Welsh Independence Has Gone Mainstream

A Brexit continues to fuel discontent across the UK, more and more people in Wales are asking if the future looks brighter apart from Britain.

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May 24 2019, 1:17pm

Photo: Natasha Camilleri / Alamy Stock Photo

In April, part of the Cofiwch Dryweryn memorial in Wales was anonymously smashed to rubble. A painted standing wall just outside of Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, it commemorates the 1965 flooding of the village of Capel Celyn in order to construct a reservoir to supply water to Liverpool – a highly controversial decision that was approved by Westminster without consultation in Wales, displaced 67 residents, and is widely seen as the ultimate symbol of Welsh political powerlessness.

Almost immediately after the vandalism, Cofiwch Dryweryn memorials began to spring up all over Wales. The words were daubed on walls in town centres, scrawled on the sands of Swansea Bay and raised on a placard in Newport’s Kurdish Community Centre – where Imam Sis is currently enacting the longest hunger strike in UK history.

The lingering outrage over events such as the destruction of Capel Celyn has traditionally been viewed as largely exclusive to a small and stereotypically-conceived section of Welsh society: nationalists, first-language Welsh speakers, Y Fro Gymraeg (areas of Wales where Welsh is spoken by the majority of the population) and middle-class people who attend the Eisteddfod every year, listen to Radio Cymru, vote for Plaid Cymru and end up in well-paid jobs in Cardiff.

The idea of Welsh independence, too, has ‘belonged’ to them for some time, at least in the popular consciousness. It’s been propagated in the margins of society by a select few – too radical to be considered at the centre, except as the punchline of its jokes. Now, that's changing: as Brexit continues to fuel discontent across the UK, thoughts of Welsh independence have re-entered the mainstream.

Welsh Independence March Cardiff 2019
Natasha Camilleri / Alamy Stock Photo

On May 11, the first ever match for an independent Wales took place in Cardiff. Hosted by independence pressure group All Under One Banner Cymru, attendance hit approximately 2,000 people. In the wake of the blossoming civic action of the Cofiwch Dryweryn mural-paintings, it feels as if Wales is entering into a cultural moment in which the question of its identity and future is being popularly considered for the first time.

Since its creation in 1999, the Welsh Government has been under the administration of Welsh Labour. Twenty years without a change in government represents an unusual and, many political commentators have argued, worrying anomaly in Western politics.

Voter turnout reflects this monotony. Just 45.3 percent of those on the electoral register cast a vote in the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections, which was still the second-highest turnout since the first Assembly election in 1999.

Until recently it would have been difficult to imagine a Welsh political leader being given a prominent platform to argue the case for Welsh independence to a UK-wide audience, but a few days after the march Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, appeared on prime-time Channel 4 News to talk about the appeal of independence in a post-Brexit Wales. "The only sustainable answer to the Welsh problem of endemic poverty is for us to put our faith in ourselves," he said.

Faced with the inadequacy of formal structures of power in Wales, this 'new' wave in the Welsh independence movement indicates a growing trend towards grassroots activism – one which is unafraid to consider structural change as a solution to decades of impoverishment and democratic neglect.

One of the emerging strengths of the national movement is its popularity amongst young people in Wales. The Facebook meme page ‘Welsh Independence Memes for Angry Welsh Teens’ boasts 14,000 followers on Facebook, with its videos consistently gathering thousands of views. Back in 2016, Welsh language broadcaster S4C launched Sianel Pump – their first stand-alone YouTube channel targeting a youth/young adult audience. Its success then led to the development of Hansh, an independence-leaning, Welsh-language channel for young people whose video content hits up to 70,000 views on a regular basis.

As with any movement, the growth of popular support amongst young people is a key ingredient for change. Indeed, one of the prominent groups on the march was Plaid Ifanc, a Plaid Cymru offshoot and youth activist group which campaigns for independence as part of a socialist manifesto.

Supporters of independence have been regularly accused in the past of having a ‘single-issue’ mentality which neglects the role that feminism, class discourse and anti-racist politics should play in constitutional change. That appears to be shifting, too. Speaking at the march on behalf of Undod, a movement for radical independence, Sandra Clubb took to the stage outside Cardiff City Hall to proclaim: “We can build a socialist, feminist republic.”

“Community, social justice, gender equality, climate justice – all of these things now, I see them and I see the things that Wales can do to make a difference," she added.

This vision of independence seems to centralise the importance of international solidarity – an often forgotten, yet historically inseparable facet of the national movement. One of the most visible shows of solidarity made amongst the marchers was with imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, and with the scores of hunger strikers campaigning for his release from solitary confinement. Ajit Cheviz, representing Wales’ Kurdish community, spoke of the need for internationalism in struggle: “Through international solidarity we can turn the future into peace and justice [...] we will not surrender to oppression, we will resist for democracy and justice.”

The recent foray of Welsh independence into popular political and cultural thought has not been welcomed by all. Welsh Labour have traditionally been critical of calls for Welsh independence, vetoing Plaid Cymru’s calls for its discussion in the Senedd on the basis that it represents an unrealistic, populist and "divisive" option. Hefin David, Labour MP for Caerphilly, recently voiced his concerns in a piece for Nation.Cymru: “It is conceivable that the case for Welsh independence, like the leaving of the EU, could be won on the argument that, if we wrap ourselves more snugly in a flag, an uncertain world will appear less threatening.”

There is also a trend amongst some of the political left in Wales to consider independence a threat to working-class solidarity across the UK. Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain (and Cardiffian) argues that only a UK-wide, working-class solidarity can affect positive change in Wales: “The reality is that in Wales we need that radical redistribution of wealth, and that is only going to come about by united working-class action and united labour movement action.”

However, the emergence of movements such as Labour 4 Indy Wales indicate a growing change in the attitude of Welsh Labour towards independence. They were represented on the march by Ben Gwalchmai. “Polling by Cardiff University over the last year has shown that up to 23 percent of Welsh Labour supporters support independence... get them on your side,” he announced to applause.

The boundaries that have separated those who do and do not support independence across party lines are blurring, with the question of Home Rule rearing its head in previously unwelcoming pockets of the Welsh political class. However, while Welsh independence has become a mainstream idea, it remains to be seen whether it can become a majority one. A recent poll conducted by ITV Wales showed that only 12 percent of Welsh people support the idea of self-government.

Despite this, the growing optimism and intersectionality of the national movement can only be seen as inviting greater engagement from Welsh people who have previously written off independence as a pipe dream. Of one thing we can be sure: the emergence of Welsh independence into the mainstream of society represents a nation beginning to question its identity, and the structures of power that constitute its material reality.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.