For the first time in 600 years, Welsh independence could actually happen
Ifan Morgan Jones
I idly checked my phone yesterday when I saw a message posted by YesCymru, letting their followers know that they had added 500 new members in fewer than 24 hours, bringing their total to 9,500.
And that’s when the thought struck me, for the first time in my life: ‘Bloody hell, Welsh independence could actually, really, actually, y’know, actually happen.’
A lot of Welsh people would say in the past that they would prefer Wales to be independent one day. But, like Wales winning the Rugby World Cup, it was something said more in hope than expectation.
Yes, it was possible that it could at some point happen, but there was little current evidence to suggest it would.
For many, it was still something worth working towards, because sometimes the best defence is a good offence. If enough people could be convinced of the need for independence, then the compromise of some kind of national autonomy was on a firmer footing; at the very least the idea of Wales as a separate political entity would live on and await more favourable political conditions.
But this could actually be it.
There are two reasons why I think Wales could now, actually, really become independent.
The first is that YesCymru have struck on a very simple, easily repeatable message and now have the financial means to disseminate it.
The second is that Unionists have gotten their own campaign to try and keep various parts of the UK in the union complete and utterly wrong.
Let’s look at what YesCymru have done first. Over the last year or so the movement has transformed its messaging completely, and has somehow managed to achieve that impossible task of constructing a big enough tent to include almost everyone in Wales within it.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Lloyd George and others throughout Welsh history, who had tried and failed to get different groups with different ideas of what it means to be Welsh singing from the same hymn sheet, would nod in admiration.
YesCymru has done this largely by ignoring pressure from almost all sides to become a certain kind of movement. There have been plenty saying that Welsh independence must be this, or must be that. ‘There is no point to Welsh independence if not X,’ with no two individuals quite agreeing as to what X was.
What Covid-19 has shown is that predicting the future is impossible – and so is predicting exactly what an independent Wales is going to look like. But YesCymru’s simple yet compelling message throughout the pandemic has been that whatever the future holds, how Wales responds to it should be decided by the people of Wales in their own best interests.
This is a message that crosses political boundaries and is potentially relevant to everyone in Wales.
It sounds simple but it is something that Welsh nationalism has, until this point, been unable to do. Particularly Plaid Cymru who, because they are a political party, have always had to take sides on all of the political issues of the day.
As a result they’ve tended to be pigeonholed (or have pigeonholed themselves) as a party for left-wing Welsh speakers. The YesCymru movement, meanwhile, looks much more like a cross-section of society.
Not being a political party, YesCymru have simply been able to stick to their simple mantras: Westminster doesn’t work for Wales. Not Anti-English, Anti-Westminster. Big Enough, Strong Enough, Rich Enough.
As any political psychologist will tell you, politics ultimately (and unfortunately) isn’t about who has the best arguments. Even before the current age of populism, who governs us very often isn’t based on the facts.
What wins out politically are emotional appeals and messages that can be repeated ad infinitum.
This also makes YesCymru’s huge membership count extremely important. If YesCymru continue to grow at this kind of pace they could become the largest political movement in Wales within a few months.
Whatever % of public opinion they represent now, it gives them a huge war chest to spend on changing people’s minds. If they have 10,000 members paying in £2 a month (and many will be giving more) they will be raising a quarter of a million pounds a year.
If repeating key messages is the key to success, then £250,000 a year pays for a hell of a lot of repetition. It ensures that even if some 70% of people in Wales do not agree with independence now, they are going to become very familiar with the idea very soon.
And as we’ve seen in other political circumstances, such as on the question of Brexit or Scottish independence, ideas that were once marginal, when presented front and centre, can become mainstream very, very quickly.
The second point is the flip side of the above. While momentum and belief are surging through the Welsh national movement, unionists just either don’t seem to be particularly interested in saving the union or have no idea how to go about it.
The UK Government in particular must know that almost all of their interventions in order to strengthen the union – such as the Internal Market Bill – are actually driving support for independence like never before
We’ve recently had a string of articles by people such as Stephen Daisley, Toby Young and Dan Hodges which almost seem designed to loosen the ties holding Wales to the rest of the UK. They seem to think that the more vitriolic and patronizing they are towards Wales, the faster we will fall back into line.
There also seems to have been a collective decision made within the British establishment that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and now the north of England are ‘misbehaving’ because of devolution.
If they could just unwind devolution and claw back all the powers to Westminster, all would be well!
But this analysis is fundamentally flawed.
It isn’t devolution breaking up the UK at all. Other nations such as the USA, Germany and India have much more powerful ‘regional’ parliaments and aren’t going to break up any time soon.
The fatal flaw within the UK is the combination of devolving power and then attempting to overrule and undercut those powers.
The row in Greater Manchester is an excellent example of this at work. The UK Government insisted that Greater Manchester had a Mayor – fine. Andy Burnham has done a so far excellent job.
But as soon as the Mayor – the directly elected representative of the city and surrounding area – disagreed with the UK Government about how the pandemic should be managed there they completely overruled, ignored and undercut him.
This culminated with a now-famous and spectacular news conference where the Mayor found out by text halfway through how much money 10 Downing Street had decided the region was going to get.
There is a lot of theory about how nation-states break up, but the worst of both worlds is to create regional or national institutions and constantly undermine them. If you want to go about breaking up a nation-state deliberately there’s no faster way.
The reason for this is that as soon as you create a regional or national political institution, that institution has a stake in its own survival and will do everything in its political power to avoid its own destruction.
If you try to undercut those powers it’s not just an attack on the institution but on everyone it represents, be they Mancunian or Welsh or whatever, because every regional / national political institution creates a sense of regional identity as a means of self-preservation.
So every nation-state has a choice: You can not create regional / national institutions in the first place and govern every part on the nation fairly and equitably.
Or when you do create them or are forced to create them (because you have no interest in governing fairly or equitably), you make it entirely clear what their powers are and you then respect them and those powers. Because doing otherwise makes those institutions fight back and, if no compromise is possible, try and break further away.
It’s now too late for Westminster not to create a Welsh or Scottish Parliament or a Manchester Mayor so the only option left is just to give them the power they want, respect them and leave them alone.
Because trying to claw power back will just have the opposite effect – the exact effect we’re seeing now, which is 56% supporting independence for Scotland, the Welsh national movement growing rapidly, and even the north of England in a state of rebellion.
Taken together these two factors – a growing, well-resourced and politically savvy Welsh national movement and a unionist campaign that has completely misread the situation – have made independence possible.
This doesn’t mean that Welsh independence will happen.
But today Welsh independence could happen. At the very least, it looks more likely than at any point in the last 600 years.
And as I finished this article my phone pinged again – YesCymru’s membership had now hit 10,000.