Growing up in Surrey I can only recall one instance of the prospect of an Independent Wales being discussed, with my father dismissing the idea as Wales is ‘too small and too poor’. This belief was seemingly entrenched in me thereafter, if I ever thought about the issue, which I must admit until about a year or two ago was only ever a handful times. Over the last 18 months however, with the fallout of the Brexit vote; the terrifying rise of the far-right, both across the UK and Wales; and, the continued levels of inequality and poverty prevalent across Wales I have explored the issue with a renewed focus and have come to the conclusion that it is the only viable way to tackle the issues Wales faces today. I have never written a blog or anything like this before, but with my growing frustration and sense of helplessness about the direction politics is going in I felt it might not only be a useful cathartic exercise, as it will give my girlfriend a break from hearing my incomprehensible rants, but hopefully will start a discussion with friends both inside and outside of Wales who have never given the prospect of Welsh independence a second thought.
I grew up in Surrey in the leafy, commuter-town of Dorking. Despite growing up in England, I have Welsh family on both sides so have always seen myself as almost a ‘fake-Welshman’ more than I have ever thought of myself as English or British (but this is potentially a topic for a whole other blog in itself and, to be honest, irrelevant to the rest of this post). Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, Dorking or in constituency terms, Mole Valley, is one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK, with the Conservatives being 1/500 to retain the seat in the 2017 General Election. Without getting into it too much and making this blog a ‘why I hate the Tories’ rant (but I can write a follow up on that if you want x) there is nothing about that party that I agree with or that represents me in any way shape or form.
Like many others, my political education predominantly came from my parents – and their emphasis on politics being centred on compassion, kindness and fairness has stayed with me since. I joined the Labour party when I was about 15, I then left in 2015 to join the Greens before re-joining the Labour party after Corbyn became leader as I felt the Labour Party’s manifesto in 2017 spoke a lot of sense. To be fair, looking back I was probably more encapsulated by the movement around Corbyn and the emphasis on him always being ‘on the right side of history’ than I’d like to admit now. I was certainly involved in more than one rendition of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ in the lead up to the 2017 election and encouraged friends to vote Labour.
This was despite having lived in Cardiff for University since 2014 but I’d be lying if I said that Plaid Cymru had made much of an impact on me in the three years previous and I knew very little about them prior to moving to Cardiff.I did however, have a lot of respect and admiration for Leanne Wood (and still do) and felt her priorities: community cohesion, anti-racism and de-centralised socialism were commendable. But the notion of Welsh Independence remained pretty much absent from my political thinking.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn
In 2017 I was of the belief that a Labour led UK government would be the answer to Wales’ and the rest of UK’s problems: primarily austerity, poverty and Brexit. Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail as to why I fell out of love with Labour and the Corbyn project, as I’d rather focus on Welsh Independence and the sense of hope that I feel when talking about it, but I will provide a quick overview.
Seemingly, like many others, Labour’s constant triangulation on Brexit and their inability to articulate their position seems to be a complete contradiction to their commitment to ‘straight talking honest politics’ which I felt to be patronising to both party members and the wider public at large. I’m at the point now where I switch off listening to what Keir Starmer/Clive Lewis say because you know five minutes later Richard Burgon/Barry Gardiner will come out contradicting their point in its entirety. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with this merry-go-round. I never want to hear the words ‘our policy, as decided at party conference’ again. And whilst we’re on it – what on earth is a ‘Jobs First Brexit’?! I didn’t see Ken Skates, Drakeford or Corbyn telling that to the people of Llanelli after the Schaefller factory closure announcement – to give one of many examples of the contradictions of this ridiculous phrase.
In particular, their failure to stand up for freedom of movement and make the positive case for immigration has frustrated me no end. I understand completely that the EU is far from a perfect institution. There are significant criticisms of the EU, such as their handling of the migration crisis and the austerity imposed on Greece – neither of which sit comfortably with me. Labour’s complete lack of leadership, however, has rendered them absent for much of the biggest constitutional crisis since the war; especially since the whole debate has been framed by, and is now charging towards, a right-wing, anti-regulation, nationalistic dystopia. Which you’d have thought the internationalist and socialist Labour party would have vehemently opposed…
I do also understand that the Labour Party is in a difficult position, trying to generate cohesion between the different demographics of it’s membership and supporters, but at times like this, politics requires leadership and I felt like they needed to demonstrate to people why It was Conservative (and Lib-Dem, and Labour before them although to a lesser degree) imposed austerity that was the root-cause of inequality and poverty rather than also utilising the EU as this mystical, ‘undemocratic’, super-being on which everything and anything could be blamed.
A mystic facilitated by the UK media who have never taken the time to actually explain what the role of the EU is… and when you think about it, why would they? Sorry I’m ranting again…
Furthermore, I’m personally unsure as to whether Jeremy Corbyn is himself anti-Semitic however it seems undeniable that he has a certain blind-spot when it comes to the issue. Similarly, the issue has unearthed a particularly toxic element of the party membership – at least on twitter – and has highlighted their inability to engage with the issue in a meaningful way or take on board any of the legitimate criticisms.
