How the Welsh independence movement can beat Westminster’s populist propaganda
Nation Cymru has invited suggestions for ‘What Next?’ as we enter the new decade of the 2020s, and in the wake of last month’s General Election.
Many good ideas have already been shared, but one thing is clear – this decade will be a make or break one for the Welsh independence movement. With momentum building in Wales, Scotland on the cusp of a second referendum, and a border being drawn up in the Irish sea, it’s now or never.
So what can we expect in the 2020s, and how will this likely impact on the independence campaign?
We can predict that the economy is going to decline. We are teetering on the edge of a recession, and the restrictions on trade have not even started yet. The poorest communities will feel the most pain. We now have a Government in Westminster that ruthlessly favours the very rich at the expense of everyone else.
That means that Wales, as a peripheral part of the UK economy, will feel more than its fair share of pain and that will have political consequences. In my last article for Nation Cymru, I showed how much unhappiness increases during a recession, based on data from Greece.
Another thing we can expect with confidence is ever-growing anxiety about climate change, as more and more people react to the reality that this is an existential crisis. Frustration with the inaction of a Government putting profit of the very rich before climate will grow inexorably. Climate will be the defining issue of the next decade and beyond.
At the same time, faith in the democratic institutions to tackle these problems will be systematically undermined by the Westminster Government. Whilst other political parties have been presenting the possibilities of constructively using politics to deliver responses to poverty, wellbeing and climate change, the new populist Government has promoted the idea that all politics is bad, offering themselves as the way out of the whole problem – only a Conservative Government can rid us of the Brexit nightmare and “get Brexit done”.
The populists have used weapon-grade propaganda techniques on their own populations, spreading deceit and disinformation, to make everyone feel miserable, confused, stressed, hateful of one another and incapacitated. The responses are familiar – “sod the lot of them”, “they are all the same”.
The BBC has in the name of impartiality been too ready to reinforce this message, suggesting that the faults of all political parties as equivalent, and presenting politics as a soap opera of sniping and bickering. The populists now have a free hand to dismantle everything that gets in the way of their plan to enhance inequality. The EU is the first barrier to go; others will go, one by one.
This scenario presents a formidable challenge for the independence campaign. Reading the profiles of the voices of independence on YesIsMore Cymru shows a campaign suffused with themes of wellbeing, justice, equality, tackling poverty, community, caring and openness. All this is a direct threat challenge to the populist project of increasing inequality.
On top of this, all these things are proposed as a project of Government, worse, a Welsh Government that lies politically to the left of Westminster.
As we build towards independence, a populist UK Government will bring in the heavy artillery of propaganda, targeting current Welsh politics. The idea that the Senedd is a waste of time and money, and that all AMs are out for themselves and incompetent, is already strongly represented in public discourse, providing a strong foundation for a populist onslaught.
The message will be that Wales needs to be saved from the incompetents in Cardiff by a strong Westminster. The message will be micro-targeted over social media. Our over-centralised, primarily London-based media in an over-centralised, primarily London-based nation-state, will assist by amplifying the voice of politicians at Westminster over those in Cardiff.
The core strategy for the independence movement in response to this populist approach is to build trust between us and the people. Trust built face-to-face on the doorstep cannot be distorted by other media, which means campaigning locally. I believe that the independence campaign hinges on the success of local groups to build local networks of people who can communicate trust through their communities, based on unique local understanding.
We need a campaign that relates not to grand constitutional questions but to the day-to-day concerns that people have about their own wellbeing. The 11 foundations of wellbeing drawn up internationally by the OECD (the Better Life Index) are a great start, particularly as we actually measure all these things: housing, income, employment, community, education, environment/climate, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction/happiness, safety/security and work-life balance. In Wales, we should add to that a 12th already added in New Zealand, cultural identity.
In preparation we need, in each of these areas, to (1) articulate very precisely what people feel the problems to be, (2) explain how devolution is already helping, (3) explain how being in the EU was helping, (4) describe examples where smaller and poorer nations in Europe are performing better than we are, and (5) explain how independence within Europe would enable us to create better solutions.
In order to provide the tools that local groups will need in reaching out to all corners of Welsh society, this knowledge could be synthesised into very short texts and videos, as a resource immediately available to everyone on-line. YesCymru is very good at producing accessible materials of this kind.
Then the campaign can be built around local, personal, face-to-face campaigning that directly challenges the distrust created by the populists about politics’ ability to solve people’s problems. Trust will be built around manifesting common concern about things that really matter to all of us. The message will be that Westminster’s neglect is failing us and that independence will allow us to have more control over the things that matter to us in everyday life.
We can support local groups to become influential. The European movement, backed by Scientists for EU, provided training to local groups on how to use social media to build a stronger local community, resulting in very large growth of local networks and a surge of numbers at demonstrations.
We could go further and work with other campaigns that reply on building trust to succeed, such as climate action. We could follow the example of Finland who are rolling out local courses on how to recognise and deal with fake news. (In the context of a populist Government that is a master of the art of fake news and spreading mistrust in politicians, it is important that such an initiative comes from outside Government.)
Collaboratively we could build the resilience needed to face the populist tactics of deceit and disinformation.
We have some years of work before the issue of independence for Wales comes to a head, most probably triggered by events in Scotland. But if we lay the foundations right now, if we forge the connections that will make people trust and reply on us when the time comes, we will be ready for that battle. And a battle it will surely be.