The big question YesCymru needs to answer is: ‘What went right in 2020?’
Ifan Morgan Jones
Today YesCymru will meet for an online Annual General Meeting and the main order of business will be to vote in their Central Committee for the next year.
The Chair Sion Jobbins and other top jobs have been elected without a contest, and so the main focus will be on the 13 vying for the eight non-portfolio seats on the committee. These are unpaid roles and anyone putting themselves up for one deserves respect for doing so.
It’s an interesting choice of candidates and a lot of of the discussion has centered around whether YesCymru should remain a cross-party, no-party movement or push a particular and more ideological ‘vision’ of what an independent Wales should look like.
I think that changing YesCymru’s central tenet as a neutral movement would be a big mistake, for a few reasons:
Firstly, while I agree that independence for the sake of it would be pointless, no kind of independence is independence for the sake of it. Any kind would transfer more democratic power away from an established political elite at Westminster and into the hands of the people of Wales. There is no independence ‘for the sake of it’ – it’s a massive constitutional upheaval in itself and will radically change how Wales is run. Either that is, in and of itself, a fundamentally good idea or YesCymru should stop campaigning now because nothing beyond that is guaranteed.
Secondly, because nothing beyond independence is guaranteed, no one can honestly promise a single vision of an independent Wales to the people of the nation. The future ideological direction of an independent Wales would be chosen by the people of Wales, at a Senedd election after the referendum, not by any promises made by YesCymru beforehand. As much as I would personally like to see a socialist, progressive independent Wales, that’s dependent not just on independence but the public deciding, in an independent Wales, to throw their weight behind socialist, progressive parties.
Thirdly, there is no guarantee that selling a particular ideological vision to the people of Wales would be in any way effective. While everyone in YesCymru may have an idea of what a post-independence Wales would look like, they’re likely to all have different ones, and backing one of them would alienate others. As Plaid Cymru demonstrated at the recent Senedd election, voters don’t necessarily want a laundry list of specific promises. In fact, the party with the vaguest manifesto of all ended up winning.
Winning a referendum is even harder than an election because you have to take over 50% of voters with you. As a result, it’s impossible to win with anything but a big tent, pan-political approach. No one is asking anyone to include fascists or far-left militants in that tent. However, a winning coalition is going to have, at the very least, a mix of people on the center-left and center-right in it. If that’s not a price worth paying to win a referendum then you don’t really want to win the referendum.
So what kind of message does YesCymru need to be giving to the people of Wales? Well, they don’t have to look far because they’re already doing it. All this debate about a change of direction in the movement is coming off what has been an extremely successful year.
2020 should have been a year in which YesCymru stalled as a movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Without the marches, many expected the air to go out of the movement like a balloon.
In fact, and particularly in the latter half of the year, the opposite happened – membership more than doubled by 10,000, and support for independence shot up from 25% to 35%.
That was partly due to Covid-19 itself, no doubt, and the way that the Welsh Government set itself in opposition to Westminster over its handling of the pandemic.
But there was also a palpable sense during this period that YesCymru got its messaging right. It was a cross-party, no party message that sold independence on its own merits, not as a bundle deal alongside any number of other offers that would attract one political faction but repel another.
It did not sell a left-wing or right-wing independence. It just sold independence from Westminster.
Ultimately, whatever YesCymru was doing last year – clear, consistent, cross-party and no-party messaging – worked extremely well.
So whatever decisions are made at today’s AGM and in their future meetings should dwell on the fact that 2020 worked, and try to emulate that message as best they can.
One practical step I would suggest is to get Siml social back in the room. This company worked for YesCymru between October 2020 and January 2021, the period where the movement’s membership growth went through the roof.
Just looking at the publicly available data on Crowdtangle, you can see how the movement’s growth in members was mirrored by the growth in online interactions.
The huge rise between October and January, and drop off afterwards, speak for themselves:
Now, social media isn’t everything. And YesCymru need to take their central message and take it off social media and ensure that it is delivered to every household in Wales via flyers, adverts and billboards – as they’ve been doing.
Neither am I saying that this success was all down to hiring one company. Dozens of people within YesCymru worked hard to make it happen.
But in terms of a message that appealed to the public, whatever it was, the guys at Siml social seem to have put their finger on it, and it was central to YesCymru’s growth and success during that period.
In or out
I would just like to finish by noting a central truth that many people do not mention very often in relation to Welsh independence: It’s unlikely to happen.
The language of inevitability has become ever more prevalent within the discourse on Welsh constitutional matters. It’s inevitable that Scotland will go, it’s inevitable that Ireland will then fellow – and then Wales will have to make a choice…
It’s very possible that none of this will happen. I’d say that even Scotland is only 50/50 to become independent in the next decade.
Only two countries in history have ever won a referendum on becoming independent from a larger country when offered an in or out choice (Malta one, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines the other).
I would place the odds of Welsh independence ever being achieved at around 20%. And that may be too high.
I’m not saying this in order to take the wind out of YesCymru’s sails. I’m saying it so that anyone that supports Welsh independence is aware of the scale of the challenge in front of them.
The margin for error is very small. To win a referendum, YesCymru can’t afford internal divisions between different groups whose individual political agendas have limited electoral appeal across the country.
What will win independence for Wales is, ultimately, not a utopian vision of what a post-independence Wales will look like, but a hell of a lot of hard graft. Clear, consistent, cross-party, fundamental messaging, repeated over and over again, selling independence on its own merits, until everyone in Wales has heard it ad nauseum.
That is, unfortunately, what wins referenda. And that is the relentless graft that everyone joining the Yes Cymru Committee has signed up to. Good luck to them!