The campaign for next month's Senedd parliamentary elections in Wales has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its handling by Mark Drakeford's Labour-led government. But coronavirus has helped to move another issue into the centre of political debate as a growing number in Wales question the country's place within the United Kingdom.
Support for Welsh independence, which for decades struggled to rise above the low teens, has surged in the past few years, with a Savanta ComRes poll last month putting it at 39 per cent. Wales’s leading polling expert Roger Awan-Scully said that, even if that poll is an outlier, support for independence is now consistently in the low 30s, excluding don’t knows.
"Support for independence in Wales is actually about where support for independence in Scotland was at the start of their campaign for the independence referendum they had in 2014. When that campaign kicked off in 2012 or so, support was about the level it is in Wales now," he said.
“We are certainly seeing higher levels of support for independence in Wales among younger voters, as you see in Scotland too.”
[World View podcast: Denis Staunton talks to foreign editor Chris Dooley about the rise in support for Welsh independence. Listen here]
The first sign of an upsurge of independence came on May 11th, 2019 when up to 3,000 people marched through the centre of Cardiff in a demonstration led by the grassroots group YesCymru. The march was organised by Llywelyn ap Gwilym, who had just moved back to Wales after spending most of his life in London, where he worked at McKinsey management consultants.
He modelled it on marches for independence all over Scotland ahead of the 2014 referendum, working with other pro-independence groups including Labour 4 IndyWales and Welsh Football Fans for Independence as well as Plaid Cymru, the leading party of Welsh nationalism for almost a century.
“It was just this really joyous occasion. And you had people, young, old, Welsh speakers, non-Welsh speakers, black, white, north, south, Plaid supporters, Labour supporters, non-party political people just having a really good day. And that’s what it felt like and it was it was just a really positive, positive thing,” he said.
YesCymru saw its paid membership grow over the subsequent months from 2,000 to almost 20,000 as interest in independence grew. It is an avowedly cross-party movement which has no agreed policies for Wales after independence, including on whether the country should seek to rejoin the European Union.
Vehicle for change
Born into a Welsh nationalist family, ap Gwilym always saw himself as an independence supporter but never engaged with the issue seriously until about five years ago. He now sees it primarily as a vehicle for change in Wales, where almost one in four live in poverty and life expectancy is falling while the suicide rate is rising.
"Wales is not a poor country. If Wales was independent, it would be the 22nd largest economy in Europe. It's a mid-sized economy for Europe. GDP per capita is higher than in Spain. Tax take per capita in Wales is higher than in New Zealand. The average wealth in Wales is the average of the UK," he said.
When Mark Hooper went along to the May 2019 march, he thought he was "just going to see about 10 mates" and was astonished by the size of the crowd. An entrepreneur who runs a network of workspaces, he is a native of the Welsh valleys, long a Labour stronghold with little nationalist tradition.
“If you’d asked me, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years ago, I would have said Wales was too poor, too small and too stupid to be independent. And I’m somebody who has moved quite quickly along a path when you start to realise how damaging the United Kingdom is to Wales and you start to question are there alternatives,” he said.
Hooper is in the process of setting up Banc Cambria, a mutually-owned, community bank for Wales that aims to bring retail banking services to communities that have lost them or never had them. The project is backed by the Welsh government but Hooper believes its spirit is in tune with that of a new independence movement that is younger, more diverse and more confident than traditional Welsh nationalism.
“Nationalism, as a word, is something that I think is quite difficult for this group. It’s more actually that independence is normal and it’s what we can and should be doing but if we want to solve our problems, let’s take it on ourselves,” he said.
“And I felt that myself. Banc Cambria is an example of that. We don’t need to be independent to deliver the work we’re doing with Banc Cambria. We just need an independent spirit of mind and an attitude of we’re just going to do this because we can.”
Before coronavirus, almost half of Welsh voters were unaware that the National Health Service is run as a separate body in Wales and that the government in Cardiff is responsible for health policy. Throughout the pandemic, Drakeford has pursued a more cautious policy than Boris Johnson, often introducing restrictions earlier and lifting them later.
The Welsh government’s approach has been popular and it has encouraged more people to look again at the relationship between Cardiff and London.
Last autumn, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak refused to extend furlough payments in Wales when Drakeford imposed a "firebreak" lockdown, but the chancellor then did extend the scheme a few weeks later when Johnson imposed a lockdown in England. YesCymru saw a sudden spike in its membership, with applications coming in at the rate of 1,000 a day.
