Referendums are the flavour of the month, or rather the millennium.
Since New Labour’s 1997 Referendums on devolution for both Wales and Scotland we’ve seen a number of other referendums come along.
It seems that the powers that be haven’t come up with a better way of determining the will of a group of people on a single matter other than by holding a referendum.
If Wales is to gain independence by political means then it’s likely to come via a referendum.
So, we need to start learning lessons from some of them.
This article in the Guardian by Ignasi Bernat, a Catalan Social Movement Activist, reminded me of something that’s been playing on my mind since the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. Indeed, the similarities between both the Scottish and Catalan Referendums, or more accurately the Yes Campaigns of both referendums, are striking.
“This is not a struggle for “nation” or flag, it is part of something much more fundamental…”
This brought to mind what a young activist told me in Scotland in the week leading up to their Independence referendum.
“This isn’t about Nationalism. This is about the people and our rights”,
said Amble Skuse, as we sat down for a meal to discuss the campaign in Edinburgh.
This echoed what the campaign group Radical Independence were also saying on the streets of Edinburgh in the days leading up to the Scottish Referendum.
And Ignasi, Skuse and Radical Independence are all correct. The right to self-determination, as enshrined in the United Nations, is about democracy, and people’s right to have their voices heard, and the people’s right to create their own futures.
Every true democrat should support the right of a people to choose whether or not to govern themselves.
A new country
Moreover, it’s a popular revolt of the people. This is a genuine attempt by the Catalan people to bring in a new form of Government; to mould a new country with progressive ideas, as was the case in Scotland in 2014.
Which is why it’s so difficult to understand why mainstream so-called left-wing political parties here are so opposed to Scottish, Welsh or even Catalan independence. It’s an opportunity to create a new, progressive, country. These smaller countries that have been under the yoke of colonial masters for so long have seen the damage that centralised, market driven politics does, and want to break free from such politics.
“In other words, participatory democracy is not a result of the referendum, but is the result of a long-term project for social transformation that seeks, in the words of one woman we met in a polling station in Poble Sec, “to sweep away capitalism and patriarchy”,
This, again, reminds us of the Scottish experience.
Most of us will have watched the Scottish uprising from afar. For those of us who followed the Yes Campaign, you could not have helped but notice the plurality of organisations that played a part in the campaign. There was the RIC (Radical Independence Campaign), Common Weal, Business for Scotland, National Collective, Women for Independence, and a plethora of other groups. These were, by and large, genuine groups of people representing ordinary people.
Bernat hints at something similar in Catalunya,
“The committees to defend the referendum that took to the barricades in more than 2,000 polling stations came from neighbourhoods that have been developing new strategies of political and economic solidarity for years.”
They were and are popular movements.
In Scotland, in particular, the Independence movement has flourished since the referendum was called. Previous to the SNP’s 2007 election victory, and their promise to hold an independence referendum, Independence seemed a distant prospect. Their eggs were all in the SNP basket.
It was the SNP, a political party, which ensured that the flame kept burning.
Things were so different in Wales. Here, largely because of questions around the rights of Welsh language speakers, there seemed to be a genuine movement which was part of the wider global civil rights movement.
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) came to prominence; Merched y Wawr and the FUW (Farmers Union of Wales) were established as uniquely Welsh organisations catering for the needs of Wales; Adfer started to gain traction. The National Movement in Wales was in a very healthy position.
However, in a reversal of fortunes, while the National Movement in Scotland has flourished in recent years, in Wales it has become over dependent on one political party, Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales.
The reasons for this are numerous – too numerous to discuss here. That maybe a subject for another piece sometime. However, the fact remains that the Welsh National Movement had, until recently at least, stalled.
One political party cannot be expected to deliver the demands of a national movement.
Firstly, that’s not how party politics works.
A politician or a political party can exert some influence from the outside. The increasing threat of Plaid Cymru was enough to force the creation of the Welsh Office in 1965. Gwynfor Evans’ 1966 Carmarthen by-election victory (and the huge increases the party saw following this historical victory: Rhondda 1967, from 8.7% to 39.9%; Caerphilly 1968 from 14.6% to 40.4%) and Winnie Ewing’s momentous Hamilton victory for the SNP in the following year was enough to force the English Government of the day to establish a Royal Commission, the Kilbrandon Commission, to look at the Constitution, which in turn lead to the referendums of 1979.
These changes were achieved over a period of 54 years. Contrast this with what the Attlee Government achieved in 1945-51.
These successes are exceptions rather than the rule. A party in Government can achieve far, far more in one term than it can achieve over a century in opposition. Never forget that when Plaid Cymru got into power (albeit as a junior partner to Labour 2007-11), they delivered a successful referendum on greater powers to the National Assembly with a much healthier majority in its favour.
This is why political parties respond to public demand and put much more effort into securing some things rather than others, because they want and need to be in power in order to deliver on their promises.
If there’s no perceived appetite for a specific policy, then don’t expect to see it appear on a party’s manifesto any time soon.
Which is why a project as monumental and revolutionary as Welsh independence must, MUST be a grassroots movement.
Incidentally, I won’t apologise for using the term Revolutionary. Tearing down the established order, and one of the most corrupt post-imperial States while creating a new order is nothing if not revolutionary.
Scotland’s campaign has blossomed from being over dependent on a single political party through most of the last century to being a vibrant radical movement. While conversely in Wales, with the advent of devolution, the once energetic National Movement withered and the campaign for independence became far too focussed on one political party, Plaid Cymru.
YesCymru has given the National Movement a huge shot in the arm. It’s exactly what Wales needed. Its existence and presence on our high streets and in the media forces the issue of Welsh Independence back on the agenda. Its ambition to talk to 10,000 young people is truly brilliant.
It has also given Plaid Cymru and her elected representatives’ greater confidence to discuss independence publicly, and has also allowed those members within the Labour party to establish Labour for Independence, the significance of which cannot be underestimated.
But we should not expect YesCymru to carry the flame. We need a broad coalition of Independence supporters to be able to call ourselves a true National Movement once again.
We need our own Business for Wales, Farmers for Independence, Lawyers for Yes, Women for Independence, Welsh Radical Independence Campaign, etc. We need our own Independence Convention to coordinate them and prepare for the referendum that will eventually come.
But our first demand as a movement must be to insist that the people of Wales are sovereign and will hold the ultimate power in our hands for one day – referendum day. Like a good Hollywood blockbuster, give us just 24 hours, and we can save the day!
We need a commitment that a Welsh Government will hold a referendum on Welsh Independence. That Government doesn’t have to be for Independence itself (though it would help).
Brexit didn’t come about because a group of zealots demanded that the UK pull out of the EU. It came about because the idea of having a referendum on the issue became main-stream. Even the Liberal Democrats, the arch-Remainers, argued for a referendum on the matter.
Getting behind the demands for a referendum is far more palatable for a political party than supporting independence.
The broad independence movement can build the case for independence on the ground, while insisting that political parties sign up to pledging that they will hold a referendum on Welsh Independence.
No political party who truly believes in democracy should refuse such a demand.
As Carles Puigdemont said,
“we’re playing with much more than our personal futures: we’re playing with democracy itself.”