‘Gan bwyll’: towards a sustainable independence campaign

Welsh flags at the Senedd on St David’s Day. Picture by the National Assembly. (CC BY 2.0)

Carwyn Tywyn

“The first rule of any battle is to bring your troops home safely”.

For over a decade, I spent much of my life transcribing many tens of thousands of words on Welsh politics, history, national identity and the Welsh language. First, as a PhD student at the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University (1997-2004) and then as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University (2003-2005). I wrote a short series of political biography articles for BARN magazine (2005-06) before starting a two-year period as National Assembly Correspondent for GOLWG magazine (2006-2008), a stint which covered the formation of the “One Wales” coalition agreement in the National Assembly between Labour and Plaid Cymru. A subsequent freelance role for GOLWG covered the second Devolution Referendum of 2011.

Of all the quotations that I have garnered from politicians, activists and members of the public during that time, it is the one cited at the start of this article that has most often come to mind, time and time again. The source of the quotation was Huw Lewis, the then AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The “troops” he was referring to were the miners during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. In this particular interview for BARN magazine, Huw Lewis gave a scathing account of the leadership of Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and argued that the miners would have fared better under a more moderate NUM leadership.

Over the last few years, my mind has returned to Huw Lewis’ sentence in the context of the national movement in Wales. I alluded to the problem last year in a Nation.Cymru piece on anger in public debate. This time I would like to be more explicit: I do not think that the current tone or framing of the independence debate is sustainable in terms of the long-term morale of the national movement in Wales, or for the mental health of the social media-based “troops” who are involved in this particular battle.

I have several concerns, and I will try to deal with them as briefly as possible. I am of course mindful of the danger of criticising others without having anything to contribute myself, and so I have set out a mini-manifesto at the end of the essay. I am fairly sure that people in the independence movement who know me personally, will know that my points come from a place of love, care, concern, an established knowledge of Welsh politics and – having worked in the health and social care field since 2016 – a professional understanding of mental health and its importance.

It is over twenty years since Dafydd Wigley claimed that Plaid Cymru had “never” supported independence:

“Plaid Cymru has never advocated independence. Our objective has been full self-government for Wales. As we build our confidence in our country, I believe people will want to take more powers.”

As it happens, I was a local Plaid Cymru council candidate in 1999 when Dafydd Wigley made that remarkable statement. I believe with conviction that Dafydd Wigley’s gradualist approach was correct in 1999 and remains the correct approach now.

Caution

One reason for my tactical caution is that the Welsh situation has suddenly become incredibly hard to judge. In my view, there are two factors which could lead to the possibility of Wales finding itself in some sort of de facto situation of independence. I fear that the threat of COVID-19 will remain at least for the length of the current political generation. In that context, the salience of separate health jurisdictions in England and Wales will continue to enforce a state of divergence between the two territories. Secondly, it is hard to predict the vicissitudes of English nationalism in the wake of a forthcoming hard Brexit and a protracted constitutional debate in Scotland. Former First Minister Carwyn Jones was correct to suggest that Wales “may end up independent by default”.

In this situation, where a form of independence falls into Wales’ reluctant lap (as was the case in states such as Slovenia and Belarus), I feel that the tactical priority is to build a domestic policy programme that can shore up the embryonic Welsh state, whilst also promoting unity between Wales’ various progressive parties.  For example, in areas such as broadcasting, post-Brexit agricultural policy and a cross-party COVID-19 approach.

Another fundamental reason for a gradualist approach concerns the question of democracy. As a national movement, we use the phrase “the people of Wales” as a mantra. Yet in our current fixation with independence, we have completely airbrushed the hard fact that “the people of Wales” voted unequivocally for Brexit. Most crucially, that the counties which identify strongest as being “Welsh”, with the highest percentages of Welsh-born people, voted in the clearest. Most unequivocal terms for a “British” identity when it comes to matters of state. As Roger Arwan Scully of the Welsh Governance Centre observed in 2017: the Brexit vote in the valleys had a strong relationship with British identity; Welshness was a “dog that didn’t bark”.

Campaign

It is perhaps this reason, more than any other, why I have failed to make the intellectual and emotional leap towards the full-scale campaign for independence in its current form. As nationalists, we were happy enough to go with the verdicts of the “people of Wales” on devolution in 1997 and again in 2011.  Thankfully, support for the Welsh Government’s COVID response is also in line with these votes.

