An Introduction to YesCymru : A Viable Path to Welsh Independence?
"Being Welsh is about what is in the heart." - Rhydian Hughes, YesCymru
I met Rhydian Hughes in Betws y Coed on a damp, late summer evening. He is an immediately impressive character, the sort of man who has thought his ideas through in detail and can express them with infectious enthusiasm. It is not hard to see why he was voted Vice Chair of YesCymru, Wales' new non-partisan independence movement. He was happy to be interviewed, welcoming the opportunity to lay out his organisation's aims and principles. He started at the beginning, explaining how YesCymru had formed, and how he became engaged with it:
RH : "I came across YesCymru in 2014. It was an organisation established by a group of Welsh people - mostly from South Wales at that point. It existed to support the YesScotland campaign for Scottish independence, to show solidarity. There was a rally planned in Cardiff, and they needed practical help, so I got involved. In the end 1,500 people attended that rally."
"After the Scottish Referendum the organisation, as far as I was concerned, had done its job. But it evolved very quickly into something else, and it started to look at the situation in Wales - politically, socially and culturally. We have been part of the UK for such a long time - we are the fourth poorest country in the UK, and the Assembly, with its limited powers on tax and spending, hasn't been able to fix that."
"In 2015 I went to the AGM, and was elected to the committee. We then took time to look in detail at the state of Wales. What we saw is a country with a deficit in its governance. There needs to be change. To have independence - so we can properly address the real issues we face, to make laws specific to Wales, to govern ourselves, and to have self-determination."
FtM : "You seem to be gathering support, the idea has more currency - why do you think this is?":
RH : "Up until now people have seen nationalism as linguistically rooted - but our movement has people from Polish, Indian, Pakistani, and English backgrounds; it is an open church and an open house."
"We have no barriers or divisions, and no extraneous policies. We have a clear idea for people to rally to. YesCymru is a platform that enables anyone to be proud to support independence."
FtM : "Why did this energy not just flow into Plaid Cymru?":
RH : "We were always an open, cross party group from the outset - we have people from the Conservatives, Labour, Plaid, and people new to politics. We need that breadth of support, and we need it to have the ability to be bold and brave in answering the difficult questions Wales faces. That is why we exist."
In forming their ideas YesCymru have taken detailed note of research done by Adam Price (Plaid AM for Carmarthen), who wrote an influential report, The Flotilla Effect, on the economic strength of small countries' economies, but it is one source amongst many. It is very clear YesCymru's membership does come from across the board, as Rhydian stressed:
RH : "Our support is from individual people, not parties, and across the spectrum. We have, for example, individual Labour members as backers - and there is now a 'Labour for Independence' group."
The economics is vital to the case for independence. This is underlined in YesCymru's 'Independence in Your Pocket' (PDF) guide. To illustrate his positive viewpoint Rhydian talked about the Polish, Czech and Slovakian economies, and how they changed after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He then empathically highlighted a disparity nearer to home:
RH : "We must look at The Republic of Ireland - their GDP per head is 50,000 Euros as against 23,000 Euros in Wales. So much would need to change, but we could generate that level of prosperity."
Amidst all the work to formulate their arguments and case, the most important action YesCymru have yet taken is to define the level of support for independence with an authoritative YouGov opinion poll.
When asked about it Rhydian spelt out the results and implications in detail, using the poll's data tables to illustrate each point:
RH : "The poll was done before the general election this year. We asked people the question in different circumstances - depending on how the Conservatives did. We also allowed people to rate their position on scale of 1-10, rather than just yes/no - so 6 and above is taken as supportive. 1,000 people were asked by YouGov. Rather than the 6% figure often found in the past we got up to a level of 36% support in some situations, and a very solid 26% as a baseline."
"Looking at political party loyalty - support for independence is much higher amongst Labour, Liberal and Plaid Cymru voters; higher amongst remain voters, and amongst Welsh speakers. It is also much higher amongst young people."
"Older people have a more entrenched 'British' outlook. When you debate with them - they have hard-core, resistant, beliefs - open discussion is more difficult. That is where we have most work to do."
"What is important to us overall is that the poll shows in Wales the level of support seen in Scotland just before their independence campaign started."
YesCymru has a large number of local groups that have spontaneously arisen in towns and communities across the country. Looking at the new North Wales groups you can see there is rapid growth in interest in the organisation, coupled with a willingness to be active to support it. This quickly directed energy reinforces the sense of potential found by YouGov.
Having explained the poll, Rhydian was equally emphatic dealing with the preconceptions that have pegged nationalism into a narrow space in the past:
RH : "We are called YesCymru as we want no division on language. It is the issue that has kept nationalism back - my first language is Welsh, and I know as much as anyone that it is not enough to gather support on that basis, it is not enough for Wales. You can speak any language - being Welsh is about what is in the heart, diversity is vital to us - and that is what is exciting. There are no barriers."
FtM : "At the outset YesCymru was inspired by what was happening in Scotland, is a similar referendum your aim?":
RH : "Yes - we want two things. A Welsh independence referendum, and to change politics in Wales. We are not a political party, we are a movement of people from different backgrounds - we want more effective independent Welsh government, and more control locally for people. An independence referendum is the key step."
As a cross party, inclusive movement from their very moment of formation, YesCymru have sidestepped many of the past barriers hampering nationalism, and gained a sudden momentum. Their YouGov opinion poll proves that self-determination is not a cut and dried yes/no question; there is a groundswell of as yet soft support for Welsh independence, especially amongst young people.
The detail of their opinion poll indicates that the level of support for independence varies with context (it increases, for example, if the question is framed as being asked with a majority Tory government in Westminster); and there is a hell of a lot of shifting context coming down the line at the United Kingdom in the next five years.
The economics, in the short term, are contestable if you just take the current situation exactly as is and extrapolate. The small nations that YesCymru look to as examples of the dividend independence can bring all demonstrate strong growth and develop, once the harness of external control is removed. The question itself is also much more than economic - the sheer emotional charge of the idea, and its potential for forging real change, can compress doubts like placing a rusted Soviet-era Lada in a top of the range car crusher.
YesCymru have taken on a far-reaching task - the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, despite the result, overturned decades of entrenched party loyalties and had seismic, transformational political consequences; you would expect a serious Welsh independence referendum campaign to have no less of an impact. YesCymru see their work as a long term project that must be tackled with a determined, non-partisan, grassroots approach and thoughtful strategy; undeniably they already have a real impetus.
To find out more about YesCymru - visit their website.