forward by the federalists. This is ironic because if it could work it would perhaps be the most popular option – poll after poll has shown that the people of Wales want more powers but not outright separation.
However one gets the feeling that, at the moment, federalism is just something Labour like to say is an overall objective, just to keep Labour’s Scottish independence supporters onside. It’s jam tomorrow, but I don’t see anyone out in the fields on their knees picking raspberries. No one is putting in the work to make it happen.
What does strike me however is that those who have the most time to play with are probably those arguing for Welsh independence.
This is, of course, the opposite of YesCymru’s official line. They will say that time is of the essence and that Wales faces an immediate choice between independence and assimilation as soon as Scotland leaves the union.
This is good marketing to get people excited to join up and campaign. However, I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case from a practical point of view.
If you step back from the rapidly spreading fire and look at the big picture, time is actually an advantage that YesCymru does have over its competitors.
Support for Welsh independence and scrapping the Senedd are at about the same level, placing Wales, currently, at constitutional crossroads. Under these circumstances, forcing a choice could really go either way.
But if you dig deeper into the data you see that Abolish is in a bit of a bind – the bulk of their support comes from the over 65+ cohort.
35% of over 65s want to scrap the Senedd compared with only 13% of 15-24 year olds.
For Yes Cymru, the stats are entirely reversed, 35% of 15-24 year olds would vote for independence compared with 14% of over 65s.
This is part of a long term pattern in a loss of support for those that want to do away with Wales’ devolved institutions.
Of course, supporting independence at age 16 doesn’t mean that you will at age 65. Just as people get more likely to vote Conservative as they get older, one likely gets keener on the constitutional status quo as well.
However, what we are seeing is the growth of a generation for whom Wales having its own political institutions is the status quo.
What does this mean? Well, it means that for Abolish the Assembly, time is of the essence. They probably have another decade at most to overturn devolution. It may already be too late.
For YesCymru, as long as they can keep that fire burning, they can sit back, plan, and watch their political opponents sweat.