FFor Iestyn ap Rhobert, it was always natural that his native Wales also existed independently of the United Kingdom. “We have all sides of the country,” he says. When the blonde Welsh teacher talks about the imaginary future, he appears assertive and relentless.
Wales would have a seat at the United Nations, its own voice in international politics and its own currency. He believes that “if Wales becomes independent, the fate of the British imperial project will be decided”.
In 2014, Rhobert co-founded the Yes Cymru movement, which fights for the independence of Wales. His model was Yes Scotland, and the original aim was to show solidarity with the Scottish separatists before the independence referendum. Cymru is the Celtic name for Wales. For years the movement has been rather small. Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Yes Cymru only had 2,000 members. Today there are 19,000 – officially making the bipartisan group the second largest political organization in the region after the Welsh Labor Party.
The shocks of Brexit and the Covid pandemic have left the UK feeling less politically united than ever. In Scotland, the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) is now campaigning for a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, a possible reunification with Ireland is being discussed. Even in small Wales, a part of the country with a population of 3.1 million, the relationship with London is increasingly being called into question.
Youth for Independence
In March, 39 percent of Welsh people, especially young people, wanted independence, according to an opinion poll. Since then, the numbers have fallen slightly. But even Mark Drakeford, the ruling Welsh Prime Minister, declared in the spring that “the Federation as is” called for more rights and powers for the Welsh government.
Traditionally, support for independence has been strong especially in North Wales, among people such as Iestyn ap Rhobert who grew up with Welsh as a first language. The most popular in North Wales is the Plaid Cymru party, which supports the country’s independence. But this close association between the idea of independence and language, which does not exist in Scotland, for example, is also doomed to fail. It is considered by many to be the Welsh-speaking party.
Nationalists like Esten want to change that. “Cultural nationalism belongs to the twentieth century,” he says. Wales is inclusive and open to all, not just those who speak Welsh. He wants more people like Lloyd Bingham to get involved in the movement. The 31-year-old translator grew up in an English-speaking family and only learned Welsh at school. His interest in independence was only sparked by Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“The Conservative Party in London is going down a right-wing isolation path and trying to isolate the UK from the international community,” says Bingham. Wales and Scotland should oppose this.
But what makes the Welsh people different from the rest of the United Kingdom if the language is not alone? Robert uses the colonial history of Great Britain to explain this. Wales and Ireland were the first colonies of England. This past still influences politics today. “We want a better society, and we are held back by an old post-colonial empire,” Robert explains. He sees Britain’s exit from the European Union as evidence of this. He and many of his colleagues did not want to call themselves Britons, the term is closely tied to the history of England, and as a Welsh citizen he does not feel included in the term. “For me, British is English,” he says.
Identities are now collective narratives, constructs that change over time. The extent to which they influence voters and politics in Wales can also be seen. As in England, a slim majority of people in Wales voted to leave the European Union.
However, attitudes toward the European Union are closely related to whether people see themselves as Welsh, English or British, a Cardiff University study found. 71 per cent of people who describe themselves as Welsh voted only to remain in the EU. For those who saw themselves as “Welsh and British”, “English and British” or simply English, on the other hand, the majority voted to leave.
Independence supporters want to define being Welsh as something that represents progressive values and openness, as opposed to English nationalism, which they see as a reactionary view. Wales has been systematically deprived and exploited by England since the military conquest 800 years ago, which is the only reason it is considered the poor home of the United Kingdom – this is the narrative of the Welsh nationalists.
The symbol of this is the history of Tryweryn Valley. In 1965, it was flooded with a Welsh village. The reservoir was planned to supply the English city of Liverpool with water. And although all 35 Welsh MPs in the UK Parliament voted against it, they were overruled by English MPs. All over Wales you can see the red and white graffiti “Cofiwch Dryweryn” – Welsh for “Remember Tryweryn”. They appeared everywhere a few years ago and represent the strong national feeling of the Welsh people.
David Ewan also painted drawings on the outside wall of his recording studio. Everyone in Wales knows him. He is a national hero, the Welsh poet of independence. Fifty years ago, the singer painted over British road signs and painted Welsh place names on them. Because he refused to pay the fines, he was imprisoned for several weeks. Ewan grew up near the Trewen Valley.
He remembers how his father went to Liverpool in the 1960s to participate in the flood protests. “Over time, the importance of this event has grown, and it is now greater than ever,” he says today. He was always politically active and was the head of the Plaid Cymru party for seven years.
But he is best known for his songs in the Welsh language – for example satire on Charles, Prince of Wales, or “Yma O Hyd” (I’m Still Here), a song that sounds like the anthem of the Welsh Resistance. At that time I sang about freedom and independence. The Welsh word for ‘independence’ is too long and doesn’t fit the lines of the songs,” he laughs. Evan knows that a lot of people in Wales are more likely to be influenced by the idea of independence for practical reasons. Independence won’t happen overnight. He is convinced ‘but that’s the trend in which the flight is going.
The biggest political opponents of the Blade Cymru Party are currently not British nationalists, but the powerful Labor Party. While in Scotland the SNP sidelined Labor and took the lead on the social democracy agenda, Labor remains the strongest force in Wales. Richard Wayne Jones, a professor at Cardiff University who researches Welsh politics, explains Labor’s success with its “soft nationalism” among other things. “It is never just the Labor Party, it is always the Welsh Labor Party,” he says. “Everyone knows this isn’t Keir Starmer’s party, but Mark Drakeford.”
Drakeford, who has scored political points during the pandemic, is very good at the game. “Working in Scotland was seen as the capital in the region,” Jones says. “Darkford, on the other hand, defends Wales’ interests in London.” However, support for independence in Wales cannot be ignored – around half of Labor voters also consider the idea a good one.
Even if a referendum is not expected in Wales in the coming years, Jones compares Wales from a historical perspective with Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia. The comparison may be a bit exaggerated, but the Montenegrin were also mainly satisfied with their autonomy. But when all other parts of Yugoslavia seceded, they did not want to be left alone with the Serbs. “With Brexit, the growth of Scottish nationalism and the whole situation in Northern Ireland, many here feel that at last we can stay in the union alone with the English!”
This report was created as part of Residenzprogramms (Re-) Collecting Europe Goethe Institute London.