Welsh Independence: the sleeping dragon in Sturgeon’s shadow?

By Joshua Bell

Welsh Independence. Not a misspelling, nor an accidental replacement of the word ‘Scottish’, and no longer a pipe dream for Welsh-nationalists. It is a movement building significant, yet quiet momentum. As the 2020’s begin, political analysts are consumed by Boris’ mandate, Brexit delivery and the Scottish National Party’s Independence argument. This decade was set to be the quiet one. Just two General Elections and resilient Tory objection to a second Scottish Independence referendum. The Welsh-nationalists, however, have other ideas.

The Adam Price project is underway in Wales.  Whilst relatively unknown to many, the Harvard postgraduate and Leader of Plaid Cymru has reinvigorated the Welsh Independence debate. His no-nonsense leadership style and unwavering focus on Welsh Independence has inspired many activists to dust off their placards and join YesCymru marches across the country. Recent attendance levels were unprecedented compared to Welsh Independence rallies gone by, and the national mood, it seems, has begun to shift.

During 1997, in one of the tightest referendum results in British history, Welsh devolution was voted ‘for’ by a majority of 0.6%. The National Assembly was established and from this point, optimism and the sense of opportunity which accompanied devolution was palpable. However, the past twenty years have delivered a stark reminder to Wales – devolution is not simply an event; it’s a long, often very bumpy, road.

Today, the new Conservative Government is highly unlikely to address greater devolution to Wales at the Cabinet table. This leaves Wales stuck in the middle of a national tug of war. One side seeks greater devolutionary power, seeing it as an opportunity to develop national policy, without the perceived risks associated with a clean break from the UK.  Others argue for the roll-back of devolution, believing it to be a means to an end and a distraction, whilst Independence, they argue, should be at the top of the national agenda.

This status quo is an opportunity being seized upon by nationalists in Wales, whilst all other eyes remain on Nicola Sturgeon and Scotland. The truth is, Independence supporters in Wales won’t lose any sleep over this welcome distraction. Whilst their campaign is bubbling beneath the surface, it will require significant political momentum before the UK Government is to sit up and take notice. The Indy-curious movement is enough for some in Wales to wake up to the idea, however, whilst the desire for something new remains, many don’t see Independence as the answer. 

The SNP, unlike Plaid Cymru, has gained control of Holyrood and built a significant presence in Westminster on an Independence platform. Plaid Cymru, in contrast, has struggled to sell their twofold vision – Independence and their domestic agenda – to the people of Wales. To build on the underlying Independence momentum, Plaid Cymru must first win the ideological battle. As Welsh Labour has proved, political power in Wales should not be underrated. With it, comes an opportunity to shape the agenda and direction of the country – which may, one day, lead to Independence.  And whilst Plaid Cymru has long been on the fringes within the Welsh Assembly and Westminster, the Party will be well-aware of the potential that follows power.

Let’s be clear, Welsh Independence remains a distant reality for even the most passionate advocates of its movement. Support resonates in pockets across the country but is yet to develop into what could be defined as a national movement. However, Independence activists will be encouraged by the slight shift in national mood, and they will believe more than anyone, that you can’t turn a no to a yes without a maybe in between.