Before coronavirus, Welsh independence was on the fringes of the political mainstream. With Plaid Cymru consistently trailing both the Conservatives and Labour in the polls, and the debate a long way from that in Scotland, it seemed unlikely that it would become a serious issue ahead of next year’s election.
The pandemic has been the much-needed catalyst, or “game changer” as Adam Price put it, in the argument for an independent Wales. At no other point since devolution has the idea of Welsh self-governance been at the forefront of people’s minds across the country.
And today, the Welsh Parliament hosts a landmark debate in the evolving story of Wales’ modern consciousness.
Plaid Cymru’s motion in Plenary seeks to affirm the right of the people of Wales to decide whether it should be an independent country, in what is potentially the first political milestone of our nation as it transitions from the worst of coronavirus.
Its most significant proposal for the Senedd to consider – which also includes acknowledging that there has been increased support for political independence across the UK, and that the current health crisis has shown Wales’ ability to act independently – is its call on the Welsh Government to seek the constitutional right to allow our own parliament in Cardiff to legislate during the next term to hold a binding referendum on independence.
For anyone unfamiliar with Welsh politics, this would seem like a rather straightforward and sensible proposal. Why wouldn’t you give your nation its right to self-determination? That’s the cornerstone of modern democracy, isn’t it? But the history of Wales and the political dynamic of our parliament complicates matters.
The motion has already faced stiff opposition from every side of the political spectrum. Its amendments range from reaffirming the resilience of a devolved form of government; Wales’ dependency on the UK treasury and political ties of the Union; the question of a separate Welsh bill of rights and constitution; and even debating the abolition of the Senedd altogether. Thankfully, all of this has been allocated a generous hour to debate.
It is therefore evident that Plaid’s motion is extremely unlikely to attract support; across Wales and our own parliament, the consensus is for political autonomy within the UK. But this does not mean that Wales should not be given the power over the next few years to have the ability to decide whether it wants to chart a new course in its democracy.
Mark Drakeford, the man who has inavertedly caused the surge in popular belief that Wales can look after its own affairs, even said this week that the decision about the future of the future of our nation should lie in “the hands of Welsh people”. Although the First Minister looked to May 2021 as the next event for the people of Wales to make a democratic decision, today’s debate is an opportunity for him and other members of the Senedd to put the power in the hands of Welsh people.
Whether a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat member, transferring power from Westminster to Cardiff Bay is the right thing to do for Welsh democracy and not simply a nationalistic cause – if the logic of the First Minister is anything to go by. And it’s not unprecedented either: the UK government granted powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum earlier this decade. Wales now has the opportunity to do the same.
Opponents will be quick to dismiss Plaid’s motion as a simple call for independence, and it indeed has its flaws that should be addressed. This includes how it equates the campaign for Welsh independence to the calls for Irish reunification; simplifies how countries of comparative geographic size have responded to the pandemic; and how it establishes a time-limited period on when a referendum should be held in Wales.
Today is, of course, a momentous moment for Plaid Cymru, and captures its ideas about an independent Wales. This is important for the party’s ideological development, since Plaid hasn’t always advocated a wholly independent Wales. Gwynfor Evans, who was elected 54 years ago yesterday, never really decided on what political model would work for Wales, for instance. It’s pretty clear that Adam Price has.
Most important of all, members of the Senedd should think carefully about what signal their vote today sends to the Welsh people.
Our parliamentarians have an opportunity to send a message loud and clear to those fools who want to abolish Welsh democracy, and at the same time reaffirm to Westminster that Wales has the will to make its own decisions over the next decade.
In short, today’s motion gives Wales and its people the right to determine its future. Is that really too much to ask?