Will the coronavirus pandemic stop the Welsh independence movement in its tracks?
Ifan Wyn Jones
One thing that has become evident over the last month is that the coronavirus pandemic is going to become a major, historical turning point on a global scale.
It’s hard to think of another event beyond the world wars which has changed life in Wales, across the UK and the rest of the world in such a dramatic way and a frighteningly short period of time.
As already pointed out by others, the virus could, and perhaps tragically already has, hit Wales particularly hard. We have an older population on average than the rest of the UK and when the crisis began had fewer critical care beds than much of Europe.
The Aneurin Bevan Health Board seems to be a particular hotspot, with more cases per 1,000 of the population than London.
Unfortunately, unless we are frontline NHS staff or key workers, we can do little to help with this situation apart from following the government’s physical distancing rules as best we can.
This leaves us with some time to discuss what kind of future we would like to build for ourselves after the pandemic is over, and that means discussing the likely impact of the pandemic in the short and long term.
Which brings me to the topic I would like to discuss in the article – what impact will this pandemic have on the Welsh independence movement, which seemed to have been building up a head of steam throughout 2019?
At first sight, and at least in the short-term, the pandemic will inevitably, in my opinion, take the wind out of the sails of the independence movement. Let’s consider a few points:
1.) No real-world campaigning
The nationwide lockdown enforced by the UK Prime Minister has already led to the postponement of at least two of this year’s independence marches, in Wrexham on 18 April and Tredegar on 6th June.
The so-called ‘IndyWales month’ was a month of campaigning to be held before the march in Wrexham in the form of local group meetings, leafletting sessions, banners on bridges and more.
These activities have now since been suspended, with YesCymru in effect taking a hiatus from campaigning, along with AUOB Cymru as well as other campaign groups.
In these current unprecedented times, its nigh on impossible to organise small scale events such as leaflet drops or street stalls, let alone mass rallies.
With campaigning on pause, we may in hindsight look back at 2019 as the year when the Welsh independence movement came to life only to be immediately stopped in its tracks by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
And given that some restrictions on freedom of movement could last until a vaccine is available in around 18 months’ time, the campaign may not be unfrozen until 2022.
2.) A possible erosion of devolution
The NHS is currently devolved and so the response to the coronavirus outbreak is being managed in tandem by the Uk (for England) and Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish governments.
However, as the lockdown continues the UK Government may begin to argue that coronavirus requires a centralized response and seek to claw back powers over the NHS to London.
Although many in the independence movement are no fans of devolution, the long-term erosion of the idea that Wales can run its own affairs would also undermine any claim to independence.
3.) A renewed emphasis on Britishness
As the pandemic continues the UK Government may also see an opportunity to emphasise a common British identity.
As during the world wars central government may feel the need to fund a PR campaign to keep spirits up, and like war time propaganda this may well amount to an appeal to a pan-British identity in the name of ‘coming together’ in order to defeat the coronavirus.
The “rally-round-the-flag” effect originally proposed by American political scientist John Mueller could quite literally encourage people to rally around the UK Government’s flag – the Union Jack.
We have already seen a number of appeals in the media on people to adopt a ‘Blitz spirit’.
Alongside such as PR campaign, it’s not beyond the realm of reason to imagine that some controls on the spread of information deemed harmful to this effort could also follow the controls on the freedom of movement currently in place.
Will articles such as this one soon need to be approved by a bureaucrat in Whitehall before publication, in case they undermine public morale?
It may seem as if I’m painting an exaggerated, dystopic picture here. But who, two months ago, would have believed the situation we’re in now?
In the short-term therefore it’s likely that the Welsh independence movement is likely to lose momentum. In the long-term, however, a very different picture could emerge.
While the UK Government is currently racing ahead in the polls as people support the government in a time of crisis, in hindsight it may well be their poor handling of the start of the outbreak that sticks in the public consciousness.
There seems to be no question that the UK Government got their initial response to the pandemic wrong and lost a crucial few weeks at the start of the outbreak.
At the beginning of this month, when China and South Korea had already taken the necessary steps to shut down the outbreak in their own countries, Boris Johnson was still playing it down – saying that he had been shaking hands with people at a hospital.
Three weeks ago the UK Government were still saying that there was no rationale for shutting down sporting events. On the day when Italy went into total lockdown, they were allowing a crowd of 60,000 to gather at the Cheltenham races.
Before history is rewritten to say that no one realised the scale of the pandemic at that point, it should be noted that people did – there were calls from all over for public events to be cancelled and many people organising public events at a grassroots level had already taken matters into their own hands.
