Like the political meetings of old, yesterday’s March for Welsh Independence was a mix of the serious and the theatrical. With the sun shining, there was a joyous and good-humoured mood amongst the crowd. A few had come up in fancy dress and far more had brought flags. Alongside the Red Dragon and the logo of Yes Cymru (the umbrella movement for Welsh independence), were the banners of Glyndŵr, Scotland, Cornwall and Catalonia. There was singing and chanting that any football crowd would have been proud of.
There was even some pantomime booing of the representative of Welsh Labour. But of all the speeches, he made one of the most important points. If Welsh independence is going to happen, it needs the support of people who vote Labour. The turnout and atmosphere at the march may have been uplifting but it does not change the fact that Welsh independence remains very much a minority position. An opinion poll this month had support for it standing at 12%.
This owes something to perceptions that Wales is too small or too poor but it also owes something to how nationalism is perceived. Although the vast majority of people across Europe are nationalists in the sense they believe in nation states, nationalism remains a word that a great many people find uncomfortable because of its historical associations with arrogance, racial hatred, and conflict. The Second World War looms large in the popular cultures of the UK and Europe.
That was not the kind of nationalism that was on display yesterday. The speakers emphasised that Wales is a country that belongs to everyone who lives here. They spoke of social justice, equality, the environment, feminism, and internationalism. They spoke of a Wales that welcomes people rather than shuts them out. It was a vision of a better world.
The current economic and political model that dominates the UK and much of the western world is broken. It prioritises economic growth and works on the assumption that wealth will trickle downwards from large corporations and the well off. It fails to understand that wealth is finite because the physical resources that generate wealth are finite. It fails to understand that communities and economies work better when built from the bottom rather than the top.
Those who support our current economic and political model understand that inequality is the source of most of the discontent that exists in the world. Yet they fail to do anything radical to tackle that and remained wedded to the very model that has created the inequality. That model needs discarding. As more and more economists are arguing, there is a need to replace targets of growth with ones based around sustainability, redistribution and well being. This requires a change in mindset as much as policy.
The United Kingdom is probably incapable of making this shift, at least in the short and medium term. But the longer nothing happens, the greater inequality becomes, the longer people carry on living in poverty, and the greater the damage done to the only planet we have.
A new Wales is an opportunity for a new economy and a new society built around principles of sustainability, equality and well being. It is an opportunity to rethink our core principles and to start again. Even having a debate about independence can help deliver change because it challenges us to ask big questions and to reconsider the very way we organise our world.
Of course, not every supporter of Welsh independence would agree with the vision outlined by the new generation of economic thinkers or yesterday’s speakers. There are supporters of independence on the right who have a very different vision for Wales. There are also others who might agree with the ideas of social justice that independence could deliver but who are primarily motivated by the principle of Welsh independence. There were elements of that visible yesterday in calls and chants for a Free Wales.
The case for Welsh independence will never be won by such calls. Yesterday morning I told a friend I was going to a march for Welsh independence and she asked ‘independent from what?’ The majority of people in Wales simply do not regard themselves as living in an unfree country; they do not see the British state as an alien imposition. Survey after survey shows most people in Wales regard themselves as British as well as Welsh.
This is not false consciousness or Stockholm Syndrome. National identity is subjective, personal and emotional. Feeling British is no more ‘wrong’ than feeling Welsh is. Feeling Welsh and British is no more illogical than feeling Welsh and European. It is perfectly possible to feel you belong to more than one place. The movement for Welsh independence seems to be led (quite understandably) by people who do not regard themselves as British but electoral numbers mean it cannot be won without those who do consider themselves British.
For all the patriotism displayed yesterday, this is not what will deliver Welsh independence. What could deliver it is the speakers’ vision of a society that puts social justice first and it is the potential for independence to deliver a better, fairer world that makes it worth discussing at the very least, regardless of any question of nationality.
Yesterday was about optimism and looking forward. It was about imagining better ways of doing things. That is a message that has loud resonance and which can overcome doubts and fears about nationalism. It can win over people regardless of how they label themselves. Whatever happens to Wales’ constitutional status, our society and our politics needs more optimism and the confidence to not just dream of a better world but to deliver one too. For our small corner of the globe, yesterday was a small but significant step in that direction.