The independence movement is finally on the road – but it’s unclear who is driving, and to where

Picture by the Independence Commission / Twitter

Theo Davies-Lewis

“But the Welsh are too poor to be independent”. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a hundred times in conversations about the future of Wales, especially over recent weeks.

Nationalists have always been dogged by the economics of political separatism. It’s what ultimately tipped the scales towards the No campaign in the Scottish referendum. Although in Wales, the independence movement has been irrelevant for so long that we’ve never really reached the stage of debating the numbers.

That is, of course, until now. Last week, Plaid Cymru’s Independence Commission published its report on what a new Wales might look like. In short: short-term pain for long-term gain. Wales’ economy is (obviously) structurally flawed and is overlooked in favour of the City of London. A new nation-state is an opportunity for us to attract more inward investment, welcome a flurry of venture capitalists, build a more effective civil service, and solve the ‘brain drain’ of students. Sounds good, no?

The report has many interesting insights like this that have come from Plaid Cymru’s pick of distinguished economists, politicians and academics. The financials are interesting (and debatable) but equally so are the discussions regarding our future relationship with Europe, our potential constitutional arrangements, and how we finally break away from the shackles of Britain to become Cymru Rydd.

Not one but two referendums are promised – just so we’re clear on what we would be voting for. Adam Price outlined for The Times that all this starts with the Self-Determination Bill which would establish a “statutory national commission to provide the people of Wales with a clear understanding of their future constitutional options.” The first referendum would be used to persuade Downing Street to agree to a further binary referendum – just because we know that this government (and HM’s opposition) are so agreeable to those.

In my response today to the Plaid Cymru leader in the same newspaper, I argue that he is facing several immediate and serious challenges to his plans. In my view, the identity and leadership of the nationalist movement are crucial ahead of next year’s elections. After all, with greater prominence comes greater scrutiny as to who leads and who follows. It is too easy to put the onus on the ‘people of Wales’ to join this movement and shape its future.

The question of leadership is so important because proposals such as the Self-Determination Bill rely on a pro-independence party being in power to use the machinery of government. Unless Mark Drakeford starts to agree with his own nationalist members, that party would be led by Adam Price. Yet Plaid Cymru – at the time of the last Welsh barometer poll – is not in a position to enter the Welsh government as the dominant partner of a coalition let alone as the sole governing party.

 

Coherent

Some argue that Plaid Cymru are not the leaders of this movement. Fair enough. YesCymru have become this year’s political phenomenon, as well as other pro-nationalist movements including groups that represent Labour and Conservative voters. But this itself raises another difficult matter: is the nationalist movement broad enough to include non-Plaid wings at the heart of its campaigns? If it wants to win, it will have to be.

Whoever is in charge of the movement will also define the policy and outlook of Welsh nationalists – whether they are hardline or flexible, patient or immediate, popular or out-of-touch. It seems difficult at this moment to see how this can be anyone other than Plaid Cymru – as the only major pro-independence party in the Senedd – and therefore it is a question of whether non-traditional voters can unite behind Adam Price in May next year. The answer is most likely no.

So next year’s elections are yet another issue for the party that engineered this watershed moment in Welsh history. Getting dragged into the make-up of independence will be inevitable for Price, but in the middle of a global pandemic, it is not the way for him to become First Minister. Being coherent and clear about what you are proposing – and that should be to lead a Welsh government in its economic and social recovery – will be the chance to demonstrate the effectiveness of a nationalist government.

The Independence Commission’s analysis starts by borrowing a saying from the Basques about their own history of constitutional development: “We build the road as we travel”. Plaid Cymru’s report is certainly a new junction in the road for ever-evolving Welsh experience.

But it is unclear where it will take us and when, and actually who is driving. All we know is that there is some way to go before we reach our final destination.

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