What went right for the Welsh independence movement? And what happens now?
Ifan Morgan Jones
The poll today showing that 31% would support independence for Wales in a referendum, and 41% if it allowed Wales to stay in the EU, is quite amazing.
To put this in context, support for Welsh independence is at about the same level as it was in Scotland at the beginning of 2014, the year of the independence referendum in that country.
At that point in Scotland’s history, an SNP government had already been in power for almost seven years, and as a result independence had been firmly on the agenda for some time.
The transformation in Wales, in comparison, has happened at breakneck speed. As recently as December of last year support for independence had never broken 20% even with don’t knows excluded.
It’s not just the number that’s surprising, but the speed at which it has grown, and the direction of travel.
For years I have been scratching my head wondering where the Welsh national movement was going wrong, as Scotland powered ahead.
Now I’m left scratching my head wondering where it went right. What exactly has changed?
The Yes Cymru and All Under One Banner Cymru rallies must take most of the credit (or shoulder most if the blame, if you’re an unionist).
From the three thousand who marched in Cardiff, to the ten thousand in Caernarfon, and five thousand in Merthyr Tydfil, they have so far surpassed all expectations.
First of all, thanks to the organisers they have been heaps of feel-good fun to be part of – a mix of Eisteddfod and sporting away-day – especially when juxtaposed with the nasty divisivness of Brexit. They have been attended not just out of a sense of political duty but because people genuinely looked forward to them.
But not only have they motivated those who already wanted independence, they have also made independence a newsworthy topic for journalists who may have thought it was a niche issue.
The strange thing about the interplay between politics and political journalism is that stories are largely self-perpetuating. Once a cause becomes a story, it reaches more people, gains more support, and becomes even more of a story.
A part has also no doubt been played by social media. I do tend to think the independence campaign has been rather Twitter-centric, and that will have to change to reach more people outside the political bubble. But it has no doubt kept the issue under journalists’ noses.
And although no one likes to blow their own trumpet, there is no doubt that alternative media such as State of Wales, Desolation Wales, Undod and yes – thanks to all our contributors – Nation.Cymru have kept the conversation going as well and shifted that Overton window a little bit.
On a slightly more controversial note, it has probably helped a lot that it has been a grassroots campaign rather than a political party that has been seen to take the matter forward.
Rather unfairly perhaps, Plaid Cymru still has some baggage, including a historical association with linguistic nationalism, a professorial middle-class, and the geographical ‘Fro Gymraeg’.
Add to this that a lot of people just won’t believe anything that politicians say to them.
YesCymru, driven by grassroots members from communities all over Wales, all parties, and fronted by speakers who are plainly just fighting for what they believe in, have had a much easier time winning people over.
The other big factor has of course been Harold Macmillan’s ‘events, dear boy, events’. There doesn’t seem to be many people left who don’t think either the Westminster parliament or UK Government have acted appallingly, and many seem to think both are as bad as each other.
These last two elements are reflected in the breakdown of today’s poll. Fifty-three per cent of Labour voters would vote for an independent Wales to stay in the EU, with don’t knows excluded. Sixty-eight (!) per cent of Liberal Democrat voters would back independence if it meant Wales could stay in the EU, with don’t knows excluded.
This leaves us on the cusp of something. Welsh politics is suddenly in the very odd position of being quite interesting, something which it has struggled to be for the best part of 20 years of devolution.
So the question now is, what next?
If Wales is to become independent, then there would need to be a government in support of independence at the Welsh Assembly (soon to be Parliament).
A key factor will be therefore will be whether the rise in support for independence will translate into a rise in the number of assembly members dedicated to bringing it about at the next Assembly election.
On the face of it, Plaid Cymru should be able to emulate the SNP who took advantage of support for independence in the 30%+ range to form a minority government at the Scottish Parliament in 2007.
With polls showing support for independence at 40%+ if it allows Wales to stay in the EU, their pitch to voters should be quite a simple one.
The problem, as always, for Plaid Cymru is that historical baggage we mentioned earlier, as well as getting their message over to voters in a nation that still isn’t tuned into a Welsh media.
Alternatively, we could see AMs and candidates from Welsh Labour and the Liberal Democrats warm to the idea of Welsh independence, which could facilitate some kind of pro-indy coalition.
However it happens, turning support into seats at the Welsh Assembly in 2021 needs to be a key aim if the national movement is going to take another step forward.
Another big factor in all of this is whether there will be any kind of backlash to the rise in support for independence in Wales from the London-based media and political parties.
As Scotland has shown us, they are unlikely to be enamoured of the thought of Wales breaking away from Westminster control.
A media campaign exploiting people’s fears about the viability of Welsh independence could of course be very effective, particularly since most people in Wales get their news from these sources.
The key question I think is this: how much do they really care about reporting on what is going on politically in Wales?
The lack of reporting of Wales in London-based media which has been a detriment to devolution could be a distinct advantage for a motivated, grassroots independence campaign.
London would always win the media ‘air war’, but YesCymru would win the ‘ground war’. So the less of an ‘air war’ there is, the better for them.
Will Wales suddenly become newsworthy within the Wetminster bubble now that the dragon of independence seems to be stirring from its slumber?
The answer so far seems to be ‘no’. This might be because a lot of politics coverage is about personalities, and a primarily grassroots campaign is rather faceless and makes character-assassination rather tricky.
However, if the Welsh Assembly election in 2021 does put a pro-Indy in charge, with a pro-Indy First Minister, perhaps that will change.
Everything could still, of course, go pear shaped for the Welsh independence movement.
People could rest of their oars, motivation could dwindle over winter, Brexit could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (unlikely), the cross party YesCymru could fragment over small political differences (more likely given Wales’ history).
But for the moment, Welsh independence has the wind in its sails. You could probably never have said this at any point in Wales’ history since the 15th century.
It’s there to be won – if enough people want it and are prepared to put in the work to get it.