The Welsh independence movement still lacks a leader than can reach beyond its base
Academic reports and marches don’t win elections. Just ask Adam Price.
Nor, for that matter, will they turn the tide for Welsh independence. Any of the reported 10,000 people in Cardiff for the All Under One Banner and YesCymru march – those with a pragmatic not nostalgic view of history and current political reality – would admit so.
But gloomy patriots should be optimistic: Welsh independence is a national issue rather than a discussion reserved for Eisteddfodic gatherings in Gwynedd and Ceredigion. In recent times this is due to (1) the continued merging of Labour and Plaid Cymru and (2) the electorally suicidal performance of two Conservative administrations.
Yes, economic crises and geopolitical ructions have reorganised the news agenda, and the debate in Wales is far behind Scotland. But a quarter of the public supporting independence before the debate has cemented itself as a permanent aspect of the national consciousness? A pipe dream even a few years ago.
And now another “game changer”. Dublin City University Professor John Doyle’s report, commissioned by Plaid Cymru, is hailed by Price as debunking claims Wales cannot afford full self-governance. A brief look at the report and the conclusion is obvious: nice to have, but problematic. Professor Doyle estimates that the fiscal gap for an independent Wales would be around £2.6bn rather than the £10bn more that had previously been calculated. True, it tells us (if you needed to know) that Wales is not too poor nor too small to be independent. Yet the grand assumptions on pension liabilities and disregard of defence spending is reckless.
But it is just baby steps. The report, like Saturday’s march, is one of those incremental advances for Welsh nationalists to generate momentum and (some) credibility. On balance, they do that. The report demonstrates how seriously Plaid Cymru, in the words of its former leader Lord Wigley, see their “duty” to explain what independence means. The march, with Dafydd Iwan’s anthem and powerful visuals in the capital city, shows quite literally that Welsh nationalists are still here and growing as a political movement.
The ultimate pragmatists, Welsh Labour, won’t watch from the sideline. The urgency by which a constitutional review was launched last year demonstrates that the ‘wait and see’ approach to Scotland’s future is not sustainable politically. Mark Drakeford has been asked endless hypotheticals by journalists (including this columnist) about what Wales, and more specifically Welsh Labour, would do in the event of Britain’s break-up. The answer is to be confirmed. Though it is increasingly obvious what decision the Labour group in the Senedd would take if asked to be England’s rump or a self-governing entity in its own right.
Yet it cannot be just me that finds momentum for Welsh nationalism hard to quantify. So much so that it sometimes doesn’t feel like progress at all. Even in moments of perceived strength, for example when launching a forward-looking study, or securing policy change of genuine significance (ie second home controls in the Co-operation Agreement signed by Drakeford and Price), there is… dampness.
A depleted Welsh media landscape is one blame factor. So, too, is the role of Welsh Labour (not Plaid) as the vehicle for national aspiration. Add to that the unravelling of the grassroots organisation YesCymru during the pandemic and there is a perfect cocktail mix of stop-start politics and little cut through.
I know what many will say – no doubt paraphrasing Ron Davies for the umpteenth time – that independence is a process rather than an event. Indeed, polls showing support for independence vary but the percentage points are ticking up slowly. Nationalism in Cardiff Bay is almost as normalised as in Holyrood.
But there is no obvious destination for Wales as there might seem in Scotland, or indeed in Ireland, where despite the legal obstacles and political divisions there is a steady direction of travel and assumed conclusion to the volatility.
Welsh independence is not a day-to-day issue but its proponents need it to be. Compare it to the mid-2010s when leaving the European Union became a topic around breakfast tables nationally, largely because of the fringe-to-stratospheric movement established by Nigel Farage. It wasn’t the Conservative party that delivered ‘independence’. It was Farage that articulated “taking back control” to everyday people, and indeed thousands in Wales.
Farage did existential damage to the UK but few would disagree on his skill as a communicator and campaigner. Where are the Johnsons, Corbyns and Farages in the Welsh independence movement?
Adam Price is an eloquent and thoughtful speaker in a controlled setting like a Senedd chamber, appealing to a certain demographic base that his party has always enjoyed support from. Michael Sheen, a powerful addition to the independence cause, is too infrequent a contributor to make a tangible impact beyond social media clippings. Performances of Yma o Hyd at Welsh football games – though extraordinary in its wide cultural impact – is no barometer of support for independence.
Debates ought to be grounded in detail but nationalism always prefers emotion and makes exceptions for policy contradictions. Wales is not too poor to be independent but there is no doubt that the process of becoming an independent state would be messy, divisive and, for many, hypnotic. Look at Brexit and multiply it by ten.
