The 2020s can be the decade of the Welsh independence movement – if it learns the lessons of the 2010s
Ifan Morgan Jones
When we look back at 2019 we may well consider it the year when the Welsh independence movement finally shifted into gear.
This was a turnaround from 2018, when the national movement was marred by the kind of internal squabbling and falling out that has always sadly been characteristic of Welsh politics.
My last article of that year ended with a plea that we should all get off social media sites and start talking to each other face to face.
Thanks to the efforts of YesCymru and others that did happen in 2019 and to spectacular effect – the three Welsh independence marches, attended by 3,000, 10,000 and 5,000 people, were like nothing before seen in this nation.
Support for independence surged to over 30% for the first time, according to a YouGov poll.
The ‘stirring dragon’ metaphor has been done to death already. But for the first time since the start of devolution, it felt as if something was happening.
We suddenly had a deluge of articles both in the British and Welsh media about how the argument for and against independence was now taking centre stage.
But even though the Welsh national movement is entering the new decade with no lack of momentum, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that this momentum is self-perpetuating.
Despite the success of 2019, supporters of independence must enter the new decade with their eyes completely open to the scale of the task that faces them.
We cannot kid ourselves that support for independence is anything at the moment but a minority pursuit. What happened in 2019 was that support was consolidated, independence was presented as a realistic opportunity, and those who were already partial to the idea amassed around the YesCymru flag.
The task in 2020 and beyond is to convince the rest of Wales – people who may never have considered independence or who may be actively hostile to the idea – to give it a hearing.
In that respect, the General Election (only two weeks ago, although it feels like a lifetime) should be enough to keep our feet and expectations firmly on the ground.
The results of the General Election in Wales can be overstated – the Conservatives won six more seats but only increased their vote by 3%.
However, the Conservative Government at Westminster has already made it clear that they desire less autonomy for Wales, rather than more, and feel that they have a mandate for these changes.
Unfortunately, there are some even within the national movement that would welcome the rolling back of devolution, seeing it as a dead-end and a distraction from independence.
This is a completely misleading position that shows no understanding of the history of national movements around the world and throughout history. In all cases, some form of semi-autonomy has been a completely necessary ante-room on the road to independence.
No country, apart from those carved up by some far-away power or shattered by war, has gone from not having any kind of government to being independent. Self-government is almost always a process that takes decades, not an event.
Devolution is a necessary step on that road, but neither is it a guarantee that a nation will continue to progress towards its goal. All the progress made over the last 20 years could be removed in an instant if those advocating for it lost political power.
This means that Wales is starting the new decade standing at a crossroads. While devolution must be defended, the status quo is looking increasingly wobbly – both the Welsh national movement and those who want to roll back devolution are in the ascendancy.
We could both be seeing the beginning of a decade where Wales is slowly absorbed back into being little more than a county of England, or one where it continues on the road to becoming an autonomous nation-state in its own right.
But in looking forward to how we win that battle we also have to look back and learn the lessons of the previous decade. The 2010s was a decade when the voter not just slammed on the brakes but seemed keen to reverse societal changes – a decade of continuous Conservative government, Trump, Brexit.
The key lesson of the last decade should that a lot of hard work alone by those who wish to change things is no guarantee of political success. Any political movement that wishes to succeed must first of all listen to the people and find out what they want.
Marches and huge memberships are all well and good but to be able to make any real political progress those advocating independence must ultimately win political power at the ballot box.
Unfortunately, in this age of social media, there is more danger than ever that we fight tribal, ideological battles that are a million miles from what voters care about.
Yes, the job of any political movement is to change people’s minds. But political parties such as Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and others are ultimately not lobbying groups.
Their success and failure will ultimately be counted in votes – whether that is in an election or a referendum – and therefore if they are serious political parties the starting point of any conversation has to be ‘what political offer will make the people vote for us?’
One of the main reasons the Conservative Party have run Wales for Westminster for two-thirds of the time for the last hundred years is that they have always made sure that whatever their goals they have won the election.
They would rather win power and be able to implement 25% of their program for government, than not win power and implement 0% of it.
They are ruthless in their ability to compromise with what the electorate wants as a first priority and then think about what changes they want to make and can make.
Those less successful parties have insisted on ideological purity first and then tried to sell that complete package to the voter – take it or leave it. And the voter has, unsurprisingly, always chosen to leave it.
That is true for the national movement as well. The success and failure of any national movement will ultimately rest on delivering for the people the kind of nation they actually want to see.
We can be as ambitious as we like in our desire to build a better Wales but if we’re unrealistic about what Wales currently is and what the people of Wales actually think, we will fail.
Two words for YesCymru, Plaid, Welsh Labour and others for 2020: focus groups. Find out what the people actually want, not what your Twitter followers say they want.
And so on to 2020, and a new decade.
There’s a danger of over-hyping every year as a new beginning. The problems that have faced Wales over the past years, decades and even centuries aren’t going to go away just because a few digits have changed on the calendar.
These problems ar all ones we can solve, but they will be solved because people will have sat down and thought realistically about how to do so, and will then have then worked hard to get them done.
There was nothing inevitable about the success of the Welsh independence movement in 2019. The marches may have felt like a spontaneous release of a pent up desire for change.
But ultimately they happened because a small band of hard-working people put a hell of a lot of hard work into getting them done.
You can contribute towards a new Wales right now. Join Yes Cymru. Reaching out to a new audience will require a strong, thriving public sphere. Support Nation.Cymru. Join a political party – Plaid, Labour, Green, yes even Conservative – and fight for change from the inside.
Get out onto the streets and reach people directly who do not reside in your social media bubble.
Wales is ultimately a small country. That is our weakness and our strength. But one thing it does mean is that anyone and everyone can make a difference.
You have the power to decide Wales’ fate in the 2020s. Good luck!