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.