The independence movement needs to break out of its silo and show us a plan
We are in the middle of the Eisteddfod, our largest and most notable cultural festival.
It’s a place where the Welsh language is at ‘home’; protected from the clutches of Rod Liddle with its traditions and celebrations, this is arguably Wales at its purest form in symbols and expression.
Surrounded by our flag and our songs, what could make our most patriotic countrymen and women feel more Welsh than this event?
Inevitably then, this festival was and still is the haven for the Party of Wales, Plaid Cymru, and its supporters. If you think I am generalising, my point is that I don’t think there would be many Brexit Party voters entering the competition for the coveted Crown.
Plaid Cymru and its supporters are safe, supported and encouraged by this environment. They’ve even been joined by Labour’s soft nationalists, like Welsh Government Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles, who came to call for radical change to secure the survival of the United Kingdom yesterday.
It follows Carwyn Jones’ transfer from the First Minister’s office in Cardiff to the glamour of YesCymru’s stall at their event this week. But he, like his successor, is not too Indy-curious yet, apparently.
Overall, it’s a good time to be a nationalist in Wales.
If you believe the media and our political class, as well as the many contributors to this news service, independence is in the mainstream. It is quite impressive: there’s no denying that we are having serious conversations we could never have imagined pre-2016.
A grassroots campaign has seamlessly drifted into the media spotlight, spurred by disenchantment with Westminster, marching on the castle in Caernarfon and through our capital city to campaign for us to break away from the UK.
We have not seen such activism and attention drawn to the question of our Welsh identity since Gwynfor Evans threatened a hunger strike over the inception of S4C in 1980, or certainly not since the widespread campaigning from Cymdeithas yr Iaith and others following the sinking of the village Capel Celyn over half a century ago.
Plaid Cymru have also started topping the polls for a Welsh Assembly election (although the Conservatives score highest in a General Election poll). Perhaps we are putting an alloy umbrella up to that acid rain Gwyn Alf thought was pouring down on us.
Yet, we must face a reality: Welsh independence is far from established within the mainstream.
Just stop and think of the uncertainties and challenges that the campaign for Welsh independence faces.
I’m sorry to burst the bubble – but it is about time we came to the fact that for years Welsh independence campaigners have operated within a silo. In more recent weeks this has been apparent; in short, there is no plan.
YesCymru, AUOBCymru, and Plaid Cymru complain of populism, but they are just as guilty of its vague and cunning elements. Of course, as we know detail isn’t the most interesting or persuasive element of a campaign anymore, especially one as complex and new as Welsh independence.
But independence campaigners would be unwise to suggest that things are shifting in their favour; nobody knows what they are proposing. An alternative to “stale politics” and being “internationalist” simply doesn’t cut it with the electorate.
To add to this, who exactly is in charge? You’d assume Plaid Cymru, of course, but organisations are springing up everywhere and organising marches and events.
Plaid Cymru has not been fit for an election victory, let alone an independence referendum of the highest stakes, since the beginning of devolution. Underfunded and prone to playing to the same crowd, the party could do with listening to its adopted Scottish guru Angus Robertson.
The former SNP Westminster leader suggested an “inclusive” rebrand was needed in his review of the party’s operations. Easier said than done.
Who is going to pay for that? It’s no cheap thing to revitalise a party that does not benefit from billionaire donors’ cheque books. Although Plaid Cymru may have a leader that is presentable, they also lack the funding that the SNP have used to good effect for years.
And if the party is not inclusive – branching outside of the Crachach Crowd – it will not win votes in elections or referendums.
On the topic of referendums, it’s worth noting how the members of the campaign silo for Welsh independence seem to have been blindly followed Plaid Cymru into the “Remain Alliance” of pro-EU parties.
It may be a more pragmatic and progressive politics, but is Plaid the bit-part player in this team? If Plaid Cymru’s ambitions are to secure independence, the voice of other parties such as the Liberal Democrats may advocate a more federalist settlement for the union (or what is left of it). The SNP are partisan and decisive, a separate and unique entity within politics. Importantly they blend this with popular appeal and party strategy: a wicked combination for electoral success over the last decade.
The problem is that when the media really starts to probe what the whole independence strategy is, this issue of strategy and leadership will come to a head, and this spells trouble for campaigners. Of course, Plaid have appointed a recent BBC journalist to bring some discipline to its external relations. To what extent he will be able to work with the party’s resources effectively will be apparent in the next few months.
If you don’t take my word on these challenges, take another issue that is certainly more frightening for independence campaigners: the economy.
Arguing for a better future outside the UK cannot be done in general terms, or with flimsy solutions – as seen in the No campaign’s destruction of Alex Salmond’s arguments in 2014.
I am sure some campaigners realise the danger they are in this regard. “Wales spends £15bn a year more than it raises in tax”: visualise that on the side of a bus. So far, recent excitement has conveniently skimmed over any detail of what people are marching for.
But there is reason for optimism: one can point to recent polling that says Scots now favour independence – this arguably shows economics isn’t everything. However, we must realise that five years have passed since the Scottish referendum, the SNP are in power in Edinburgh, and are significantly represented in London. This centralisation of power is not something Welsh nationalists enjoy and cannot expect such polling within the space of weeks or months without some communications miracle.
We mustn’t forget the Scots in all of this; after all, this could all come down to them in the end. We have, aside from 1979, followed them in what we think we want in political terms. But to simplify this issue as ‘you go first’ would be to miscalculate the complexity of the task ahead of campaigners.
Welsh independence is certainly talked about, and I have enjoyed reading about the diversity of the independence movement, the story of the marches, and where Labour sits in the campaign, but the silo and echo chamber the campaign has operated within has yet to break through to regular voters.
How the notion of Adam Price’s “new Wales” will be presented to the public must be a priority for Plaid Cymru and its supporters. They have the summer recess to put something together – like the SNP did with the “Scotland’s Future” document during their referendum – to tell the Welsh people what alternative they are offering.
The task is made trickier by events in Westminster and a poor media landscape in Wales. But without a plan in the immediate future, the Welsh independence campaign may be dead before it has even begun.
Theo Davies-Lewis is a Welsh communications professional in London. Follow him on Twitter @TDaviesLewis.
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