Welsh Labour and Devolution
As I’m aware I’ve ranted for longer than I intended in the last section I will try and be slightly more concise as I focus on Welsh Labour, Devolution and how Plaid Cymru came on to my political radar and have ultimately convinced me that they and an Independent Wales are the credible way forward.
My dissolution with Welsh Labour, in line with UK Labour, was as a slow-burner rather than the result of one significant event, although the election of Mark Drakeford as Party Leader in November 2018, convinced me that the party were no longer for me. At such a critical time in Wales’ political journey – to me – Drakeford embodies everything that Welsh Labour didn’t need at this crucial juncture – uninspiring, more of the same, and deference to Corbyn and the UK-wide Labour Party. In particular, on Brexit. There appears to be nothing radical, exciting or inspiring about his vision for Wales, and, this might be ignorant on my part, but I can’t think of one clear flagship policy he made explicit reference to continuously throughout his leadership campaign or has made reference to since. He appears content with business as usual and waiting on direction from HQ in London.
The erosion of the ‘clear red water’ and surprise surprise – a lack of leadership over another key issue – the M4 Relief Road – which apparently isn’t a contradiction to the ‘Climate Emergency’ recently declared (?!) has just left me completely despondent at the current state of Welsh Labour.
I’m aware that I’m being slightly flippant here but I am just so frustrated that Wales in comparison to Scotland for example, has been seemingly completely marginalised from any meaningful participation in serious politics for the last 2-3 years – with a fair amount of that self-inflicted…. Repealing the Continuity Act anyone?
This self-inflicted lack of ambition has been prevalent for longer than Drakeford’s premiership however – to use one example – Welsh Labour could and should have mitigated the worst effects of austerity – as the Scottish government have done – that is what Labour is about, right?
Through campaigning for and achieving elements of the devolution of welfare, The SNP has effectively abolished the bedroom tax, scrapped the pay cap in the NHS, and have mitigated £400M worth of Tory welfare cuts. They have shown innovation in establishing the Scottish Welfare Fund and the Independent Living Fund, as well as committing to getting rid of profit-making elements of the welfare system. Although this process has been far from perfect in Scotland – it has at least shown ambition to utilise the powers available to them to better serve the People of Scotland.
In Wales we are still at the consultation stage of devolving welfare, and in this time, have thus, felt the full impact of the Tories’ decimation of welfare support. Universal Credit is being fully rolled out – an ideologically driven change to the welfare system, which has been proven, time and time again to cause unnecessary human suffering on a massive scale.
This policy effects around 30% of all households in Wales – with frequently devastating results such as individuals becoming reliant on food banks, running up huge arrears or being served eviction notices whilst waiting for their first payment. Furthermore, a recent Loughbough Univeristy study found that Wales is the only country across the UK with child poverty numbers increasing as currently 200,000 or 1 in 3 children in Wales are growing up in poverty, and cited welfare reform as one of the key factors for this increase.
Surely, it doesn’t have to be like this? Surely, we can do better.
I’m not blaming Welsh Labour for the imposition of Universal Credit – this is a policy that only the Tories could think would be fit for purpose – nor the imposition of the Welfare Reform Act of 2012, which set the wheels in motion for this return to the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ – a country of strivers not skivers, anyone? But could they not have done more to try and mitigate its effects? I know Carwyn Jones was far more against this devolution of powers than Mark Drakeford is – as Drakeford has stated that he is open minded about pursuing this course of action – and good luck to him.
He should therefore be encouraged by the recent report from the Wales Fiscal Analysis team that highlighted that ‘depending on the terms of the negotiated fiscal framework, the Welsh treasury could stand to significantly benefit from the devolution of welfare powers’ and even under the Barnett Formula would not be systematically worse-off as a result. Citing the precedent set by Scotland as an example that could form a key part of the discussions. This devolution of powers is no longer ‘fantasy politics’ – as Leanne Wood claimed was directed at her when advocating this course of action by some Welsh Labour MPs back in 2015.
This is an opportunity we have to take. We must have the confidence in ourselves to look after some of the potentially most vulnerable people in society better than the Tories have done or will ever do.
Christ – that was a massive tangent.
So in the midst of this disillusionment with both the UK wide Labour Party and Welsh Labour what attracted me to Plaid?
It was a holiday with some friends in September 2017.
Discussing Brexit whilst throwing a rugby ball about, as you do, one of the boys piped up that he thought that ‘for Wales, I think the best course of action is to become independent and re-join as an Independent nation’. It threw me a little, as like I mentioned earlier, notions of Welsh independence were far from mind, but it stayed with me.
From then on, I paid close attention to what Plaid had to say – and the more I listened the more impressed I was. For me, in comparison to the constant shapeshifting of the Conservatives and Labour, the clarity of Plaid’s message is striking and three aspects of their message resonate most strongly with me.
Firstly, its unequivocal support for remaining in the EU and the willingness to champion that case unapologetically. The party have taken it upon themselves to try and convince people that the problems they face in day-to-day life aren’t predominantly the fault of the EU and draw attention to the decimation the Welsh Economy faces in the result of a hard, Farage-led Brexit. I think for me and many others, this honesty and clearness of message has been welcome amongst a sea of nonsense from the majority of the other parties.
