Wexit?: Welsh Independence pledge hangs on the Senedd’s May elections

April 25, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Welsh political party, Plaid Cymru, has pledged to hold an independence referendum within five years if it comes to power in the May elections.

What does this mean?

Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, has been placing independence for Wales at the forefront of the party’s policy since becoming the leader in 2018. Plaid (The Party of Wales in English) is a Welsh nationalist and social democratic party which advocates for independence. The proposal comes within the party’s manifesto, which also puts forward goals of creating 60,000 green jobs, extending free school meals, and establishing an energy development company ensuring 100% of electricity in Wales from renewable sources by 2035.

 Wales has been incorporated into the UK by law through the Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542 after having been conquered by Edward I of England in the 13th century. Whilst Welsh independence as a movement has been active since the mid 19thcentury, it has largely been viewed as an improbability. However, the 2011 Welsh referendum regarding devolved powers from Westminster saw evidence of increased support for and trust in the Welsh Parliament, the Senedd, and support for enhanced devolved powers. Has Welsh political nationalism taken a leap?

What's the big picture effect?

The picture for Plaid and other independentists in Wales is looking a little brighter these days. The independence debate has once again returned following comments from Welsh public figures Charlotte Church and Dragons rugby player Ashton Hewitt. Hewitt made headlines as he pointed to racism and marginalisation he faced whilst growing up in Newport and the Gwent Valleys. The party’s pledge to stamp out racism, improve equality and eradicate social injustices as part of its independence from the UK has been referred to as Hewitt’s “swaying factor” in supporting independence.

Support for independence seems to have grown during the pandemic, with the Welsh population seeing an increasingly public role for its own government. Membership of the pro-independence Yes Cymru movement has also soared during the pandemic from 2,000 at the beginning of 2020 to over 18,000. With health as a devolved power under the Government of Wales Act 1988, the Welsh government has been free to impose its own rules and lockdown restrictions. The policy choices between the two governments saw a significant difference; Welsh restrictions were eased almost a month after those in Britain during the first lockdown from May-June. 

YouGov’s opinion polls, however, show that 53% would vote against Welsh independence, whilst 23% would vote for, and 16% didn’t know. Among the top reasons for independence according to those who would vote “yes” were that “Wales has different social attitudes to the UK”(53%), “Wales is a historically separate nation” (51%), and an “unhappiness with the UK’s pandemic response” (39%).

Whilst three of Welsh Labour’s candidates standing at the election openly support independence, Welsh Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have described the proposal as “dangerous” and “uncertain”, noting that the referendum would be extremely divisive.

It is uncertain what independence would look like for the country. For Yes Cymru, there are two fundamental visions: international recognition through a seat in the United Nations, and its own written constitution. They believe that economic prowess could come as a result of independence, pointing to the example of the Republic of Ireland’s economy, which they state is four times the size of Wales’. There are doubts, however, as some see Wales as too poor to be an independent nation, pointing to the country’s weak tax structure.

An independence referendum would only happen were Plaid Cymru to win the May elections. Currently, the opinion polls show the party winning 23% of votes, behind the Conservatives with 30% and Welsh Labour with 32%. In addition, the power to call for any referendum vote to leave the United Kingdom would lie with the UK government at Westminster. While Welsh independence is finally back on the table, it doesn’t seem to be on the cards.

Report written by Hannah Parker

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