The Welsh independence campaign

logo-yescymruTonight 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.






A personal (and Welsh) view of the referendum

If Scotland votes Yes my wife would be entitled to a new passport. Although it’s two decades since she’s lived there, I suspect she’d take one and I would be married to a foreign citizen. A trip to see her family would still be a long way but would now involve crossing an international boundary.

In this small way my life would change but, less obviously and far more substantively, other things would happen too. The political system that governs my country and the resources at its disposal will change. In some indirect but important fashion this will influence my health care, my job, my commute and my kids’ education.

But I don’t know how things will change and whether they will for better or worse.  The UK economy might plummet at the hands of international monetary forces. But it probably won’t. Wales should get to renegotiate the Barnett formula that has underfunded its public services for more than three decades. But that will be the low on the priorities of a London government trying to figure out how to disentangle two nations that have been one state for more than 300 years.

Indeed, amidst the political fallout and bickering, it may be that Wales and its needs doesn’t get heard at all. It would be nice to think that the London government suddenly gave Wales and Northern Ireland more attention and more resources in order to keep us in the family but I suspect that won’t happen because too much of the English electorate doesn’t care about having us.

My gut instinct is that Scottish independence will leave Wales worse off but I don’t know that. Nor does anyone else and the certainty with which some Welsh nationalists are declaring a Yes vote will be good for us is no more than a hopeful guess.  It’s not that I fear the economy being damaged; it’s more I fear Welsh politicians spending the next two decades gazing at their constitutional navals rather than working at fixing the inequalities and poverty on their doorsteps.

That should leave me wanting a No vote but the speed with which the Westminster elite is starting to wake up to the consequences of its introspection and London-centricism is far too welcome to want it to go away. Indeed, it’s actually funny seeing panic setting in amongst politicians who have been too smug for their own and our good. A Yes vote would give them a kicking they would never be the same again after.

I suspect it’s such feelings that are driving the Scottish Yes vote forward. The arguments on the economics of it all are so complex and so uncertain that neither side can actually win that fight. As long as the No camp keep on patronising the Scots and insulting their sense of nationhood (“we’re too wee to stand alone…”) then people will keep switching to the Yes side. They know it’s an economic risk but there’s enough sense in the Yes arguments to make it worth taking, especially when it means sticking two fingers up to a political elite that hasn’t cared much for years what they think.

These are interesting times as the saying goes. They will become even more interesting if Scotland votes Yes. If they do, I hope it works out for them. I hope even more it works out for Wales. But I suspect what’s good for Scotland, won’t be good for us.