A postcard from Cardiff: is Welsh independence just a pipe dream?

The 11:53 Arriva Trains Wales service to Cardiff Central is packed. “They should re-nationalise these bloody things”, the elderly gentleman standing across from me mutters. He’s not going to the Rali Annibyniaeth (for those not blessed with a Brythonic tongue, this is Welsh for “Independence Rally”), but his sentiments regarding Wales’ railways are probably shared by nearly all of the attendees at the rally. The cause of Welsh independence is an overwhelmingly left-wing one – as is made perfectly clear to me when I find myself stood behind behind an man wearing a Che Guevara style beret that bears badges proclaiming “Free Palestine”, and “Say No to Austerity”.

Organised by YesCymru, the rally is, according to its website, a response to “the climate of uncertainty created by [Brexit]”. Indeed, advocates of Welsh independence now believe that the vote to leave the European Union has unleashed political forces which will lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom.

Upon first arriving at the rally, I cannot help but think this aim is very optimistic. Most of the people mulling around the Hayes part of the city centre are there for celebrations commemorating the centenary of the birth of renowned children’s author, Roald Dahl. In contrast, the number of people at the Rali does not exceed 200. Compare that to Scotland, where 2,500 pro-independence campaigners marched through Glasgow in July, and you realise just how fringe independence still is within Welsh political discourse.

But there are signs – albeit small signs – that attitudes towards independence could be about to change. Three years ago, just 10 percent of respondents to an ITV Wales/YouGov survey stated they were in favour of independence. That figure has almost tripled. The key explanatory factor for this trend is Brexit – a point repeatedly made by Gwynoro Jones to Rali attendees. “There is”, the ex-Labour and SDP MP warns them, “[a] high danger Wales will become an annexe of England”. Yet 52 percent of Wales voted Leave, a figure almost identical to England’s – hardly evidence of the distinctively ‘Welsh’ political culture that Jones yearns for.

Not that the crowd care for such minutiae. Why should they? They are here to show their support for an independent Wales, and to vent their ire at the Westminster bogeyman. For Sandra Clubb, this word is synonymous with austerity economics; bedroom taxes, and zero-hours contracts. Each time it is mentioned, she has to pause to allow for the lengthy bout of applause that breaks out. When one looks at the speeches of Jones and Clubb together, an interesting paradox opens up. While Wales’ political preferences are similar to those of England, there is apathy towards centralised control.

The issue, however, is that supporters of Welsh independence often misdiagnose the source of the problems Wales faces as being solely the fault of England and, more specifically, Westminster. In actual fact, these are less the consequence of structural factors than they are failures in governance. Welsh Labour has been in power in Cardiff Bay since 1999. During that time, the gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of GDP per head has widened. In some areas of the Welsh Valleys like Merthyr, the average male life expectancy is below 60 – less than Iraq. Clearly, the likes of Clubb are right to rail against the level of deprivation and poverty that exist in Wales today – but there is either an unwillingness to apportion blame closer to home. Or maybe it is just a psychological comfort to be able to rail against, as one man I spoke to did, “that Westminister bullshit”.

As Neil McEvoy, the erstwhile Plaid Cymru AM starts speaking, my Westminster-hating interviewee indicates that he wants to get closer to the stage. Walking towards the front, his giant flag of Saint David gently sways behind him. My next interviewee is an old woman. “Of course we’ll see independence in your lifetime”, she says pointing at me. “It’s all about belief”.

Belief is something McEvoy possesses in spades. Ebulliently talking about the Welsh national football team and Owain Glyndwr, he cites them as being analogous to the goal of independence, eliciting a loud roar from the crowd. A coherent vision as to what an independent Wales would look like, this is not. However, McEvoy is visibly energised by the populism of his message – that of the need to combat “British nationalism in all its forms”, he tells the crowd, his voice cracking slightly with emotion.

“He’s very good, isn’t he?”, a woman stood by me says to her friend, both of whom I find out come from the Pontcanna, an affluent suburb just outside Cardiff. This is arguably symptomatic how the demography of the Welsh independence movement is holding it back. Support tends to either come from the affluent Welsh-speaking middle-classes, or the disadvantaged. The lack of young adults at the rally is very noticeable. As for political attitudes, no-one I spoke to belonged to a party further right than the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps this is where Welsh independence will fall down. It is currently too vague, and mired in left-wing thinking to have appeal across class and party lines.Yet irrespective of what one thinks of the goal of Welsh independence, you cannot help but admire its supporters’ doggedness. Fighting against the strains of music coming from the Roald Dahl celebrations. the crowd manages to perform a loud Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau to end the rally. Then, it is back to reality.

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