Facts alone won’t win Welsh independence – we need emotion too

Picture by Holly Victoria Norval (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

A few days after the Brexit vote I made the argument that the people who were convinced to vote for Brexit were the exact people most likely to be convinced to support Welsh independence.

The less prosperous working class who voted for it wanted to force a change – any change – that would shake up the establishment and improve their lives.

However, what has struck me in the more than a year since then is how bad we are at actually making that case to them. We have failed quite spectacularly.

Specifically, we’re bad at speaking the language of emotion.

This is somewhat ironic, since nationalism is – according to its detractors – an illogical, emotional, primordial urge.

But Welsh nationalism is in many ways not a nationalism but an anti-nationalism. It is a reaction to British nationalism.

It seeks to protect those things British nationalism would take away from us – wealth, resources, people, culture.

And it usually responds to illogical, emotional British nationalism by forming logical arguments we think will convince people to change their opinions.

No, Wales isn’t too poor to be independent. Yes, Westminister is neglecting us. No, our culture isn’t inferior – here’s the evidence. Have a pile of books.

Anyone thinking logically, we think, looking at the evidence, would surely be convinced by our arguments. The problem is just in getting these ideas out through a hostile British press.

But it isn’t that simple. We tend to overstate the role that facts and logic play in politics.

Politics is, rather, a game of emotions. It is driven not by a cold, calculating impulse to make the world work more efficiently but by people’s gut instinct when presented with ideas they may or may not like.

Neuroscientists have long shown that the part of the brain that makes conscious, logical choices just isn’t open for business when people think politically.

If people come across facts that challenge their dearly held beliefs the emotional part of the brain simply overrules the rational part.

This is why it’s almost impossible for rational, logical arguments on both sides of the Brexit debate to get a look in. People have made their mind up and will cling to it like an only child on Passover.


The way around this shield is not to double down on the logic but to suggest that your argument is the one that speaks most clearly to the audiences’ identity, their values, and their beliefs.

People aren’t attracted to facts and figures. Rather, they look for politicians they can identify with, who seem to share their general values and approach to life.

People would rather a poor, illogical politician who shares their view on life than a competent, proven politician who doesn’t (look at Trump and Clinton).

Politicians in the United States understand this to a tee. Look at Mitt Romney’s advert for his Senate run in Utah.

There’s no policy in there. There’s no argument about how he would be a better senator, in practical terms, than his opponent.

The advert is almost all emotional manipulation, with a clear message: I am like you. Ignore the fact that I’m a billionaire. I share your values: families, health, national pride, belief in hard work, belief in religious freedom.

This identity issue also shows why opponents of Brexit have hit a brick wall when trying to convince people that it’s a terrible idea.

Calling people who voted for Brexit ‘stupid’ does the opposite of making them identify with you – it tells them that you’re not like them. In fact, you reject their way of seeing the world.

When we wheel out experts from the world of business and academia to tell the people who voted for Brexit that they’re wrong, they have their shield up straight away because they imagine that this person isn’t like them.

Picture by Ade Rixon (CC BY-SA 2.0)


So how has Welsh nationalism used emotion and identification in order to win the day?

Let”s look at the seats where Plaid Cymru have gained ground over the last few years: Rhondda, Ceredigion and (to a lesser extent) Cardiff West.

What these seats had in common were candidates in which the voters saw ‘someone like them’ asking for their vote.

Leanne Wood didn’t need a Mitt Romney-esque advert in the Rhondda to manufacture such an identity because she already embodied it.

People in Cardiff West see McEvoy and they see ‘someone like me’. Plaid’s intelligensia baulk at his populist campaigns but he has a clear understanding of what appeals to his audience at an emotional level.

In Cerdigion, Plaid had fielded a string of dazzling candidates – a brilliant parlimantarian, an university lecturer and a well-known author – and failed. It was Ben Lake, a likeable, down to earth 23 year old from Lampeter, who people ultimately identified with.

But when it comes to using emotion to win arguments I think that Welsh nationalism is still some way behind.

Too often we construct detailed essays on why our ideas are better and policies superior without realising that we’re speaking to people in the wrong language (no, not Welsh).

We’ve bashed away at the valleys for years. But we won’t break through until we realise that people stick with Labour because they identify with them, not because they necessarily agree with their policies.

This is why Labour are so keen to portray Plaid Cymru the ‘other’ – north Walian nationalists, who are not like the valley’s voters. Plaid must forge an emotional message that overcomes such divisions.

Perhaps the most successful person at doing so in recent times hasn’t been a politician at all, but rather an actor. Check out Michael Sheen’s St. David’s Day message:

This is a purely emotional message of national pride. But in delivering it he brings together Wales’ fractured history and identity together into one resonant image.

This kind of emotional politics can be sneered at, but as long as we’re doing the sneering others with no such hang-ups and darker motives will be playing the role of the political pied piper.

For too long, Welsh nationalism has been winning the logical argument but losing the election. We need to win not just the logical argument but the emotional one too.

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