Those of us who‘ve been advocating an independent Wales will be fed up to the back teeth of the constant arguments put forward by Unionists that Wales cannot afford Independence; that we’re too poor; and we don’t have the resources. Some will say that we might once have been able to succeed because of our Industrial might – Coal, Steel, Copper, Slate – but that we don’t have sufficient natural resources to succeed today, yadda yadda yadda.
Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales, the only political party which believes in an Independent Wales has been reluctant to promote Independence because of Wales’ comparative economic weakness, believing that we need to win the economic argument before we can win the independence argument.
This was also true in Scotland, where the Scots, like the Welsh, were told time and again that they couldn’t afford independence.
This is why this website has, so far, largely concentrated on the economic arguments – with more articles and essays dedicated to the Welsh economy than anything else.
Too poor, too small
The economics of independence is the frontline for us who are campaigning for independence.
But this is a problem.
It’s not a problem because we can’t win the argument. We can win it. In fact it should be an easy argument to win – the Welsh economy is run with policies designed by people completely uninterested in Wales; and designed for a city state in another country. Of course the Welsh economy’s not working. It’s not designed to work nor is it expected to work.
The problem is that the argument about the weakness of the Welsh economy is an argument that’s been put forward by the Unionists. We’ve allowed them to lead and set the terms for the debate around our independence. We’re arguing on their terms, and as a consequence we’re always on the back foot.
However, when referendum day comes it’s not the Welsh economy which will be at the forefront of people’s minds. It will certainly be a factor for consideration as people think about their vote, but it won’t be the defining factor. Identity is likely to be a greater deciding factor than the economy. Within the question of identity will be issues such as currency, popular culture (e.g. TV – Coronation Street etc), language, and other factors.
This became clear during the Scottish Referendum.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said:
“Supporters of independence will always be able to cite examples of small, independent and thriving economies across Europe such as Finland, Switzerland and Norway. It would be wrong to suggest that Scotland could not be another such successful, independent country.”
Before going on to say:
“But the case for the Union must also appeal to the heart. … Because the links between Scotland and England have never been stronger: more Scots live in England, and more English people live in Scotland, than ever before; almost half of Scots have English relatives; and travel across the border is at an all-time high.
“Our ties are not built on government and constitutional arrangements alone. It is about something much deeper than that: the bonds of kinship and the strength of our individual, and community, relationships which span the border.”
The former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, said:
“The question is not whether Scotland can survive as a separate state. Of course it could. The real question is what is best for Scotland’s future.”
“The referendum challenges us to answer some deep questions, about who we are and what we believe. Our links with the rest of the UK – through families and friendship, shared political, economic and cultural institutions – run deep… We have achieved so much as a partner in the UK. We created and then dismantled an empire together, fought fascism together, built the welfare state together. The BBC and the Bank of England were founded by Scots. The NHS was founded by a Welshman. The welfare state was founded by an Englishman. We would not have achieved half as much if we had not been a United Kingdom.”
Since then of course we’ve had four years of WW1 celebrations commemorations; the release of several popular WW2 films (think Dunkirk and Churchill), and all sorts of other British celebrations, all designed to create the impression that we have a common heritage which binds us together.
All emotive stuff designed to appeal to the heart.
There is of course an argument that these things are part of a common British heritage. But it’s a British heritage viewed through an English lens. Wales, Scotland and Cornwall as well, are side-lined in this version of ‘British History’. As the great Gwynfor Evans* said,
So while we (Welsh nationalists) have been using our resources and energy to tackle the economic question, the British State and its unionist cronies have been busy cementing the impression that we have a common British (English) bond which must never be broken.
As Ifan Morgan Jones said in his article in the ever excellent Nation.Cymru,
“…we’re bad at speaking the language of emotion”.
And he’s absolutely right. Our independence referendum will be won or lost on our ability to create a convincing narrative to the people of Wales.
We don’t need to look far for successful examples of political campaigns developing a convincing narrative. Both the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump succeeded to a large degree because they told a convincing story. They succeeded in getting enough people to buy into their narrative.
In his brilliant short book, The Myth Gap, Alex Evans notes,
“The Remain campaign ran with … fact-heavy tactics… The Vote Leave campaign, on the other hand, played fast and loose with the facts but set out by far the more powerful story, presenting Brexit as an insurgent movement fighting remote, unaccountable elites.
“On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, Donald Trump successfully employed the same playbook… to beat Hilary Clinton, who adopted a far more dry and technocratic style of campaigning…”
This was echoed recently by the neuroscientist, Tali Sharot. Speaking on Andrew Marr’s Start The Week programme on Radio 4 recently she gave an example from Donald Trump’s candidacy campaign:
Andrew Marr: Candidate Donald Trump is debating with an American scientist about whether the MMR vaccine causes autism, and the scientist knows the truth, he has all the facts at his fingertips, and Trump absolutely hammers him in this debate.
