Opinion

The response to Michael Sheen’s comments shows where the battle lines will be drawn on independence

03 Jan 2021 4 minutes Read
Michael Sheen. Picture by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

The response to Michael Sheen’s comments on the monarchy, Wales and Welsh independence on Owen Jones’ YouTube channel has been very interesting.

To have such a high profile and well-liked actor weighing in on the issue provided us with an early skirmish in what could be a coming battle over Welsh independence (or war if support for Welsh indy ever gets nearer 50%).

As far as I can see this was the first time the British establishment and much of the British press have properly responded to Welsh independence, rather than simply being completely dismissive of it.

What’s most interesting is what aspects of Michael Sheen’s very long interview they chose to focus on – primarily his comments about the monarchy.

In today’s Sunday Times, for instance, Welsh Secretary Simon Hart criticises Sheen’s views on the monarchy and emphasises that “William could assume the title without having to learn to speak the Welsh language”.

The interesting thing here is that Sheen, in his interview, didn’t mention the Welsh language at all in relation to the monarchy. In bringing up the language, Hart is here inserting a cultural ‘wedge issue’ that no one else was talking about.

And in fact, if you actually watch the interview, Michael Sheen didn’t even call for Welsh independence or for an end to the monarchy, only questioned the current relationship between them.

It might therefore be surprising to see that the response to his comments, in the British press, has been so high-volume, critical and consistent in its messaging.

 

Mire

What we’ve seen here is a snapshot of how the arguments and counter-arguments to Welsh independence campaign could play out in the long run.

And it’s clear from this early skirmish that those who want Wales to remain under Westminster’s wing will attempt to portray YesCymru as being not just against institutions people don’t like – i.e. Westminster – but as being against those that they do, too, like the monarchy.

This is entirely the right strategy from Westminster’s perspective – it’s definitely the one I would choose if I was in their shoes. It’s one the SNP have managed to diffuse in Scotland by being very careful to keep shtum on the Royals.

Republican Scottish independence supporters know, of course, that once they’re independent the choice of whether they have a monarchy will be up to Scotland. But that is a future battle and one they consider worth biting their tongues over to win the present one.

It’s also worth looking at how some on the left responded to Michael Sheen’s comments. Former Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, for instance, tweeted that “Monarchism is incompatible with socialism”.

That’s probably admittedly true, but in my opinion, is the wrong approach. To win elections and referendums, the left need to get into the habit of allowing people to agree with them on some things and disagree with them on others.

Can YesCymru win a referendum on Welsh independence? Yes. But it can’t win a referendum on Welsh independence, the monarchy and socialism all at once.

Westminster will attempt, between now and any future referendum, to portray a vote for Welsh independence as one for all those things and more. And, as in Michael Sheen’s case, they will play up comments in a way that suggest that YesCymru and their supporters say that even if they do not, in fact, do so.

As I said in my previous article, YesCymru’s challenge will be to avoid getting dragged into these mires and focus on their core message:

“Economic, political and cultural power is currently centralised at Westminster, which is a flawed and unreformable political institution that is neglecting Wales and treating it unfairly – only a vote for Welsh independence can bring those powers back to Wales where they can be used for Wales’ own good.”

The task will be to keep their crosshairs firmly on Westminster and not get distracted by what the British press want them to talk about that week.

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