If coronavirus is one driver of support for independence, Brexit is another. Like England, Wales voted to leave the EU in 2016 but the British government’s subsequent actio ns, particularly the Internal Market Act, have put a strain on the devolution settlement.
"The devolution settlement is quite clear that things like economic development, environmental regulations, animal welfare standards etc are all part of the devolution settlement, which is the responsibility of the devolved administration in Wales. But what the Internal Market Act is doing is essentially giving power back to the centre in order to enable the UK government to make trade deals," said Martin Shipton, political editor-at-large for the Western Mail, Wales's leading daily newspaper.
Labour is likely to remain the largest party in Wales after next month’s Senedd elections and Shipton believes the most likely government is a Labour coalition with the pro-independence Plaid Cymru. But a poll this week suggested that Abolish the Welsh Assembly, a party calling for devolution to be rolled back, could win two seats.
One of the party's candidates, most of whom are former Conservative or Ukip members, once compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan. The party apologised after another candidate, Lee Canning, had to himself apologise for a tweet in which he described former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood as "the ugly face of nationalism".
From Strabane, Co Tyrone, Canning has been living in Wales for 18 years and was deputy chairman of the Welsh Conservatives before joining the new party. He believes those who campaign for an independent Wales underestimate the strength of the United Kingdom.
“I grew up actually in a Roman Catholic family. I grew up in a very nationalist area. It only took me moving to Wales to realise how strong the United Kingdom actually is together. Because I grew up in one parent household and I’m actually visually impaired myself, then I realised it was actually the British taxpayer throughout my entire childhood,” he said.
“I haven’t been back to Strabane in four years. A former Tory and being a unionist from a Catholic background doesn’t go down that well.”
Simon Rees, another candidate for the party, said it is about saving the UK and stopping Wales from going independent.
“It’s to stop Wales from sleepwalking towards independence. Every devolved power that goes to the assembly is another chip away at the Union. It’s like a game of Jenga, sooner or later it’s all going to come down,” he said.
But Wales’s constitutional future is less likely to depend on fringe groups like Abolish or even the Conservatives or Plaid Cymru than on Labour, the party that has dominated Welsh politics for a century. A YouGov poll last September found that 51 per cent of those who voted Labour in Wales in 2019 now supported independence, although others found support to be lower.
YesCymru sees moving Labour towards independence as essential to achieving its goal, a strategy Laura McAllister, professor of public policy and the governance of Wales at Cardiff University, believes is a wise one.
“Welsh Labour has always been, for want of a better term, a soft nationalist party, and it’s had its tanks quite firmly parked on Plaid Cymru’s lawn in that regard, with a commitment to constitutional change, to the Welsh language, to the whole concept of nationhood really, and far less kind of muscular unionism that we see in Scotland with two unionist parties,” she said.
“The concept of independence is getting a fair bit of traction amongst younger Labour supporters and certainly amongst Labour activists. There’s no kind of embarrassment for Welsh Labour to talk very openly about independence,” she said.
Events in Scotland will influence the debate in Wales and McAllister thinks that next month’s Senedd election could be crucial in determining the Welsh government’s approach to another Scottish independence referendum.
“I think what would be really interesting would be if a Welsh government stayed neutral because in the last referendum, the first minister was campaigning for staying in the Union. I’m not sure that we’d see that happening. And if Plaid was in government with Labour, which it could well be in some shape or form, then I think Plaid would be pushing the Welsh government to stay out of the debate. And that in itself is a change of great significance, really,” she said.
Awan-Scully believes that a refusal by Westminster to allow another Scottish referendum would further alienate soft nationalists in Welsh Labour, that a referendum would embolden Welsh independence campaigners and a Yes vote in Scotland would transform the picture in Wales overnight.
"One very senior official in the civil service here said to me, at the moment you can still believe that the UK is some sort of multinational entity, albeit an unbalanced one. But if Scotland goes, then it's basically England and two little bits. And as that official put it to me, who wants to play Montenegro to England's Serbia?" he said.
YesCymru is preparing for the next stage of the independence debate by employing a full-time campaign manager, a diversity and inclusion officer and engaging a creative agency. They are getting ready for a campaign that might take decades but could accelerate suddenly if Scotland votes for independence.
“The majority of people currently are happy with the status quo or want some more powers but haven’t quite got to independence,” ap Gwilym said.
“But the status quo might not be an option because Scotland may well be independent, there might not be a status quo for us to stick with. And then it’s a case of, do we take a proactive decision to be independent or do we take a proactive decision to remain in some sort of a union with England? But with either of those it’s a proactive decision.”