Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Monday that she plans to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence was inevitable after Theresa May refused to discuss full Scottish access to the single market and threatened to restrict new powers for Scotland after Brexit. Downing Street, having decided the British people have had quite enough democracy for the time being, countered that “another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time”.
Leaving aside the heavy irony of the government that gave us Brexit making such a statement, let’s turn our attention to one of the few politicians who welcomed Sturgeon’s comments: Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, who called for a “national debate to explore all of the options, including that of independent Wales”.
Growing up in the constituency of Arfon, the only safe Plaid Cymru seat in the country, I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised by Wood’s seizing of the political moment. As a child I would drive past graffiti that read “FREE WALES” every morning on my way to school, a daily reminder that – as much as Plaid has embraced leftist politics over the last decade or so – the ultimate goal for any Welsh nationalist worth their salt is emancipation from their masters in Westminster.
In my heart, I long for an independent Wales: I want a country that is not shackled to a political system that barely registers its existence, and indeed an English left that pays it little attention, except to treat it as voting fodder or to express exasperation when it hasn’t voted in a way that holds the rest of the UK back from its most rightwing urges. Wales has been marginalised and even humiliated by Westminster politics, and it deserves better. In turn, Westminster deserves to be rejected by the Welsh.
In practical terms though, the issue of independence is a thorny one. For a start, it doesn’t have the support of the majority of Welsh people. After the Scottish referendum, the figure was as low as 3%. Following Brexit, support soared to 28%, but the majority would still prefer to be part of the UK. Then there’s the economics. A 2016 report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that a quarter of people in Wales were struggling to make ends meet and poverty was costing the country £3.6bn a year. The main problem here is jobs: in September 2016 about 17% of part-time workers wanted but couldn’t get full-time jobs, and in Blaenau Gwent, the number of jobs per head is half the average for Britain. As a result of Brexit, Wales will be stripped of its EU structural funding (it is, by some margin, the UK region that receives the most), and this will most likely plunge the country into further economic hardship. Could Wales survive on its own?
Wood’s call for a conversation about Welsh nationhood is both necessary and timely
Regardless, Wood’s call for a conversation about Welsh nationhood is both necessary and timely. The fact is there is simply no national public discourse in Wales. Yes, we talk about language, history and culture, but we have yet to hold the existential conversation we need about our relationship to the rest of Britain, or what our political priorities are as a self-contained nation. Indeed, most Welsh people don’t even know which issues are uniquely relevant to their own country. Following Brexit, I spoke to Daniel Evans of the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, who said: “Hardly any of the people we spoke to in our research knew anything about the EU dividend to Wales or the implications of Brexit for Wales. Instead they focused primarily on British issues such as immigration. This reflects the diet of media in Wales, which is the same as England. Scotland of course has its own media, a leftwing party in charge, and revived engagement in politics since the independence referendum.”
It’s clear that Wales’s current status as an extension of England is failing the country and its people. The fact that so much of the nation remains in poverty is a reflection of the total abandonment of Wales by national media and politics, and this needs to change urgently. One might even say we need to take back control. Plaid Cymru’s call for a conversation about Welsh independence might be unrealistic at this stage; it might scare the bejezus out of union-loving Tories and a complacent Labour party that expects Wales to go on voting for it forever, but it is nonetheless essential. And if politicians are anxious about the prospect of the Welsh voting themselves out of the United Kingdom, they had better offer some damn good reasons to stay – reasons, which, so far have been sorely lacking.