Year in review: Welsh independence has never seemed so inevitable
2021 will mark forty years since Raymond Williams asked, ‘Who speaks for Wales?’. He thought nobody did. That was a good and bad thing: a sign of encouragement because Welsh culture has always enabled people to speak and that they should have the right to do so, but also a problem as our nation struggled in dealing with economic, social and political strains via ‘crude power relationships and distant parliaments.’
This infamous question was examined by Michael Sheen during his Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture in 2017. The actor-turned-campaigner seems to excite much of the Welsh nationalist movement at every moment, as his most recent call to scrap the title of the Prince of Wales demonstrated.
Mr Sheen speaks from the heart and with principle, that is clear; although his republican stance does not command a majority across Wales. By his own admission, he is on the foothills of Welsh history too; any student of our past will tell you it is almost impossible to reach the summit.
But it is worth us all revisiting that question – ‘Who speaks for Wales?’ – one final time this year. 2020 has after all been a remarkable twelve months. Coronavirus has swallowed up societies, economies and governments globally. In the UK, not only have tens of thousands tragically died, but our NHS has been and continues to be pushed to a breaking point. Alongside all of this has been the real possibility of a British Prime Minister dying in office, a new trade agreement with Europe that will diminish our standing in the world, and an impending constitutional crisis.
Historians may indeed look back at 2020 as the most consequential year in modern history, and especially for those who study the state of Wales. We have experienced a radical reawakening, equivalent to that experienced in the first few decades of the Liberal ascendancy during the late nineteenth century.
Kenneth O. Morgan noted that back then the re-awakening was one which occurred through the political stage; the same is of true of 2020, but its main actors are not the Liberal party but the governments in Cardiff and Westminster, in addition to thousands of people across Wales.
Any analysis of this year must centre on how the focus has shifted: from a Welsh national community that has consumed its news and current affairs for several years from the pages of the Daily Mail with its inherent Anglocentricity, to an increasing focus from the public on the devolved politics of our nation. It didn’t have to play out as it did, with the emergence of the cult of Mark Drakeford and his authoritative briefings to hundreds of thousands of the Welsh public. As Welsh ministers told the Financial Times in October, they were surprised that they had the freedom to depart from Whitehall policy on Covid restrictions in the first instance.
Diversions over quarantining policies is just one example of how Cardiff and London haven’t seen things eye to eye. The matter of relaxing rules in May and the public messaging surrounding it was the start of the fractious relationship between the devolved governments and Downing Street, after an initial collaborative approach to tackle the pandemic. Since then the Welsh government have dared to impose restrictions such as the ‘firebreak’ without a care for what is said by Westminster.
Gradually over the summer months, the Welsh public looked on as the political and media messaging of the prime minister got worse and more dishevelled, capped off by Dominic Cummings farcical trip to test his eyesight at Barnard Castle. By contrast, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been consistent and clear throughout; both of their approval ratings shot up during the summer, even though they were not immune from making their own mistakes with government policy. Communication is key.
There were peculiar undercurrents as Mark Drakeford enjoyed his newfound status as the undisputed leader of Wales, the closest thing to a truly national politician recognisable by all of our nation since devolution was introduced in 1999. For Scotland, it seemed predictable: the more people saw of Nicola Sturgeon, the more people wanted Scottish independence. Polls now suggest there is a majority in favour there.
In Wales, however, I doubt anyone would have thought Welsh independence would become a part of the political mainstream. For decades it was a mission confined to Plaid Cymru, and even then it was mostly debated by its more radical ranks. The most remarkable phenomenon of the Welsh independence movement today is that it isn’t led by the party at all. In 2020, YesCymru became the home of nationalists left, right and centre of the political spectrum.
The group had just over two thousand members at the start of the year; now their ranks number over 16,000. By their own admission they have to thank the UK government’s poor handling of Covid for their swelling membership, but also the sudden realisation across Wales that decisions made in Wales are usually better for Wales. The culmination of the rise in popularity for independence was Plaid Cymru’s announcement this month that it would hold a referendum in its first term of government, if elected.
Yet that is not likely to happen in May 2021. All opposition parties have struggled to look like a Welsh government-in-waiting this year. Plaid may yet benefit should the SNP’s certain victory next year lead to growing calls in Wales for a nationalist government, but aside from that there is little for Adam Price to be optimistic about. Well, at least they are not in the position of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The party’s slow and painful decline may indeed come to a full end with the departure of Kirsty Williams at next year’s elections. That is not something to celebrate, either.
