Why Unionism in Wales will be harder to budge than YesCymru may think
Those who engage with social media can’t fail to be impressed by the online presence of YesCymru. The independence movement dominates these platforms in Wales and should be congratulated on its success.
The organisation is fast approaching 20,000 members and polls suggest support for independence has reached the 30% mark. It has that elusive quality of momentum and is inspiring a new generation of younger activists.
Unionism is shaken and appears on the back foot. The Conservative MS, David Melding has recently posted a series of cogent articles under the banner of #Thelastoftheunionists. They reflect his concern on the failure of the UK state to reform and embrace the federalist route needed to stave off independence.
Meanwhile, Welsh Labour have selected three admirable pro-Independence candidates for the Senedd election. While they will struggle to be elected, it is confirmation that what was once heresy is now out in the open. Similarly, it signals frustration with the “one last shove” appeal to await a Labour victory in the 2024 Westminster general election where the electoral maths suggests that there is a huge mountain to climb.
On first sight, it seems like the forces of Unionism in Wales are in quick retreat. However, a closer look at the evidence would suggest that the attachment in Unionism in Wales is stronger than many may think.
Evidence suggests that attachment to unionism is resilient. Despite recent polling showing a rise in support for independence, Unionists still outnumber them two to one. Most telling was a Sunday Times poll showing that 15% agree that an independent Wales would be financially better off while 52% disagreed.
Unlike Brexit, the independence movement has yet to convince Welsh voters that sovereignty is as important as the economy.
It can’t also skate around the fact that despite rising support among younger age group, the the key electoral demographic within Wales is Labour’s bedrock of older voters. Many of these pushed Brexit over the line in 2016. And those intimate with the culture of the Labour Valleys heartlands know that a solid attachment to the tenets of banal nationalism persists.
In Scotland, since 2007 the independence narrative has been front and centre of political debate, with the SNP welding the apparatus of government. Conversely, in Wales, the independence question has been a major component of what Dr Huw Williams as described as “the ‘internal other’, against whom Labour can define themselves as the Welsh norm”. Simon Brooks severe but factual judgement still resonates that “by the 21st Century, Wales had become the most British part of Britain”. (“Why Wales Never Was” p144)
Wales formed a major component of what Professors Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska have coined as “Brexitland”. Populism struck a rich seam with UKIP using Wales as its meal ticket well before 2016. Their new book demonstrates that before the referendum “two tribes” of rival value and age blocks were emerging. These coalesced around the remain and leave banners.
In Wales, “leave” conservative identity politics took hold. Based on issues such as national sovereignty and immigration control, they became the “answer” to an assortment of deeper grievance. They completely disrupted old Labour allegiances. Over time it signalled a rightward shift amongst the Welsh electorate exploited by the conservative retro-nationalism of Boris Johnson. It culminated in the outstanding Welsh Conservative result in the 2019 general election.Drive from Llangefni, across North Wales and you will not pass through a single Labour-held seat. This until you reach Alyn and Deeside, and Mark Tami’s wafer-thin majority.
While YesCymru has been marshalling its forces, at the same time we have seen a seen a growing number attracted by the lure of Devo-scepticism. For the Senedd elections, the Conservative predicament is plain with Plaid ruling out a coalition and the Lib Dems in decline. So for many grassroots members, Cardiff Bay represents an unwinnable “Labour fiefdom”. Although none of this means that such view is reflected amongst conservative voters it does focus on the power dynamics of politics. The recent selection of several Conservative ‘abolish” supporting candidates for 2021 is confirmation.
With no chance of power in Wales, there is an evident attraction in attempting to maximise Westminster seats on a populist platform at the expense of devolution. If such a shift occurs the prospect of one the world’s most successful political parties withdrawing from a democratic battlefield would represent fatalism. It begs the question whether its “new” leader Andrew RT Davies will embrace deco-scepticism or will stay a devolution “Remainer”?
What then of the ‘Abolish the Assembly Party’? It is a constitutional outrage to those who have built Welsh democracy over the decades, but With Wales’s anomalous electoral system it could secure Senedd representation in 2021. ‘Abolish’ is a form of nostalgic unionism for the years of Westminster direct rule headed by a colonial Secretary of State for Wales. It proclaims a single policy which is to unwind the devolution settlement.