However, my view is that the Welsh view on matters of statehood is essentially unionist in outlook: that Wales’ closest comparison in these isles may in fact be moderate Ulster Unionism, rather than Scottish or Irish nationalism. Four years after the Brexit vote, the Welsh view on that matter is essentially unchanged.  And, whilst 20% support for independence is twice the level of a generation ago, I would suggest it still leaves us probably looking down the barrel of a defeat by a margin of some two-thirds. To coin a rugby phrase: we need to keep the independence ball in this murky constitutional scrum until the last possible moment. Early release of the ball to an “indyref” will see us flattened by the very “people of Wales” who we claim to be campaigning for.

This brings me to a final more theoretical point: that the purpose of the national movement is becoming ever more contingent on a victorious independence referendum. This is in line with a statist definition of nationalist doctrine, as set out by the theorist Elie Kedourie in 1960:

“Briefly, the doctrine holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type of government is national self-government.”

Nation

Until very, very recently, the focus of the Welsh national movement since 1860 has been on the moral and cultural condition of the Welsh “nation” rather than the legal realisation of a Welsh “state”. The Welsh Liberals promoted issues such as the disestablishment of the Church in Wales and tenants’ rights. Plaid Cymru brought an ethos of Christian anti-militarism and, more recently, an explicit support for the European Union. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg brought equality for the Welsh language to the political table. All of these campaigns, and others, helped to shape the ethos and quality of the Welsh nation and national movement, regardless of whether Wales had a state or not.

My fear is that the current climate of millennial, binary, social media politics, puts this resilient tapestry (I like the Welsh term gwaead) of a Welsh national movement, at risk. We are all living under the strain of COVID-19 to differing degrees, with all the policy implications to worry and argue about. Soon enough, we will be living with the consequences of either a hard or a no-deal Brexit, and the reprobation that will go with that. How on earth, then, will we have the emotional capacity to rebound from, let’s say a 60-40 defeat (or likely worse) in an independence referendum defeat, in 5- or 10-years’ time?

Adrift

The broad national movement urgently needs a “Plan B” that is open to, but not contingent on independence. A cross-party agreement on “red line” issues for Wales when we are finally cast adrift from our European partners on December 31st. A constitutional convention, similar to the old “Parliament for Wales Campaign” that can consider various legal and political scenarios, known and unknown that are heading our way.

The #indywales movement has a role to play in introducing the independence option in the minds of people, in debunking reactionary anti-Welsh sentiment on the web, in bringing new (and younger) people to the debate, and in forming personal alliances among the fringes of the progressive parties.

This is really serious work. However, if it is not done in an organised and disciplined manner, I fear that it will impact on the mental health of activists and collectively across the national movement as a whole. My suggestions in this respect, are:

  • An #indyrota which divides the work up among activists into set time blocks and guarantees that activists will step away from political social media.
  • A rolling programme of social media training for activists, reinforcing messages around social media addiction, and the legal consequences of social media posts.
  • A more nuanced “indywales” message, focusing on pre-independence priorities such as media, the environment, COVID-19, a legal system for Wales etc.

A key moment in my awakening as a Plaid Cymru supporter was the victory of Cynog Dafis in Ceredigion at the 1992 General Election, where he came from fourth place to first in partnership with the local Green Party to defeat the sitting Liberal MP. In that campaign, Cynog introduced me to the idea of economic and environmental sustainability.

In my view, the national movement urgently needs to look at its sustainability in terms of its personal and collective mental health. In my view, the current campaign based on all-out statehood in a context binary social media politics, is completely unsustainable in emotional terms. Independence for Scotland and Wales could be just around the corner, or it could be a generation away. We need a campaign that is astute and alert to all outcomes and offers hope for the next generation whether in victory or defeat. Cerddwn Ymlaen.

Dr. Carwyn Tywyn studied at the Welsh Governance Centre under the supervision of the late Barry Jones and was awarded a PhD for his thesis “Nationalism and the Political Process of Wales”. He is co-author of “Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism” (With Prof. Rhys Jones). Carwyn is also well-known as a folk harpist across Wales.

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