There is no need for a charismatic, outlandish politician to make the case in Scotland anymore. The SNP are firmly intertwined in the centre of politics, in part thanks to a man named Alex Salmond who pushed the country to the edge of leaving the UK in 2014.
Welsh nationalism should not seek out charlatans or strong men to lead. The movement does however need to inspire beyond set piece moments that appeal mostly to the same circles and Plaid Cymru’s electoral base. It is a hard task that nationalists have toyed with for years. But the urgency has never been greater.
A sea change is underway in English politics. Scotland is close again to a referendum. A united Ireland may be even more likely. Who – not what – will shape Wales’s destiny?
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I agree, we do lack a leader, a strong one, but more important one with a PLAN. We need a plan.
Here’s the plan. 3 things
Good point Jonathan. However you mention “the virtuous ones in Labour/Plaid.” That’s alarming because people of such “merit ” are accredited by the mob of virtue signalers. Rank and file don’t get a look in any more.
Leaflet showing their (Will/Kate) photo. Stress continuity, together with economic benefits but meaning national survival. Fairness of our tribe as opposed to others. Keep it simple?
We’ll also need to get open-minded English people on board
Michael Sheen as the public spokesperson. With a strong team behind him.
Emotion – that is what will carry us to independence. At the moment the head is ruling the heart for many in Cymru, there is fundamentally nothing wrong with that, it’s good to be prudent. However, we will never have all the answers, all the uncertainty addressed, it’s just not possible, no newly independent country ever did. It’s passion, believe, hope, desire and drive that will see us over the line. We in the independence movement need to build that in our communities – create the excitement in people about what could be….
I agree with a lot of the comments made. However we need to stop talking ourselves down and exude the confidence to manage our own affairs. I despair of the BBC (Radio Cymru included) perpetually trying to portray an unbiased version of the political situation which does no more than prop up the status quo (an agenda in itself!). As the underdog for years Wales needs some positive discrimination in favour of independence and not focus on the negative issues.The pot is always half empty if you listen to the reporting that we frequently hear. We have enough negativity from… Read more »
The problem is Plaid, I doubt there has ever been a more timid and apologetic nationalist party in history.
For Wales to ever become independent Plaid has to stand up and defeat unionist Labour in Cardiff not the ‘wicked’ Tories in Westminster.
They’ve learned nothing from the SNP.
Well, I joined Plaid twice, with some years in between, and left for the same reason; it was damp hankies both times. I believe Wrecsam Plaid is much more robust?
Gwlad seem to be on the ball, yet Plaid reserve all their passion for putting them down. Is this because Gwlad see no shame in making money for Cymru, for us?
Does Gwlad still exist?
As one of the few people represented by Gwlad on local authority level could you please explain how ‘Gwlad seem to be on the ball’? I’m intruiged!
We need a Vaclav Havel, a Milan Kučan, or a Milo Đukanović here in Wales.
As others have mentioned. Michael Sheen would indeed be a great figurehead for the Welsh independence movement. He’s recognisable. Passionate about social issues. Understands our Welsh history. Only thing is. Would he be able to juggle his commitments as an actor with our movement?
But there’s no doubt we do need someone to steer us in the right direction. To keep the momentum going. The Tories are on the ropes at the moment and we’d need someone to give them the knockout punch needed.
Don’t get hung up on the great leader thing – someone to give a knockout punch, or even a bloody nose! Those things don’t work. The best results come from a mass of people, a growing surge of interest which swells into real demands with clearly articulated reasons why we have to go our own way. Not everybody will share identical reasons but there should be sufficient cohesion there to want to rule ourselves. The “great leader” then becomes less important and a competent P.M would suffice. Indeed I shudder at the thought of anyone with pretentions of “greatness” having… Read more »
Someone without the sin of self-interest…
I tend to agree. The changes in Ireland after 1916 happened due to the mass of people (with a little help from a brutal British empire) and the rise of Sinn Fein. The leaders developed naturally from within.
The economic argument just doesn’t stack up and the vast majority of welsh people realise this.
Sorry its not what you want to hear…
The brexit argument wasn’t about economics either, if it had been, we’d still be in the EU.
Read the comments to find why there is not a unifying leader. People are bickering against the parties they don’t like and for the parties they do like. All Under One Banner is all well and good. But diverse groups bring diverse views and in the era of the neo-Culture Wars, nobody is prepared to give an inch. Brexit was a success because it was an All Tory affair. Dogmatic ideologues uniformaly chanted the same half dozen simple slogans. Simple people like simple slogans and love somebody to blame rather than themselves. This has always been the problem with campaigns… Read more »