Describing this as a movement is problematic. It has been characterised by organisational turbulence and it is far less visible than YesCymru. Its themes are “culture war” values attacking ‘the Cardiff Bay Bubble” with Labour and Plaid cast as the profligate “metropolitan elite” and “underachievers”.
To rationalise this as a coherent narrative required for a full-scale populist attack is difficult, but this is not to dismiss ‘Abolish’. With representation comes credibility and publicity. Who is to say that this may not cut through at some point?
However, on balance, Unionism’s most potent weapon is apathy. As Laura McAlister notes “devolution has been hidden away like Wales’ dirty little secret with turnout in the last Senedd election just above 46%, never hitting above 50%”.
She argues that Covid 19 pandemic has made the Welsh more aware of devolution and devolved politicians than at any point in its history. But despite the surefootedness of the early Welsh Labour Government response, recent months has seen the steady rise of voter disillusionment. Sources of this are the essential goods ban, the pre-Christmas surge of Covid cases and the First Minister’s faux pas on rolling out vaccinations. There is also the unedifying mess of the #boozegate scandal. This with its “one rule for them, one rule for us” connotations playing straight into the “Abolish” narrative.
Yes, the forces of unionism in Wales are diverse and amorphous. They lack the passionate coherence of YesCymru’s focus on Independence. The unionist presence on social media is woeful, and it speaks with many conflicting voices. But in the book “Politics is for Power”, Eitan Hersh raises questions that resonate in Wales context. While social media plays a key role in political discourse Hersh argues that much of modern politics is based on hobbyism. “We participate in politics by online slacktivism, by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens”. For many, this is the scale of engagement with politics”.
As the People’s Vote and the mass membership of Labour under Corbyn showed demonstrations, campaigning, and hyperactive social media don’t always capture the wider mood of the electorate. Like “shy” Trump voters or Nixon’s “silent majority” it is clear that Unionism exists as a hegemonic force in Wales.
With the election in May 2021 looking like a possible governing coalition between Labour and Plaid an agreed consensus on the Welsh constitutional future could emerge. Independence is a legitimate option but so too are devo-max, confederal and federalist solutions. If we are honest many Welsh voters have yet to judge any of these arguments or are unaware of the debate. Most will be concerned with the ongoing pandemic, the burgeoning economic crisis and the scourge of unemployment.
But the constitutional wheels are churning. Plaid’s cautious Independence Commission report recognises “that creating a new Wales is not the work of one party”. This sentiment appears to be permeating labour thinking. Both Jeremy Miles sentiment that there is ‘no case for defending the status quo’ plus Sue Essex and Mick Antoniw’s proposal for radical federalism in “We the People” are significant. It serves to create the political headroom for wider discussion. Adam Price’s reaction, identifying federalism as a cause of “right-wing economics and illegal wars’ was tone-deaf in this respect.
Realistically Welsh labour will be the largest party after 2021 and “One Wales Two” a possible outcome. If a progressive consensus can be constructed in Wales, its first test will be to ensure the democratic roots of any constitutional convention are deeply rooted within Welsh political and civil society, not imposed from outside. This will allow all future options to be on the table. Indeed, if anyone thinks that Gordon Brown and other luminaries leading a UK “praetorian guard” is the solution to saving the union, they are looking at the issue through the wrong end of the lens.
The UK state is dysfunctional and needs recasting. Immense political changes tend to occur slowly but then accelerate. If Scotland gets #indyref2 this pressure will further embolden the voices arguing for fundamental change in Wales.
Still, while the Overton window is shifting the evidence at present suggests huge residual levels of consent for the unionist hegemony across Welsh society. This requires a cultural battle of much longer duration and complexity to gain ideological ascendency.
In these situations the political thinker Antonio Gramsci argued for a ‘war of position’. A process which slowly builds up the strength of the social foundations of a new state by creating alternative institutions and alternative intellectual resources within existing society.
The primary institution at present in Wales is the Senedd. But there is a real fragility to its legal underpinning and the potential for a full-frontal political assault from either Devo-scepticism or Westminster “taking back control”.
Those who think that the forward march to a Welsh state is inevitable have yet to face what will be a muscular unionist riposte. The battle with unionism within Wales is only beginning.