Back in September, a remarkable thing happened; around 5000 people marched through Merthyr Tydfil – a historic Labour safe seat – calling for Welsh independence. With the appetite for sovereignty growing across the country, the way the party and the wider left choose to engage with the issue will determine their place in Welsh politics.
Aside from being my hometown, Merthyr Tydfil is also a famed post-industrial seat in the heart of the Welsh valleys, former seat of Labour party founder Keir Hardie and home of mass immigration during the industrial revolution. Through the work of Hardie, Merthyr became known as a seat at the heart of the labour movement. It was when he was MP that trade unionists and socialist groups agreed to come together to form the Labour Representation Committee – the current Labour party.
Though Hardie himself was in favour of ‘home rule’, the party has (of late) tended to steer away from conversations about independence, seeing this as the function of pro-independence party Plaid Cymru. Welsh Labour placed itself as a party of devolution, but a strictly unionist party. Any discussion of independence has been treated as the domain of “nationalists” and thereby a discussion for Plaid, not Labour.
So, when an independence rally was called by Welsh independence campaign group Yes Cymru, to be held in Merthyr, I understood the significance. On the day of the demonstration I caught the Cardiff-Merthyr train and was shocked by just how busy it was. Every station on the line was rammed with people wearing red, holding “Yes Cymru” signs.
Arriving in Merthyr, I was greeted by a phone call from my grandfather – a communist who was chair of the local constituency Labour party (CLP) in the 1970s and hated by most of the members for being too left-wing. “Are you here? Are you on this march?” he asked, “Get here quick, it’s huge!”
Scotland and beyond.
Conversations around Welsh independence – as in Scotland – typically lead to debates within the left about whether such movements are merely nationalist. But looking to the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign shows how reductive such a criticism ultimately is.
Having lived in Scotland during the independence referendum and seen the subsequent decimation of the Scottish Labour party (who campaigned with Better Together in a strange unionist coalition with the Tories), it seems wise that independence is an issue with which Welsh Labour wants to engage.
In Scotland, Labour is currently in a shambolic third place. In the wake of the 2015 general election, the party emerged with just one seat; the Scottish Nationalist party (SNP), on the other hand, won 56. This pattern continued in the subsequent 2017 general election in which Labour did only marginally better, picking up a meagre six seats – a surprising result given that the election was held in the peak of the Corbyn surge. Now, Scotland returns only one Labour seat to Westminster.
Currently, the Welsh Labour party is hesitant to engage with the conversation around independence, yet there are many members (and elected officials) who, in private, say that independence needs to be taken seriously. Publicly, however, those members tend to shy away from approaching the topic through fear of fanning the flames of an anti-socialist nationalism.
Another Wales is possible.
Back in 2014, the most important issues a country faces – sovereignty, workers’ rights, the constitution, wealth distribution – were being debated the length and breadth of Scotland, as people boldly reimagined what their country could look like. Now, in Wales there is a similar opportunity.
The historical basis of nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales is undeniably different, but given the current climate of national politics it’s no surprise that we are seeing an insurgent independence movement replicated in Wales. The march I went to in Merthyr was not a one-off event, but part of a growing trend across the country. Back in May, around 2,000 people marched in Cardiff and then in July another 8,000 people marched in Caernarfon. And there are more to come too, with upcoming marches in Wrexham, Tredegar and Swansea.
For further context, Welsh news service Nation Cymru reported that Plaid Cymru’s membership increased by 25% after the election of new leader Adam Price, who beat out famed socialist leader Leanne Wood, pushing the party towards the centre in the process. As a result, it is therefore vital that Labour take a proactive stance in pushing the conversation leftward.
In September, a YouGov poll (of 1039 people) showed that 24% of people would vote for Welsh independence – up from 8% on the last Sky poll the previous December. Of that figure, 44% of Labour voters said they would vote in favour of Welsh independence – a figure significantly higher than expected and one Labour needs to take seriously.
It is clear that the movement is growing and therefore vital that Labour face the issue head-on, embracing the opportunity to push the conversation around independence leftward.
And there’s a precedent for this. Just look at the work done by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in Scotland. RIC was vital in rallying against an independent Scotland that would extend austerity politics, arguing against trident and the continuation of colonial wars.
Devolution is not enough.
In Wales we have had a Labour government since devolution in 1999. In that time, we have seen vast swathes of progressive legislation: free prescriptions, the Future Generations Act and the introduction of the ground-breaking Social Partnership Act. In spite of all this we are trapped by endless conservative governments in Westminster and an archaic state apparatus of lords, monarchs, austerity politics, devolved austerity budgets and rejections of attempts to further devolve powers.
Wales has the weakest devolution settlement in the UK – with little tax raising powers – and some of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. In May 2019, BBC Wales reported that “29.3% of children were in poverty in 2017-18” and that “the Welsh Government blamed policies set by the UK government”. There is little the Welsh government can do without full tax raising powers, which we are continually denied.
Wales’ first minister, Mark Drakeford, himself has said that the country’s support for the union is “not unconditional”. Indeed, if the Welsh government continues to be forced to enact Tory austerity, despite the majority of the country voting Labour, then the union’s fairness must be called into question.
And what’s more, if the next leader of the Labour party fails to put Wales on the agenda then we will likely see an increased scepticism towards not only the union but the party itself. Plaid would do well to sweep in and take Labour members by pitching themselves as the most left-wing voice in Wales – just as the SNP has gutted Scottish Labour of it’s progressive members, Plaid could do the same.
Since the election result, we have seen Welsh campaign group Labour For Indy Wales’ membership increase as the idea of independence becomes less and less radical. Members from across the party, who would have previously been sceptical of independence, are now asking how they can get involved in the campaign.
The Welsh independence movement is faced with an incredible opportunity to reimagine the country – a chance to challenge the constitution arrangement and some of the most regressive forces of the British state. A socialist Wales is possible. If Labour and the wider left don’t take that seriously, they risk conceding major ground to the right.
Harriet Protheroe Davis is a trade union organiser for Wales and the South West. She is the founder of Wales.Pol, a new media outlet and podcast for Wales.