Secondly, their challenge to the structural causes of poverty in Wales – succinctly surmised – like so much else by Adam Price – in one of his most utilised soundbites that ‘there is nothing inevitable about the poverty Wales’ finds itself in’. In doing so, highlighting how there is nothing innate about the Welsh people that disposes them to poverty but rather the fact that Wales has long been let down by a series of Westminster Governments, both Labour and Tory, through massive under-investment and the sometimes ridiculous financial settlement received from the Barnett formula.
Finally, the party’s unwavering commitment to enacting a ‘climate emergency’ and the full implications of that – again shows the necessary leadership relevant for such tumultuous times. This principled position has led to them being declared the ‘greenest’ party in the UK by an independent EU Commission.
There is an energy and excitement to the party at that has inspired me to want get involved. The oratory and intelligence of Adam Price, the precision and sense of urgency of Llyr Gruffydd on the environment and the passion extolled by Leanne Wood when tackling inequality and racism.
The greater my interest in Plaid – the more I’ve become interested in the perceived ‘union of equals’ and the notion that Wales is reliant on Westminster to the point of being unable to sustain its itself independent of Westminster.
I think I will do a blog solely on this in the weeks to come – and will explore the historical and cultural elements of the relationship as well; Tryweryn, Welsh-not, and the decimation of the Welsh language. As well as the complexities of the relationship – how Wales greatly benefited economically from involvement in the British Empire – only for this wealth, in the form of raw materials, to be extracted by capitalists regardless of their nationality. I will, highlight, however, a few examples which to demonstrate to me that Wales is still getting a raw deal today:
Welsh Taxpayers money is contributing £2.8 billion to HS2, as this is deemed a UK-wide project, despite the fact that Wales is receiving no positive economic impact – and some academics have speculated that HS2 may actually detract from Wales’ ability to generate employment. As this is a UK-wide project, and rail infrastructure is not devolved – Wales receives no Barnett consequential from this project. Imagine the impact £2.8 billion could have on Wales’ current public transport system… (Wales is currently the country in Western Europe without electrified railway… it is quicker to cycle from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth than take the train).
Although scrapping Air Passenger Duty is certainly not compliant with declaring a ‘climate emergency’ the fact that for many years previously, the Welsh Government has been asking for control of the tax – which has been devolved to Scotland and for long-haul flights from Northern Ireland – was refuted by the UK Treasury on the basis it would disadvantage English airports…. Sorry, what?
The U-turn on the Swansea lagoon. A project that had ‘widespread and almost universal support in Wales’ and would have provided a significant boost to Swansea, a city that has for so long appears to have been forgotten. An after-thought. Carwyn Jones labelled the decision a ‘crushing blow for Wales’ with Drakeford, then finance minister, stating that ‘Wales has not had an effective voice at the cabinet table’. What else can be expected when another country makes your decisions? In the fallout of the decision Liz Saville Roberts, Plaid MP, said the ‘decision demonstrates the need for Wales to gain greater control over its own future’ – and I for one do not think you can argue with that statement. Self-determination is normal.
This last section is obviously far-fetched, utopian even. However, in politics you need hope, ambition, energy and there is no point pursuing this seismic quest for Welsh Independence to merely recreate a mini UK – with the same entrenched wealth, vast inequalities, and massive disparity of opportunity. It would be dreadful for the London-centrism of the UK to be replaced by the Cardiff-centrism of an independent Wales.
We have a great potential with renewable energy. A recent IWA report stated that Wales could and should be completely renewable by 2035. What a great opportunity for us to announce ourselves on the world stage as a newly self-governing nation leading the way with renewables (Whilst in the UK we have the Conservatives committed to fracking and Labour exploring opening a new coal mine….).
In line with this, we need to explore moving away from GDP and GVA as the sole economic measures, as this quest for exponential growth has triggered so many of the problems with poverty and climate change that we face today.
We could restructure our politics completely – and I for one would advocate a similar model to the one put forward to Leanne Wood in her fascinating paper, The Change We Need – de-centralized socialism at the heart of every community. Decisions about the community, taken within the community, for the community. Furthermore, what would be in the Welsh constitution? Housing as a Human Right? Public Transport free at the point of use? Access to higher education for all? The possibilities are endless – and the decisions would be taken here in Wales.
Equality, fairness, compassion and inclusivity. They should be the driving principles at the heart of any Independent Wales.
I realise I’ve written nearly the whole blog without mentioning nationalism. For me, this movement as I see it, is nothing to do with nationalism in it’s conventional sense – a dirty word – that invokes images of jingoism, xenophobia, and conquest. This civic nationalism is based purely on the desire to be self-governing. For Wales to claim its place as an equal among the nations of Europe and the rest of the world. A civic nationalism based on inclusivity – as Sion Jobbins put it at the recent March for Independence – ‘We’re going to be embrace everyone in Wales, if you’re here, you’re Welsh. We want you!’
Independence is not a means to an end. It is not a goal in and of itself. Independence is a vehicle for a change – and the potential to do things so differently – and as I currently see it, we will not get that change from Westminster.