Luckily the WRU also took matters into their own hands at the last moment and stopped Wales v Scotland at the Millennium Stadium from going ahead.
On the 12th of March the UK Government were briefing to high-profile journalists that they were aiming for “herd immunity” rather than containing the virus.
According to an article by Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, at the end of February political strategist Dominic Cummings’ approach was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
It was made clear to the Financial Times that the reason for the plan was to keep the UK, in the words of the newspaper, “open for business”.
It was not until the UK Government realized with horror the scale of the deaths that would happen as a result of this first plan that they changed strategy towards a lockdown.
But by that point crucial weeks had been lost. It could well be argued that the speed and scale of the coronavirus epidemic that is visiting us in Wales now is a direct result of the UK Government’s laissez-faire approach in the early days of the epidemic.
It’s worth remembering that many of those dying now caught the virus a month ago. To put that in context, it’s a week before the England v Wales game at Twickenham. It could, therefore, be the end of April before the lockdown begins in to have a great impact on the number of deaths.
And unbelievably, even now, there are still commentators in the British press arguing now that the economic cost of the lockdown is too high.
The “rally-round-the-flag” effect will last until the pandemic is over, but once that does happen people may well take a more critical view of how the UK Government handled the crisis.
It may well be the early failure of the British elite to act – and for seemingly ideological reasons – that will, and should, be remembered by the people of Wales long-term.
And when they look back at these months the public may well come to a view that it has largely proven the Welsh independence movement’s point that the UK Government does not have the best interests and values of the people of Wales at heart.
Secondly, the Welsh Government has in the midst of this crisis had thrust upon it an unique opportunity to step to the fore and demonstrate the value of having a government that represents Wales’ own interests.
Unfortunately, it has often been rather too slow on the uptake, preferring particularly in the early days of the pandemic to follow the UK Government’s lead on matters such as holding sporting events and coming unstuck as a result.
However, the fact that health is devolved will now be apparent to many in Wales as never before due to the publication of the Welsh Government’s actions on adverts, televised press conferences and news programmes.
The Welsh Government has also been seen to take action before the UK Government, such as on closing schools and banning travel to tourist hot spots and caravan sites.
The weekend before last when holidaymakers descended on Wales was the only time I remember in my lifetime when the country seemed to speak with one voice in asking their government to do something about it – to which they responded (yes, after a few days).
The confusion caused by many of Health Minister Matt Hancock’s pronouncements relating only to England may also well strengthen calls for the devolution of broadcasting, which already has majority support.
It goes without saying that there is no positives that can be taken from this pandemic, and this article isn’t an attempt to look for any. We are all deeply worried about our loved ones, our health and livelihoods going into the future.
But at the same time, where mistakes are made, lessons can be learnt. And after this pandemic has finally passed and everyday life has returned to something approaching a new normal, perhaps we will look back over this experience and think to ourselves – can Wales do better than this? And if so, how?
Why was our NHS in such a poor state of preparation for this pandemic than many poorer countries? Could more of our citizens have better access to life-saving treatment and medical care? What is it about Westminster’s values and leadership that stopped them acting earlier, and could we have done better – as many other smaller, independent nations such as Ireland and Iceland did?
These are questions that can be asked now, but perhaps they can only be answered in the future. We have a crisis to get through, and I would like to finish by saying a huge thank you to our NHS staff, volunteers, retail workers and other key frontline workers who are working their hardest in such difficult circumstances.
We can, and we will, pull through this together.
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I fear it already has. No one is talking about it anymore. Perhaps more powers is the answer.
Who would have thought that after Winston Churchill led allied forces to a victory over the Nazies that he would then lose the election back in the year 1945 when WW2 ended.
Now as in then, we in the independence movement must be ready to take control of events.
In fact large numbers of people did. The election result was only a surprise in hindsight . People forget that many of the most important ministers domestically during WW2 were Labour and its leaders were trusted and respected. What was critical was that no one wanted to go back to the failed economic policies of the 1930s which were associated with the Conservatives. That will be government’s challenge at the next election and the opposition’s too.
It has. But it’ll resume once Covid is over.
Quicker if the Bunterites are ultimately seen to perform poorly in response to it. Quite possibly quicker still if y Llywodraeth Cymru can up its act in comparison and thereby raise its rather subdued profile..
I don’t think that we Nationalists in Wales and Scotland should take heart from the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ which ironically originated in the US did not stop Ireland from getting its Independence in 1922. Take heart Brothers and Sisters, ‘Our Day Will Come’.
Correction: The first line should read……………….and Scotland should not lose heart but instead take heart from the 1918…………….
