Why Yes Cymru’s central committee need to step back and let go

A Yes Cymru protest in support of Catalonia. Picture by Yes Cymru

Huw Williams

YesCymru stands at the centre of the burgeoning indy movement in Wales.

Therefore, given the intrigue, the dramatic expulsions, one might be excused for thinking that this weekend’s AGM represents a watershed moment.

I have already seen allusions to the fateful Cymru Fydd meeting at Newport in 1896, when Lloyd George’s nascent movement for Welsh independence came crashing down.

Will tomorrow’s AGM in Burry Port be spoken of by future historians in the same way?

In keeping with the manner in which the saga has been played out, this is I think a rather melodramatic view of things.

Rather, we should see it for what it is – an unfortunate blip for a hitherto successful campaign group during which a, if not red mist, then certainly a muggy fog has descended.

Who is responsible and for what reasons is rather secondary at the moment to the need to restore some calm and find a reasonable and adequate way out of this impasse.

I am probably not the only one who has foregone the opportunity to influence events by leaving the group.

When the announcement was initially made that the AGM had been hastily arranged for a Tuesday morning and moved to Burry Port, with a 48 deadline for submitting motions, it was clear to me that this was not a dispute I wanted to be involved in.

It seemed a rather direct and uncompromising message from those left on the committee that they would rather not engage their membership at large in bringing this unfortunate chapter to its conclusion.

I have a little experience of a challenging grassroots campaign, and either you’re up for it, or not. On this occasion, for various reasons, I felt it was put up or shut up. I came down on the latter side as I felt there are more positive ways in which I might expend my energies.

However, as with many others standing on the sidelines, I wish the movement every success and genuinely hope that a path forward can be found.

It’s important however that the way forward does not alienate the heart of the movement – namely the grassroots members.

It is they who provide the energy and the momentum, and amongst the most important resolutions needs to be an attempt to put the focus back on them, and away from the central committee.

There is something oddly contrary about the fact that a movement so focused on a devolved, grassroots structure should be disrupted by the machinations of such a central committee.

Their job should basically be about collecting subs and spending them on appropriate activities to support the branches and various sub-groups, who can concentrate on winning over their own regions or fighting for their own vision of independence.

Tensions

So what has gone wrong, and can the situation be redeemed?

Having spoken to some of the expelled members and the current chair, it seems difficult not to surmise that the core issue here is that the internal politics of Plaid Cymru, so prevalent during the recent leadership campaign on Twitter, have afflicted the internal dynamic of YesCymru.

The substantive consequence of this is the same tensions – between those on the left who aim at connecting a Welsh independence movement with a wider emancipatory politics, and those who condemn such aspirations as ‘niche’ and a distraction.

The latter use the “non-political” watchword of YesCymru as the justification for this condemnation.

Why these splits have emerged is more interesting than the intrigue, especially this phenomenon of nationalists deploring the ‘niche’.

This is especially so when we consider that historically the national movement, notably the tradition tied to campaigning for the language, has not only been ‘niche’ but in many respects a radical, progressive movement.

It has been regarded by those such as Ned Thomas and Raymond Williams as part of the emancipatory politics of the 1960s, connected to the American Civil Rights movement amongst others.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but in some ways those from the rooted communities of y Fro Gymraeg were part of the counterculture in the 60s in the form of Cymdeithas yr Iaith.

Dislocation

However, unlike some other progressive causes, Welsh language communities never attained the status of a counterculture that was on the progressive side – and one that needed to be fought for indefinitely.

The language and Welsh medium education became a ‘progressive’ force of sorts in the Anglicized areas of Wales, but there would be no renaissance for these predominantly Welsh language communities.

One can rightly ask on behalf of many of them, what did supposed progressives ever do for them?

One could, of course, ask the same question with respect to the post-industrial communities, but the situation has become particularly acute in Ceredigion and Sir Gar.

This is largely because the old Welsh-language ‘bychanfyd’ (microcosm, or literally, ‘little world’) has slowly dislocated over the last forty years, largely because of outward migration and the inability to ‘acculturate’ immigrants into the language.

A key factor in this has been largely Liberal and Labour councils failing to follow Plaid Cymru in Gwynedd and ensuring a proper Welsh medium education system.

However, despite the bulwark of the schools, the same dynamic is now at work in the north-west in the face of pressures such as the lack of housing, the lack of opportunities for the younger generation and the continuing inflow from the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

Desertion

There is, quite understandably, a lot of anger and frustration that stems from this hurt.

And for some, it appears that the ‘progressive’ politics of the left espoused by those in the national movement is nothing more than a different form of a remedy that has let them down before.

It may be that only a truly radical politics can transform the fortunes of communities across Wales. But those who have espoused these values in the past have not delivered.

We should be mindful too that this is not simply an industrial-rural divide. There are parts of the west and north of Wales, for example, where they’ve experienced a double desertion, as Welsh speaking industrial communities.

These reflections may also help to explain the confluence of interests with Neil McEvoy’s more urban politics – which trades on the fact that there are many in these areas who also feel they are part of disinherited communities let down by a certain brand of leftist politics.

This is a challenge facing those of us who want to pursue the goal of an independent Wales tied to a radical, progressive vision.

Getting people to buy into it as a vision of solidarity and hope is difficult when people associate such terms and ideas largely with a politics – and a Labour Party – that has let them down.

Stepping back

There are many of us, however, who are up for the challenge, and it looks likely now that a movement for radical independence will come into existence in some form over the coming months.

In some respects, it’s a pity this did not happen sooner, as it may have assuaged the concerns of some of those in YesCymru who have felt it necessary to act as they have.

However, it must not be the case that this movement is perceived to be a ‘challenger’ to YesCymru – rather it should be a group that will hopefully, in future, be part of a wider movement, and one in which different people can pursue different political visions for Wales.

As for YesCymru, no doubt they will continue in some form, whatever the outcome tomorrow, and we must wish them well.

However, we may hope that those in the central committee return to the values that have served the movement so well, which to all intents and purposes means stepping back and letting go.

And if they hope to maintain the ambition of being an umbrella movement, they will need a more consistent approach that does not see them advocating some forms of politics whilst condemning others.

Except for those, of course, which are hostile to the fundamental democratic principles we all hold in common, which will be at the heart of an Independent Wales.

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