This year has been quite a year in Welsh politics; and this week, quite a week. A poll of voting intentions for a UK general election put Labour on the worst numbers it has ever seen in Wales – and surpassed by the Conservatives. For a party that’s been the dominant force in the country for about a century, 2019 has been a punishing year.
The same poll confirmed the rise of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. If elections for the Welsh Assembly (not due until 2021) reflected the poll, Plaid would win the biggest share of the vote. That’s a first, too, but if it happened, it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s what senior people in both Plaid Cymru and Labour have told Tortoise they’re expecting. And then, if they gained power in Wales, Plaid Cymru would start making preparations for a referendum on independence, with an eye on 2025.
For decades, the idea of Welsh independence from the United Kingdom was barely given voice. More recently, whispers have become conversations and talking points. Only a few weeks ago, the First Minister of Wales was forced to deny that he’s indy-curious. His predecessor has admitted that he could be. The phrasing – “indy-curious” – suggests how delicate this interest is. It’s not shouted with a Scottish roar or bellowed Catalan-style, but it’s there.
Another small country falling for the rogue-ish charms of identity politics? Fascinatingly, no. Political scientists have had their magnifying glasses out since the 1970s looking for signs of a burgeoning Welsh national identity, and they’re still looking. Some nationalist-minded politicians even wonder if it’s possible to create a strong sense of identity in a country where local media has all but given up the ghost, and where almost a quarter of the population is English:
So when they try to pin down the reasons for the big shifts in Welsh politics, the smartest observers of the political landscape, like Roger Awan-Scully at Cardiff University, see more push than pull: the push of Brexit and the chaos in Westminster. If the risks of independence or greater devolution have weighed on the minds of Welsh voters for decades, it’s no longer so obvious that life within the Union is the risk-free option.
That new calculation plays into some long-established trends that hurt Labour in particular. Industrial Wales – organised Wales – continues to dwindle in the rear-view mirror. Ford announced the closure of its engine plant in the town of Bridgend in south Wales last month, and the future of the big steel-making plant at Port Talbot, fifteen miles down the coast from Bridgend, never looks better than precarious. At the same time, white-collar jobs in the unionised public sector have been in steep decline. The ties that used to bind Welsh workers to the Labour Party – and, through the Labour Party, to the rest of the United Kingdom – are being cut.
“She has a language of her own, and an art and a culture, and an educational system and an excitement for things of the mind and spirit, which are wholly different from England and English ways. It is in the commonality of this difference that Wales has a claim for special recognition and where she should seek new forms of national life.”
Once fear leaves the room – as it has to a great extent in Wales, when independence is discussed – surprising things can happen. Even two years ago, the movers-and-shakers in Welsh society wouldn’t have contemplated independence calmly. Now some of them do. The long-serving ex-First Minister Carwyn Jones will go next week to the beating heart of Welsh-speaking culture, the National Eisteddfod, to share a platform with a pro-independence lobby. He won’t go to agree with them, but two years ago he probably wouldn’t have gone at all.
Slowly but surely – and perhaps more persuasively because of its painstaking progress –the effect of these changes is beginning to swell the ranks of the indy-curious:
Put in more traditional terms, just over 40 per cent of Welsh voters are opposed or strongly opposed to independence, while around 30 per cent are in favour or open to it. There’s a clear preference for the status quo within the United Kingdom, but the gap is narrowing.
If all this comes to a shuddering halt it’s likely to be for one reason: the economy. Earlier this month the Welsh government published its annual barometer of the country’s performance compared with Scotland, Northern Ireland and nine English regions. Measured in eight different ways, Wales comes flat bottom of the pile in four; in none is it higher than mid-table; and it lags behind Scotland on every test. Plaid Cymru argues that it’s neglect within the UK that has put Wales in this spot, but the economic shock of independence would be huge.
For supporters of the United Kingdom, the risk is that Westminster doesn’t understand how the centrifugal forces unleashed by Brexit are playing off each other.
Yes, Scotland matters most in that calculation; Wales is overwhelmingly likely to make its mind up about staying or leaving the UK on the coat-tails of Scotland’s decision. But it used to be said that the serious debate about Welsh independence would only start the day after Scotland voted to leave the UK. In fact it has already begun, and it is feeding into an energetic conversation between Scotland, Wales and (a united?) Ireland which is imagining a post-UK future – maybe a loose federation with England – within the next decade.
Over that time, indy-curiosity could harden into certainty or crumble to dust. The reason to bet on it being durable is that it comes from an interesting place. It’s not a gust of national identity that has filled the sails of the indy-curious, it’s something tectonic. It’s not the air that is shifting in Wales, it’s the ground.
“How did you go bankrupt?”, Ernest Hemingway wrote. “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” How might Wales go independent? The same.