First of all a plea to stop calling it Coronavirus. Coronavirus so far as I am aware is a generic term for lots of different viruses, including influenza, which are far less dangerous than Covid 19, the precise name for the virus now in danger of killing so many people. I am quite aware that influenza coronavirus can be lethal and very unpleasant; I caught Asian fluin the 50s when I was a student in Cambridge and have never been so ill, and the influenza which struck after the First World War was also lethal to so many. Covid 19… Read more »
I’ve upticked your post (a) because you’re right about the nomenclature of the virus, and (b) because it seems to me too that the nearest parallel to what we’re experiencing now is indeed ‘The Plague’, which of course wasn’t a once-off but in terms of intermittent outbreaks continued for centuries.
But I can’t go with your unmitigated optimism: I think Mr Wyn Jones will be proved right in his suspicion that this crisis will for the time being take the wind out of the independence movement here in Wales. Though not for ever.
Total numbers of deaths incl those from cv in the whole of the UK (incl Wales) are down from their long term averages adjusted for weather seasonality etc. That can only mean that the vast majority of deaths were those with underlying health issues. Statisticians have calculated that IF you get cv your chance of death is the same in the next 2 weeks as it would normally be in the next 12 months. 90% of those succumbing to cv are over 70. The first study by Imperial college postulated 250,000 deaths, 2 months later the Oxford study said it… Read more »
Sweden deep in the gumbo. Finland now locking down it’s Lapland border due to imported covid .
Sweden does not need to close any borders, as every single neighbour has closed theirs on Sweden.
Sweden’s citizens show what they think by leaving Stockholms streets deserted.
We might have guessed that there’d be at least on response by a selfish neoliberal who thinks that money is far more important than people’s lives. And who really gives a f***k if property prices fall through the floor? House prices have been far too high for far too long and it’s high time that property prices reflected better their replacement costs, or the cost to build them in the first place. And why the worry about millennials? The way things are only vanishingly small numbers of them can even contemplate a mortgage, and most would be over the moon… Read more »
I may not agree with everything you say but this bit in particular is bang on the money ( no pun) – …….” personally I don’t care if it costs capitalist parasites more to borrow money for their various money make schemes – and then to have to hear them bleat, demanding to be bailed out by the taxpayer when it all goes pear shaped, which is inevitable with such an unstable and erratic system such as unregulated capitalism”. The most sickening aspect of the relationship between government and large corporates over recent decades is the increasing ease with which… Read more »
The solution to both is a properly functioning democracy operated an electorate educated for democracy, but that would require the teaching of critical thinking. It would also require the turning of representatives into delegates subject to instant recall, but equally it would require a robust constitution to ensure that democracy could not be used to, for example, undermine fundamental human rights.
Sadly, we have none of these things in any genuine sense at present.
Did it occur to you whilst writing this uniformed leftist rant that the problems of poverty, housing et al here in Wales has been under a labour administration?
Labour in Wales socialist? You jest!
Labour has always merely sought to mitigate capitalism, and failed miserably. Labour has never implemented anything ‘socialist’ ever. State control is not socialism, but state capitalism.
As for uninformed, I don’t thinks so, I’ve just used the evidence of my eyes. You may not like what I said, but you won’t find anything factually wrong with what i wrote.
conflating labour with socialism. Why?
Why can’t you delete messages on this. The above comment is for Sibrydionmawr
I think we all worked out who you were addressing, Jason; worry not.
The Edit’s self isolating.
Sybridionmawr you are wrong on so many points where do we start? If people create their own wealth then the rich steal it just how does this work? Did everyone create the internet and mobile phones and cars and trains and then Bill Gates and his pals hit all the people over their heads with a hammer and walk off with Microsoft and Apple phones and Tesla cars etc etc? You are enjoying all the benefits of a modern regulated capitalist society (like human beings – imperfect but constantly striving to get better) but complaining and moaning all the time.… Read more »
How come then that at regular intervals the capitalist system requires a socialist bale out from the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Stupidity or incompetence?
If you really do admire Bill Gates then you know that huge amounts of luck and a goodly bit of skullduggery was his successful strategy. https://hbr.org/2013/11/the-luck-factor-in-great-decisions.
I think otherwise . How sad, that Boris called the early election, when his balls ups had not yet begun!
Actually, the election anytime would have gave a similar result in that there were NO great enthusiasm for Tory monopoly-capitalism and neither for Momentum Labour’s version of state capitalism.
It was Plaid Cymru, Greens and the Liberal democrats that increased their share of the vote but won no extra seats due to the rigged election system.
