“Sensational”, “great”, “stunning” – all words used to describe last week’s YouGov poll, commissioned by Plaid Cymru, which showed outright support for Welsh independence at some of its highest ever recorded levels.
Being tongue-in-cheek for a moment, these polls are often accompanied by puffed-out chests, cherry-picking and bollocks the size of space hoppers too, but the direction of travel is pretty clear:
Wales reluctantly staying in the UK.
Sorry in advance
Being a seasoned naysayer (I’d like to call it “offering honest counsel”), I’m not here to sugarcoat the truth or stroke people’s egos and nobody within the IndyWales movement can accuse me of lacking faith.
First of all, putting post-Brexit scenarios aside, outright support for independence isn’t that different to the first Yes Cymru poll in 2017 – which used a sliding scale rather than a straight “Yes-No”. All that’s happened is the support for independence that’s been there over the past few years has been correctly tallied for once. It’s difficult to dispute the 24% (31% with don’t knows excluded) figure. So far, so good.
Reading between the lines, the second question was framed more to put pressure on Labour to throw their full support behind a second Brexit referendum or even revoking Article 50 – by showing them the potential consequences of a “No Deal Brexit” – than it was to do with independence. If there’s one thing that will give Labour MPs and AMs sleepless nights it’s growing support for independence amongst their rank and file and the idea that they’re playing catch-up to public opinion (which they’ve usually stayed the right side of in Wales).
You’re probably now asking yourselves (if you’re a nationalist), “So what? Everything’s heading in the right direction.”
One key point that I don’t think anyone else has picked up on is the scenario presented in the second question – Wales remaining in the EU by becoming independent at the same time the UK leaves the EU – can’t happen.
The only avenue to do this, and it’s a long shot (Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty – a form of “internal enlargement” via a treaty change tabled by the European Council, member state or European Parliament), will be closed off as soon as the UK leaves the EU and takes Wales with it. If Brexit isn’t delayed again, for the second scenario to come true (as things stand) Wales would need to become independent in about six weeks time and have the unanimous support of all 27 EU member states and have either the UK Government or European Council propose to change the treaty to include Wales on our behalf.
The only option left would be the Article 49 route, which is the formal accession process to (re)join the EU and could take years. While there’s no harm in asking the question, the 41% figure is at least partially based on a false premise (see also: Wales & The World V – Wales in Europe).
Tying independence to Brexit is a potential double-edged sword too. Brexit is very clearly a game-changer and driving support for independence amongst certain groups of people, but if independence is predicated on an already very divisive Brexit being a complete disaster, and it doesn’t turn out to be so bad in the end, support for the Union may return to usual levels; ditto if Labour forms the next UK Government. The increased support within Labour may well be down to anti-Toryism/anti-BoJo sentiments than any real constitutional preference, while barely a majority of Plaid supporters back independence within the EU and close to a third would reject it. A third. That’s a massive issue and understandably nobody wants to focus on that – but not focusing on difficult problems is the problem.
You can use the polling data to draw whatever conclusions you want, but for me the main conclusion is that neither independence or the Union are popular in Wales.
The natural recourse would be to propose a compromise – federalism or confederalism. While that ought to present an opportunity to Welsh Unionists, all plans for such compromises to date have died quiet undignified deaths and the Westminster system and UK Constitution weren’t designed to do anything other than allow quick fixes which don’t last; Wales can’t even secure devolution of a relatively minor tax and I’m fully expecting any proposals for devolution of criminal justice to be rebuffed in a similar manner later this year.
While being in a position where we can’t decide where we want to be in the world is potentially very destructive – as we’re finding out with Brexit – it’s also a massive once-in-a-generation opportunity where the future of Wales is genuinely up for grabs. The rule book has been rewritten and independence is now mainstream.
The danger is that the independence movement as a whole may be more in love with the idea of independence – and we’ve seen the romantic nationalism that dominates the movement at the AUOB marches – than the direct consequences of being an independent nation state.
Optimism can only get you so far. Strategic and intellectual pessimism will deliver independence because if you can’t see what’s wrong, can’t keep your expectations in check when coming up with solutions and offer false hope, then you’ll win battles for airtime and generate great optics but you won’t win the war. The people who need to be won over are those with seemingly the most to lose if there’s no clear plan in place.
Having done more than most to look at the practicalities of independence, I can say with authority (of sorts) that it’s not easy and the size of the task is being underestimated; you can’t just put people in a room for an afternoon and scribble on a whiteboard. To put things in perspective, Scotland’s plan for independence is/was 650 pages long (crib notes in parts) and was drafted with the full resources of the government behind it. The Constitution is being held up as the next great task facing the movement, but that’s relatively straightforward compared to some other matters.
State of Wales is a decent stab at doing something similar to Scotland’s Future, yet it’s probably less than a third of the way to where it needs to be with some very big gaps in knowledge – I’m well aware of what I don’t know. It’ll only be fully appreciated when people in a better position than I am attempt to do the same work themselves; Adam Price said during a press conference earlier today that an announcement’s expected at next month’s Plaid Cymru conference regarding the party’s plans for independence, which is good news.
Before all of this is spun as me being an Eeyore, the marches and the polls give myself (and I’m sure many others) belief – in people attending marches, speaking at them and Wales as a whole – and it makes the often incredibly difficult work at State of Wales seem worthwhile after all. When I question what the point of it is, I think back to when I was alongside thousands of others in Cardiff in May and draw strength and inspiration from that – and if Plaid don’t drop the ball setting out their plans, I can wind down and retire State of Wales.
The real march remains a long one, but there’s a lot more of us now. Not enough, but getting there – just don’t be suckered into thinking that the end is around the corner.