Tonight I went to a public talk by the chair of Yes Cymru, the grassroots movement for Welsh independence. Personally, I’m sympathetic but undecided on the issue and these are some brief reflections on the challenges the campaign faces.
For me, Welsh independence has certainly become more visible since Brexit but, in an age of social media echo chambers, it’s difficult to know how representative this is. I follow a lot of Welsh politicians and academics on Twitter so I see stuff about Welsh independence all the time. However, I have never once heard anyone in my social life bring the issue up. Tonight’s meeting seemed to be mostly converts or people sympathetic.
The challenge is reaching a wider audience. Social media, memes and the like can only go so far. Social media may have helped Corbyn but he lost the general election. It may have helped the Scottish independence campaign but that lost too. It may have helped Brexit but the strongest leave vote came amongst older voters, those who use social media the least. It’s easy to forget that the Leave vote was the culmination of a long and fragmented campaign, which in many ways spent more time convincing politicians than voters. Grassroots alone is not enough.
The Brexit campaign also won because it had a simple, emotional message: take back control. It was simple enough that it could mean anything people wanted it to. It was interpreted as sovereignty, immigration or cash, and probably other things too. With the exception of £350m for the NHS, the Leavers certainly never defined too closely what it meant. They were, in effect, promising everything and nothing. They played on people’s emotions, hopes and fears.
Tonight’s speaker was at his most effective in the Q&A when he spoke from the heart about how he genuinely believed independence would make Wales a better place. He was emotive and clearly believed this. This made him convincing; no one could possibly doubt his sincerity. The Yes Cymru case will be at its strongest when it moves away from specifics and appeals to the emotional patriotism of the people of Wales. It needs to speak from the heart more.
The campaign does have a message. Wales is the poorest part of the UK; we are governed by a remote London government and by a Cardiff government hamstrung by the lack of power it is given. This bit is factual but it only gets you so far. The emotional part of the Yes Cymru message is that we could do better if we took control of our lives, our communities, and our nation. That’s the bit that can convince doubters. That’s what the Brexiteers played on.
Yet Brexit is now a dog’s dinner because behind its emotional rhetoric of taking back control was nothing of any substance. You might win the battle with emotion but you don’t win the war. (And Brexit will ultimately fail. We may leave the EU in the short term but the next generation will take us back.)
Yes Cymru have to learn from that dog’s dinner. There has to be some substance and some plan. You can only get so far saying the campaign is non-political and it’s for parties to work out what independence would mean in practice. To be fair, there was some detail and the potential of independence to rethink how the economy and our society function is persuasive. And there’s nothing wrong with admitting there are risks and it won’t be easy.
The key lesson of Brexit is that breaking up a political and economic union is not easy. Quickly unravelling forty-odd years of union without destroying the economy is proving impossible. Doing the same to a union of 500-odd years will be even more so.
If independence is to happen without huge economic turmoil, it will have to be a gradual process rather than event. It might even take decades. Indeed, no nation is entirely independent in a world where trade, the environment, human rights and so forth are internationally regulated. Making claims of independence giving Wales the freedom to do anything is misleading.
The break up of the UK is probably coming but if it is not to be an economic catastrophe then those seeking it in Wales and Scotland have to accept that the hashtags calling for the immediate dissolution of the union are just as misguided as the Leavers who promised Brexit would be easy. A federal UK should be the next step they are aiming for. That doesn’t mean abandoning an independence campaign. It doesn’t mean not pulling on the heart strings of patriotism. But it does give people time to work out the practicalities and to avoid the backlash heading the way of Farage, Boris and co, when the electorate realise they were sold a lie.
Of course, for some leaving the EU at any cost is important. Similarly, for some, a poorer independent Wales would be better than what we have now. But for me, and I suspect the majority of the people of Wales, independence is only worth seeking if it will improve our society and our lives. This is not a given. As the UK will soon find out, if you don’t work out the details first, significant constitutional change can make things far worse rather than far better.