A surging interest in Welsh independence

I should start with a disclaimer that I’m not Welsh. Yes, dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg, but my family doesn’t have any connection to Wales other than my mildly obsessive curiosity. My bizarre Duolingo Welsh pet-project aside (240 day streak, not that I’m bragging), the development of Welsh nationalism is an interesting topic that deserves further attention.

A Welsh desire to be rid of their English conquerors has deep historical roots that trace back to the 15th Century Welsh national hero Owain Glyndwr and beyond. Even the English word ‘Wales’ denotes an imperial past: the word has developed from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘outside’, even though the native Welsh had been resident in the British Isles long before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. The word Cymru, by contrast, can be understood as ‘fellow countrymen’.

Recent polling has shown that over 70% of Walians are unhappy with the Westminster government, and a YouGov poll has shown that 32% of Welsh adults would support Welsh independence if they were asked to vote on it tomorrow. This rises to 46% amongst 16-24s. This general sense of distrust and disenfranchisement with Westminster feels like a step away from the single-issue Welsh nationalist campaigning of the 20th century, and towards something new which might actually lead to meaningful change to the current system of devolved administration in Wales.

Welsh nationalist campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries rarely focused on complete independence from the English. Instead, activism focussed on a desire for the recognition of Welsh distinctiveness in two key policy areas: religion and language. Looking first at religion, the nonconformist movement mobilised Welsh capel-going congregations to stand up against the imposition of the Church of England. Stories of communities divided along religious lines are nothing new in British history, but the uniformity of Welsh nationalist resistance to Anglicanism deserves recognition. What’s important to note here though, is that the call of the nonconformists was never for independence from England. Instead, their call was for the freedom to practice their religion, and more broadly, to conduct their daily life in accordance with Welsh culture, rather than under some foreign culture dictated by London. 

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In the 20th Century, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, nationalist campaigners chose another single-issue campaign theme, this time, the promotion and protection of the Welsh language, which had been systematically suppressed by the English for hundreds of years. In the face of declining numbers of Welsh speakers, the nationalist Saunders Lewis used his 1962 RadioCymru lecture to argue that the protection of the Welsh language was even more important than home rule. Here, we can explicitly see that the goal of mid-20th Century Welsh nationalists was not independence, merely equal recognition. Incidentally, the number of Welsh learners continues to grow, and recently Welsh was named one of the ten most popular languages to learn on Duolingo, and the fastest growing language learned in the UK. 

So, what’s changed? Why have we recently seen a surge in support for Welsh independence?

Speaking to the Welsh Daily Post, the chair of the YesCymru group argued that a growing number of people, especially younger voters, think that the government in Westminster isn’t working hard enough to meet the needs of the Welsh public. He also posits that should Scotland vote for independence, Welsh independence (or at least ‘assertive devolution’, to use the term coined by the First Minister) might not be far behind. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist political party, released a report in September 2020 setting out a ‘roadmap to independence’ for Wales, calling for an ‘exploratory referendum’ into the issue. 

Some commentators have speculated that one reason for recent increased support for Welsh nationalism, particularly amongst Labour voters, has been FM Mark Drakeford’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Wales. Throughout the year, Drakeford has been keen to act independently from Westminster, for example in his decision to put all of Wales into a ‘fire-break’ lockdown in late October, several weeks before Johnson did the same for England. In the last week, Drakeford has also revised the Christmas bubble rules for Wales to only allow for a maximum of two households to meet, as well as announcing that all of Wales will go straight into an Alert Level 4 lockdown immediately after the festive period. All of these measures have created a sense that perhaps Wales could cut ties from London and might be better off going it alone. 

It’s clear from his recent trips to Scotland that Boris Johnson clearly sees Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP as posing the biggest threat to the future of the Union. However, this recent polling suggests he might have missed what he would have viewed as another ‘threat’, one coming from Cardiff. 

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Emma Hunt

Culture and Opinion writer