We need egalitarian capitalism with wide share ownership of the economy with fair competitive choice.
Up to now Conservative and Labour governments have failed because they both believe in a strong centralised UK.
If anything, having had to draw to the attention of the BBC that on-line prioritisation of the vulnerable was for England only and watching a line of motorbikes from Brum on a ‘run’ to Llandovery plus the stretching of the already thinly spread west and northern Welsh NHS by hordes of 2nd home owners, I can be nothing but a firebrand for independence
Only if we make something of it. But we Welsh are far too nice most of the time, and don’t want to make a fuss. And who can blame us? When we do we get called racist. Do you remember 2002 and Seimon Glyn? Do you remember the 1980s and Meibion Glyndwr? The Welsh government could have preempted both that group of moronic motorcyclists and the hordes of caravanners and holiday homers by closing the border to all but essential traffic. I hope that these things are remembered and that it will be a spur to independence, but I for… Read more »
If you think that Covid 19 will kill off the spirit of nationalism or stop it in its tracks ( almost same thing) then you lack the cojones to motivate anyone. Witness the shambles that has prevailed for the last month or so. How everything has been run to suit the London centric mindset of government, how the lapdogs in Cardiff have barked in tune with their “masters”. The dithering about sourcing and deploying resources like someone is afraid to burn his/her fingers. At least the Scots have a leader who’s up to the job despite all the slagging off… Read more »
It’s too early to say how Covid-19 will impact on the drive for independence or stronger devolution, but it will almost certainly be another nail in Welsh Labour’s coffin when it comes to elction time for the Senedd. Nicola Sturgeon, in contrast, will, as you imply, only have enhanced her reputation for decisiveness and courage under fire; and she will lead Scotland to independence irrespective of C-19.
Farmer Cummings has tested positive.
She’s bloody marvellous!
If 20,000 people learn Welsh during Coronavirus and switch their home language from English to Welsh, is that not a glorious victory for Cymru no matter your political beliefs?
Yeah, that’s not going to happen
It’s already happening. Newyddion digroeso, eh?
Covid19 will strengthen the Independence movement due to the complete incompetence of the UK Government and to a lesser extent, Llywodraeth Cymru. It’s quite obvious from the daily Conferences from the Senedd that it’s a UK show. Cardiff has no option but to comply as the UK Government controls the purse-strings. We could do it better.
First things first, Covid-19 will leave behind many grieving friends & family. That will be our priority in the months ahead. Insofar as independence is concerned, I wonder if has already been suggested by many that the events surrounding the outbreak and the government response will entrench already hard tribal positions. Some who believe in an Independent Wales will point to the failures of government to support their cause. Others who support the UK will point to the solidarity or the “strength in numbers” benefits of the Union. The trouble is, I don’t think either side will be right. The… Read more »
They can shove their Union Flag up their crooked cretinous arses. Thank you.
No. The London government is not only incompetent but decides to treat its ‘citizens’ equally by buying off companies to the detriment of the people it aims to represent. The independence movement just needs to make a loud noise about this that’s all.
Once you say blundering Boris wrongly delayed, then went astray on “herd” immunity for that one weekend, you have to ask – why devolved Wales didn’t exert itself and would an independent Wales have done better? I don’t see that money held up the purchase of tests, it was that our FM was slavishly following Boris’s line that money on testing detracts from other priorities, even after Boris switched to claim testing has always had priority. If Wales had demanded collectively-determined science advice, we could have blocked the Whitehall group-think that Britain knows better – our MoH could have insisted… Read more »
Indy was never going to be a thing gained entirely by marching, so although that strategy is no longer open, it is not as detrimental as it may seem. Local campaigning for awareness raising is also limited, but not entirely – there is now an even more pressing need to answer the questions – what will independence bring about? – how will it improve my life? – can we afford it? – I go shopping to Bristol, will I be affected? etc. and to be creative about campaigning from home (without becoming a keyboard warrior) When the time comes, we… Read more »
Nationalists need to decide what does ‘Independence’ really mean, does it mean a revamped ‘Dominion Status’ aka ‘Federalism’ that’s just the British union’ by another name or is it all about increasing numbers of AM’s at the ‘PALACE OF MALICE’ down in Tiger Bay and of course side by side with advance of a greater CULTURAL NATIONALIST ‘CRACHACH DYSTOPIA’. Alternatively we just recognize an hard fact that Independence is Impractical? Myself would have to see that as a reality and will remain so unless Nationalists accept the three ‘R’s’ RESURGENCE, RESISTANCE and REBELLION in a radical National liberation Struggle to… Read more »