A poll conducted by YouGov in June 2020 found that if a referendum were to be conducted tomorrow, over 25% of Welsh adults would support making Wales an independent state. Although this is not a huge difference from the YouGov poll conducted in January 2020, the four-point rise in support of Welsh independence is certainly significant. It is the highest level of support ever shown on a Welsh political barometer poll. Although ideas of independence are still only supported by a minority in Wales, it is a minority that will only continue to grow. Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price believes this demonstrates that Welsh independence has been pushed into mainstream politics. Social media has had a lot to do with this by creating a space for open discussion that isn’t dominated by partisanship or the politics of the Union. It has bridged the generational divide, putting Welsh independence firmly back on the agenda.
Not a recent movement
Welsh independence—and its ties to Welsh nationalism— is certainly not a new movement, having begun in the mid-nineteenth century. Although the first Welsh political party, Plaid Cymru, was founded in 1925, it was not until the 1960s that the party was able to make any electoral breakthroughs. A large part of this was through local grievances with Labour politics under the Wilson leadership in coal mining communities. Even though this demonstrated some progress towards a growing independence movement, the Welsh Devolution Referendum of 1979 illustrated how little support there really was for a devolved government in Wales —let alone a fully independent nation.
Despite the fringes of Welsh independence being tentatively approached, there was still a long way to go. The radical actions of Welsh nationalist group Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (MAC), highlighted growing anger at the actions of the UK government. The flooding of the Afon Tryweryn valley to provide water to Liverpool was an example of such actions, but this anger was felt by only a fraction of the Welsh population. So what was it that led to the support for a devolved government in Wales in 1997, when only 18 years earlier, the first referendum was viewed as a resounding defeat for the Welsh independence movement?
The road to devolution
In the years between the two devolution referendums, the UK was governed by the Conservative Party under Thatcher and Major. A party and government that was completely pro-Unionist and anti-devolution only held 11 /36 seats in Wales in 1983. However, when Tony Blair’s Labour party won the 1997 general election with a landslide victory, he had promised strong devolution to Wales and Scotland. The referendum held later the same year produced a majority vote in support of devolution of powers to a new Welsh Parliament.
Alongside new devolved political powers, the creation of an alternative media channel to voice not only the news and politics of Wales but also content for the Welsh language and culture had a significant impact on attitudes towards devolution. Following Gwynfor Evans’s successful campaign in 1982 to hold the Conservative government accountable for promising to create a Welsh language channel, S4C was established. At first a bilingual channel, S4C was able to break out from the Anglicised portrayal of politics that had dominated the media of the Union for so long. S4C allowed for a greater portrayal of Welsh ideas. Without the creation of this Welsh language channel, Wales would not have had such a strong voice in the years since its creation.
Certainly, in the face of 18 years of anti-devolutionist leadership, a media source focusing solely on Welsh issues had a phenomenal impact on the attitudes of the Welsh public on issues like devolution and independence, allowing for the landmark passing of the Government of Wales Act 1998. Although there are other influencing factors that increased support for devolution, such as the growing discontent with economic restructuring, the success of S4C was significant. Having an outlet other than the traditional media allowed Welsh issues to be viewed through a lens not overshadowed by notions of Anglicisation. Creating this platform dedicated to Welsh affairs almost certainly encouraged support for devolution and possibly independence.
From S4C to social media
It’s fair to say that since the creation of the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) in 1999, the world has been stormed by a new form of communication – social media. Whether it’s uploading pictures onto Instagram or voicing an opinion on Twitter, social media has become an almost inescapable part of our daily lives. The post-devolution Welsh independence movement has certainly adapted to this change. Young people are now at the forefront of the independence movement on social media. ‘ YesCymru’, a non-partisan organisation calling for an independent Wales, has over 6000 followers on Twitter – only 2000 less than the official party of Wales, Plaid Cymru.
How these organisations have utilised sources of alternative media is highly significant. S4C has been frequently criticised for its low viewing figures in recent years and in 2019, viewing figures declined by 14% in Wales. The secret to the growing support for Welsh independence lies in social media. Through platforms such as Twitter, a new wave of activism and open dialogue can take place surrounding the independence movement – and it’s able to reach an even bigger audience. Twitter has over 13.7 million registered users in the UK and faced with the decline of traditional media, social media will continue to increase awareness and engagement with the Welsh independence movement among the public.
To understand whether social media has had a significant impact on the Welsh independence movement, I spoke to Joseff Jones. Despite growing up in a heavily Anglicised area of Wales and previously conforming to a UK-centric version of politics, Joseff is now a student who volunteers with YesCymru to campaign for an independent Wales.
In conversation with Joseff, he spoke about the power of social media and the effect he believes it’s had on the independence movement. Joseff passionately believes that social media is a platform that rebels against the traditionally Anglicised media in the UK, allowing for a growing campaign of activism in Wales. Certainly, it has had a tremendous impact. In the words of Joseff, we are infatuated by social media in our everyday lives. This alternative media, by being able to reach people in a way that traditional media couldn’t quite manage, can have a particularly powerful effect. If we understand how populist parties such as UKIP are able to garner so much success from using alternative media to promote their agenda, we can understand how the independence movement—although not necessarily party-affiliated—has also been able to use social media effectively. Information and education regarding Welsh independence is now more accessible than ever.
However, one particularly unusual form of alternative media stands out to me – memes. The meme page ‘Welsh Independence Memes for Angry Welsh teens‘ has gathered nearly 27,000 followers on Facebook, approximately two-thirds of the likes of the pro-independence party Plaid Cymru. It’s certainly not the only popular meme page either, with pages such as ‘Fiery Welsh Memes for Feisty Independent Dreams’ also having over 10,000 likes. But why are these pages so popular, and how does this translate into a growing Welsh independence movement?
Welsh independence memes are able to make the case for activism in a way that engages young people unlike anything else. Whether it’s depicting a celebration of the Welsh language; discussing historical inequalities within the union; or simply making the political case for an independent Wales, these pages help to educate and engage young people with a movement in a format that, due to its simplicity, is accessible to all.
Although Welsh independence is a political movement, the omission of party politics on meme pages means that they are not only accessible to young people but to people from across the generations. Plaid Cymru has advocated for Welsh independence since the 1930s and for many older generations, it has been perceived to be the main driver in the campaign for an independent Wales.
For those who felt their political affiliations did not quite align with the values of Plaid Cymru, such as those who disagreed with the community socialism stance of the party under Wigley’s leadership, meme pages have allowed a new space of shared agreement through humour. Many people who may have been unwilling to commit to the movement due to party differences can now recognise that there is a sort of independence activism they can get involved with. The popularity of YesCymru, the non-partisan independence campaign, has demonstrated that without party politics, more people may be enticed towards independence movements. The Merthyr Tydfil rally, organised in support of Welsh independence in September 2019, had over 5300 attendees. Just one example of just how powerful non-party affiliated movements can be. Their impact isn’t just felt on social media, but also translates into live activism.
The 21st century has seen several states gain independence – from South Sudan to Kosovo. With conversations regarding the future of the Union pushed to the forefront of UK politics following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, how likely is Wales be the first UK nation to succeed in independence? It’s far from certain. Increases in polls, such as the 2020 June YouGov Poll, show support for Welsh independence is unquestionably on the rise. One may predict that as a result of growing fractures within the Union, not least in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this will only increase further. If so, to what extent will the rise of social media be a contributing factor? It’s difficult to predict, but it certainly will not hinder a movement that only appears to be growing.