It is becoming a real pleasure to me when I get to visit Wales and get involved in their independence movement. Wales strikes me as being in a good place and the prospects of real progress seem strong to me. The contrast with Scotland right now is pretty stark.
I was invited down to Wales over the weekend by Melin Drafod. Melin Drafod is a left-of-centre, pro-independence think tank (so kind of like a Welsh Common Weal) and at the weekend they held an ‘independence summit’ in Swansea. I was invited to talk on independence strategy.
The conference was lively, well-attended and had the kind of enthusiasm that pervaded the Scottish independence movement in the years immediately after 2014. Here are some little pen portraits to give you an idea what is different in Wales than in Scotland just now.
First, it was two-thirds of the way through the day (well into the afternoon) before I head anyone mention the word referendum. It certainly wasn’t raised in the plenary sessions from the stage or the floor and it wasn’t mentioned in any of the breakout groups I was in. What people wanted to talk about was how to increase support for independence. It was refreshing.
Second, no-one seems ashamed to talk about history and culture (and particularly language). One of the breakout session I attended turned into a really fascinating discussion of the suppression of Welsh history and culture and how restoring understanding and pride in Wales’ history could play an important part in building national confidence. My experience is that, in Scotland, people get nervous if you spent too much time talking about Scottish culture.
But there was another kind of history which was blissfully absent – if referendums weren’t mentioned, neither was any reference to a historical-legal route to independence raised. There was really only one question and that was ‘how do we bring the public on board?’.
Another interesting feature for me was that there was a high degree of comfort with talking in terms of a clear left-wing pitch for independence. This wasn’t completely unchallenged since one person asked about the risk of alienating centrist voters. But on the whole there is a much stronger assumption that, in Wales, you win from the left. Plaid Cymru describes itself as a ‘populist, socialist’ party. Which, for me, is refreshing.
And for Scottish independence supporters one of the most telling differences was the extent to which the Welsh party of independence is willing to recognise and work with others. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, was there from the beginning of the conference and spent the entire day engaging with and talking to activists. This is not something we’ve ever seen in Scotland.
Adam was on the same panel as me in the afternoon, but so was Cllr Rachel Garrick. She is a Labour councillor in south eastern Wales and is openly and proudly a supporter of independence. There was a big Welsh Labour for Independence contingent and elected members don’t get expelled for professing support for independence. And Plaid, the Greens and Labour all talk to each other (Green Leader Anthony Slaughter was also there). Which is nice.
All of which tells you some of why Wales is turning into my happy place. Perhaps more than anything that is because, to me (and remember I stay in touch but that’s my first visit since the pandemic so I’m only getting snapshots), the Welsh independence movement is happy and united, or at least reasonably so.
The movement is at a stage where everyone is pushing in the same direction and I didn’t detect the kinds of ubiquitous animosity which seems to have creeped into the independence movement in Scotland. It is just nice to talk to people who’re not constantly bitching about each other all the time…
But I was there to talk hard strategy (as well as the conference I met up with some Plaid Cymru strategists and got a good picture of how the Plaid/Labour cooperation agreement is working, which is really interesting in itself). And everyone being comparatively nice to each other isn’t the only reason I find Wales compelling to be in.
It’s also because, from my vantage point, I think it is loaded with opportunity. Wales is sitting at about 30 per cent support for independence just now, but everything I can see suggests the next ten or 15 per cent of voters who don’t yet support independence are very soft in their unionism.
There was really strong Welsh pride at being back at a World Cup and this has teed up a lot of national pride and improved the sense of national confidence. As best as anyone can make out, the tone of the way the Welsh FA rallied Wales behind the team was not exactly counterproductive to encouraging Welsh national sentiment…
(In fact, there seems to be a perception settling in that football is where the independence support is found while rugby is becoming more of a unionist pursuit. I don’t know if that’s fair and I’ve certainly not seen polling data on fans, but that seems to be the perception.)
So the raw materials for a surge from 30 to say 45 per cent seems to me to be there. In fact as best as I can tell it won’t actually take that much to shift the dial quite rapidly like that.
Plus I am quite taken with the focus that Wales is showing in comparison to Scotland. Plaid Cymru has commissioned proper preparatory work. I was on the advisory group for the Independence Commission which was a project not dissimilar to Common Weal’s How To Start A New Country (except it is supported by the main political party of independence. Note there are two different commissions – this is the other).
Plaid has also commissioned work on the apparent fiscal deficit (again, an assertive piece not at all dissimilar to Common Weal’s Beyond Gers and most certainly not the ‘close-the-fiscal-deficit-through-fiscal-prudence-but-don’t-call-it-austerity’ position of the SNP’s Growth Commission) and so has Melin Draffod.
And, given my professional background, I’m also very taken with the deep interest people are showing in campaign theory (not least Adam Price himself who is much, much more up to speed with current best campaigning practice than any Scottish politician I can think of). I find a degree of seriousness in Wales that I don’t find here just now.
This is in part because Plaid Cymru is a party of government but is not wholly absorbed by government. Yes Plaid is a partner in the Welsh Government through the cooperation agreement (Wales avoids the self-agrandisement we sometimes find in Scotland, so no, this isn’t called the Bute House agreement or anything grand).
But Plaid doesn’t take ministerial posts in government. They get Special Advisers who can attend cabinet meetings and they agree a substantial section of the policy programme (this is how Wales is getting a National Energy Company – it was a Plaid ask during negotiations). But their senior politicians are not lost in the back seat of a ministerial limo.
When you add all this together it makes for a hopeful and optimistic feel. Now I think it is important to add that this is not necessarily how everyone who is in the Welsh independence movement feels. There is a bit of a feeling around that the opportunity is there but that it’s not immediately clear what can break the barrier to releasing it.
But it is often much easier to see what is wrong with your own campaign and much easier to see what is right in someone else’s. I actually think that what some over the weekend saw as a ‘lack of immediate momentum’ is more like ‘giant potential energy that just needs a little push’.
Either way round, every recent visit I’ve had to Wales has left me feeling much more positive than when I left Scotland to get there. I have found absolutely everyone to be incredibly friendly and welcoming and really interested to have proper, deep conversations.
I have high hopes that things in Wales will start to move quickly when they move. Every time I go down people in Wales seem convinced that they have much to learn from the Scottish independence movement. Every time I go I think that it is very much the other way round.
Either way, when high school pupil Mirian Owen spoke passionately and persuasively about her love of the Welsh language and why even more should be done to promote it to all children in Wales, she told us that it was her greatest wish that she could ‘live in Welsh’. As I recover from a wonderful visit, I am left with the feeling ‘me too Mirian, me too’.