Wales is an often neglected entity of the United Kingdom. Scotland, with the very real possibility of it leaving the union in the foreseeable future, dominates the debate around constitutional change. Northern Ireland and its vital part in the Good Friday Agreement and Irish peace, was the focus of much attention during the Brexit debate. The same cannot be said for England’s long-time awkward partner, Wales.
Elections to the UK’s devolved parliaments that take place every five years in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have grown in their political importance over the last two decades. These bodies hold significant powers, namely regarding health, education and social security, and as such a large degree of policy is determined not at Westminster, but in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Policy differences as a result of devolution have been evident throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Where the UK government stopped daily briefings, Nicola Sturgeon has continued them. Wales entered a two week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown well before the same decision was made for England. Northern Ireland opted to go into a full autumn lockdown in addition.
However, given the dominance of Scotland in salient political debate, the neglect of Wales applies to cultural issues in its status as a country and in the significance of its elections to the Welsh Assembly. Legally, England and Wales are largely considered one jurisdiction, adding to the sense that in contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland, the concept of Welsh independence is viewed with less seriousness than other UK nations, much to the consternation of Plaid Cymru, The Party of Wales.
The case for independence.
‘Plaid’, as it is often known, has fought for Welsh independence ever since its foundation in 1925. Whilst the party has evidently not been successful in its core aim, it has spent nearly a century championing issues of Welsh socio-cultural significance, and in the post-war era moved toward exploring economic policy issues also. A key pledge of Plaid’s is to preserve the Welsh language and as such, following the winning of their first House of Commons seat in 1966, it helped to introduce a Welsh television channel in 1982 and ensure the Welsh Language Act 1993 was passed.
Wales has always been seen as a country of the Labour Party. They have won the Welsh Assembly elections on every occasion since they were first held in 1999. That Plaid Cymru have never won any more than four seats in a general election and haven’t been able to use the devolved parliament as a powerhouse for furthering independence, suggests their success has been limited.
Being a party avowedly on the left throws up a number of issues for Plaid. Firstly, as in Scotland, it means that votes for left-wing parties are split, and Labour – being a party of national significance – are better able to assemble a broad coalition of left wing voters in Wales. In addition, the party’s social and economic policy perspectives potentially deter voters of a conservative leaning from lending them their vote, even if they are supporters of Welsh independence.
The core argument made for the Welsh breaking away from the union is that Westminster fails to represent the interests of Wales. Electing only 40 out of 650 MPs – 6% of the total – they clearly have a smaller voice in the Commons than they would in a legislature that was fully sovereign and devoted only to Wales. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru argues there is nothing wrong with being a small nation, as there are 18 independent nations in Europe with a smaller population than Wales, including Iceland and the Republic of Ireland.
If a nation is to properly run itself, Plaid Cymru would argue, it must have full powers over taxation; this is how it raises and spends public funds. However, the Welsh Assembly under current law is only able to limit taxes by to a certain degree with UK government consent. Proponents of independence would therefore argue only a full breakaway that allows Wales to shape its economic future, hold full constitutional control, and protect its cultural heritage can be the answer.
Plaid’s performance at last year’s general election was hardly something to celebrate. Though holding their four seats, they failed to finish second in any Welsh constituency, which doesn’t inspire confidence for next year’s Assembly elections. Their result will have been affected by the Conservatives gaining six seats in Wales and performing immensely well across the UK. Similarly, the impact of Brexit, to which Plaid Cymru were opposed, may have hampered their chances in a country desperate for the Brexit divisions to be over.
Whether examined from a distance or up close, there appears no real support for independence outside Plaid Cymru. Sir Keir Starmer has stated that Labour will campaign against both Scottish and Welsh independence and the Liberal Democrats have ruled out support for Welsh independence. A party was even established to Abolish the Welsh Assembly, suggesting there is a proportion of Welsh society opposed to devolution. Polling from March 2013 shows 10% supported independence compared to 62% opposed. In October 2020, there was a 30% lead for those opposed to independence. By contrast to Scotland, those in Wales clearly feel independence wouldn’t offer anything new that can’t be provided as part of the UK.
A leader defines a party’s success or failure. Newly elected Keir Starmer has been viewed by some as authoritative because of his willingness to deal with anti-Semitism, for instance. Leanne Wood, who served as Plaid Cymru leader for six years, gained much traction and attention through national TV debates, however, this didn’t help her party electorally. The same could be said for Adam Price.
His electoral performance at Westminster hasn’t gone to plan. Plaid Cymru’s vote in 2019 decreased in the valleys and places like the Rhondda. Though the SNP used to hold only six seats before making their breakthrough at Westminster in 2015, they had the secure base of being in second place for many constituencies beforehand. Plaid Cymru does not enjoy that same protection.
Supporters of independence do have some cause for optimism. That Welsh independence is even being discussed beyond the fringes of Plaid Cymru demonstrates that it is an issue that holds far more political traction than many first assume. Furthermore, Adam Price is argued to have performed well in the TV debates in which he took part, even if these didn’t translate into his desired number of seats.
Price is known for being a radical leader. With oratory skills and an enthusiasm for big ideas, he challenges the conventional wisdom that Labour has always been the party of Wales and that Wales will always remain a part of the United Kingdom. A vehement opponent of the war in Iraq, he attempted to impeach Tony Blair in 2004 and was ejected from the Commons in 2005 for accusing Blair of misleading Parliament.
All of the devolved elections next year will be defined by coronavirus, and Price believes Wales should more often act independently from the rest of the UK and be willing to take different decisions to contain the virus. This is the issue that Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, will face most scrutiny over, however, a change of government may seem undesirable to voters during a pandemic.
Not willing to accept a coalition with the Conservatives or enter a junior position under a Labour government, it is clear a majority in the Welsh elections is the only option for Plaid Cymru to be successful.
As a child, Adam Price told the then prime minister Jim Callaghan he wanted to be prime minister of Wales one day. Next May, Price – as an adult – will learn whether that dream remains a fantasy or becomes reality.