For the Welsh Conservatives, despite some credible arguments that Mark Drakeford and his ministers should address the Senedd more often, most of their cheerleading this year have been for English over Welsh policies. They are English nationalists draped in the flag of the red dragon. The party has skewed even further to its populist tendencies, embracing the Abolish the Assembly sentiment within their membership.
They have no interest in gaining power, only in consolidating their base, but they continue to deliver empty calls for a ‘devolution revolution’ regardless. Alas, the progressive centre-right party of Wales has finally departed. To say so attracts charges that you are a member of the ‘Cardiff Bay Bubble’.
In truth, party politics in Wales has never been too significant to our national life. We have always, in our elections at least, looked to Westminster to understand where the political winds are blowing. Keir Starmer has proved popular in Wales, although his decision to vote for the Brexit trade deal yesterday is a risky strategy. Indeed, it is better than no deal but it is a bad deal for Wales. Only four Welsh Labour MPs abstained; all of Plaid Cymru’s members voted against.
The shameful manoeuvrings around the whole European episode has been the other dominant theme in the latter half of the year. The Secretary of State for Wales had no problem in saying that the UK government would override Cardiff Bay and build the M4 Relief Road, while the Internal Market Bill, before and after it was watered down, undermines the powers of the Senedd to make laws and policy. It is an “attack on democracy”, according to Jeremy Miles.
My generation will be living with the implications of the trade deal for the next few decades. And much of Wales, I am sure, will not be happy with it. It is another major factor why Welsh Labour politicians, those who have sought to defend Wales’ place in the UK more effectively than anyone, have called for a radical new constitutional settlement or, to borrow Carwyn Jones’ term, surgery for the UK to survive. This alternative for a growing number is no longer tenable; an independent Wales is the only answer, including for a majority of Welsh Labour voters.
I assure you that the impact of Brexit is by no means an over exaggeration or mere rhetoric from a schizophrenic Welsh patriot; the UK’s departure deal is, in my view, an immense challenge facing democracy in Wales. And it will almost certainly tip the scales in favour of independence in Scotland. Let us also remember that not all eyes will not be on us next year. Scotland and the SNP will command the attention of the British media and Westminster politicos. And if Wales has little influence with Downing Street now, as the first minister says, then don’t expect that to change in the next twelve months.
So, as Mr Sheen put it in his lecture, there is an important question we must answer: where is the Welsh voice and how does it make itself heard? We have certainly found a new resonant rallying cry in 2020, shouting two words: Yes Cymru. They face their own challenges ahead of the Senedd election, including remaining a broad church and ensuring it stays out of party politics.
But it is Welsh Labour that will likely remain the voice of Wales (officially, at least). Whether the looming prospect of a Scottish referendum alters their position on an independent Wales, we can only ‘wait and see’ – a favourite mantra for the party over the last twenty years. A lack of urgency may be their downfall.
All things considered, though, political ruptures are nothing new for us; look how far we have come since Bishop Basil Jones of St. David’s recalled that Wales was a mere ‘geographic expression’.
The Nonconformist Liberals gave us the first proper Wales-first nationalist movement, as well as the religious and educational institutions to create the tools of a modern nation; the Labour party, meanwhile, invited us to the Cabinet table and have harboured the dominant left and centre-left wing of Welsh politics for close to a century.
Plaid Cymru and groups such as Cymdeithas yr Iaith ignited the flame of Welsh nationalism in the 1960s and 70s, and kept the Welsh language, the greatest gift of Welsh culture, alive and vibrant. Thatcherism was, to many people in Wales and elsewhere in the UK, a sign that politics had to change.
The National Assembly gave us that new lease of life, but it was not an experience shared by every village, town and city across Wales. Although Tony Blair said that devolution would allow the diverse communities of the UK to ‘take their futures in their own hands’, Wales was transformed into a quasi-nation state on the fringes of British politics. It was meant to tame the nationalists and in Wales post-1999 it did just that. The story in Scotland is very different.
‘For Wales see England’ was our entry in one edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica all those years ago. But that isn’t the nation I recognise in 2020. Although tough times are in front of us – especially in the days and weeks ahead, for our frontline workers above all else – a new national confidence has emerged.
The current political settlement, even in the eyes of the first minister and a majority in the Welsh Labour party, is not sustainable if the union wants to survive the decade. So as for Welsh independence, it has never seemed so likely to occur in the years ahead of us. Brexit and the fallout from Covid has done the damage.
It may now be a question not of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Nobody would have said that twelve months ago.
Wales has finally come in from the fringe.