Tali Sharot: This is the debate between Dr Ben Carson and Donald Trump, and one of the things that they were debating was a link between autism and vaccines. And so Ben Carson, a paediatric neurosurgeon, was giving all the data and the facts suggesting that there isn’t a link between the two. Donald Trump on the other hand was giving a story. One of his employees had a young baby, and that young baby went to get a vaccine, and the story was very vivid – there was a horse-sized syringe that went into the small baby, a few weeks later he became very, very ill. When Ben Carson was trying to convince Donald Trump he said, in his word, he said about Donald Trump, ‘He is an intelligent man, he should read the facts and he would probably change his mind’. But of course that was very naïve of Ben Carson…
AM: People remembered the Horse-sized syringe, and the little baby, and the baby getting ill and that’s what stuck in their minds, not the data.
TS: Absolutely. I was watching that and my young son was 8 weeks old at the time, and I felt myself quite affected by this story, and I’m a neuroscientist , I know the data and I myself became anxious and stressed… But the power of a story, and the power of raising emotion in someone – we shouldn’t take that lightly. Very powerful.
Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap tells a story of how the Climate Change movement learnt and adapted in order to build a critical mass to force change. The climate change movement, he says, were expecting a successful outcome to the UN’s Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 where they were hopeful of a deal for a maximum 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise, following noises of support from the US’ Presidential Candidates and the House of Representatives. But then something happened and the “Copenhagen summit disintegrates, having got rid of legally binding targets altogether”.
What went wrong?
The NGO’s commissioned the political scientist Theda Skocpol to find out.
“Her conclusion is that the Tea Party played an outsider, populist, values-led game against the NGO’s insider, technocratic, facts-led game – and ran over them with a tank.”
Does this remind you of something? Evans goes on.
“The Remain campaign ran with exactly the same kind of technocratic, fact-heavy tactics that climate campaigners had used in 2009. The Vote Leave campaign, on the other hand, played fast and loose with the facts but set out by far the more powerful story, presenting Brexit as an insurgent movement fighting remote, unaccountable elites.”
This point is emphasised later on when he quotes Bill McKibben, a lifelong climate activist.
“What doesn’t work for movement building is the endless repetition of paragraphs and pie charts and all the things that people like to write in reports”
Stories, and the ability to tell a good story, can be extremely powerful.
Buying into a story
Here in Wales we have great examples of the power of storytelling. Think of the Arthurian legends, our fairy tales, or the powerful sermons given by some extraordinarily charismatic preachers during the various religious revivals which swept the country in the past.
Or think of some of the most powerful ads that you’ve seen that have succeeded in getting you up to do something – it could be donating money to a charity, or buying a gift or a luxury item.
The advertising industry have nailed the ability of telling a good story. They manage to create stories which people want to be a part of. People spend their hard earned money to be a part of these story by buying their products. Whether it’s the Hovis adverts giving you that homely, traditional vibe; or a hair products advert which shows elegant yet tough women – these short stories capture the imagination and make people want to be a part of their club.
One of the most successful telling of stories which changed the attitudes of millions of people and lead to direct action and change was probably the BBC news item filed by Michael Buerk from Ethiopia in 1984, which sparked a huge global campaign to tackle the famine that was ravaging the Horn of Africa. It wasn’t statistics, pie-charts nor graphs which mobilised people in their millions to do something, but the story of those that were suffering.
When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change – Pamela Rutledge
Emotion vs Reason
But as far as the independence campaign here is concerned we’ve become too hung up on proving the economic case and other fact based arguments at the expense of building a convincing narrative which appeals to people about why Wales should be an independent state. We haven’t told the story of Wales nor given them a part to play in that story. We’ve come to believe that rational arguments about why Wales could afford independence; how the Unionists are wrong about the Welsh economy; will win the day. If we bring forward evidence that proves them wrong then people will see the righteousness of our cause and flock over to support Welsh independence. Sadly, this is simply not the case.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be sucked into an argument made up by the Unionists, an argument which, let’s face it, is completely non-existent in other independent states across the world.
How often have we seen one of the old colonial territories say, “We’re too poor and to small. Let’s go back to being controlled by mother England.” We’ll tell you how often – never. There are no nation states in existence today who are contemplating whether or not they should be governed by another state. There is no nation state that will give up her ability to be the author of her own destiny.
The economic argument needs to be put to bed, for sure. We can’t not tackle that issue. But we shouldn’t be fixated on it. It should be part of a wider narrative. It cannot be our silver bullet. These arguments are meaningless if not put into the context of a wider story.
The ability to tap into our emotions is far more powerful than reason alone.
“Emotions are much more powerful in changing minds and action than pure data,”
And this will be crucial when it comes to our referendum day. As was said earlier in this article, on referendum day people won’t reason with themselves whether or not Wales should be independent. It won’t be the Economy which drives them to choose. The decision will be driven by emotion, and that emotion will in turn be fed by their sense of identity, belonging, and all of the other things that can’t be quantified or placed in neat charts or statistics.
They need to feel that they’re part of the story of Wales, not a statistic.
And let’s face it, we’ve got a great story to tell, better than anything produced by Ridley Scott, George Lucas or Spielberg. A story of tragedy, betrayal and subjugation, but with the underdog fighting back against all odds to win a place back where she belongs. A story of hope.
*This is why Gwynfor Evans believed so vehemently that we needed to teach people about the history of Wales and part of the reason why he campaigned to establish S4C. This is why we must all now join the campaign to stop the cuts to S4C – it’s the only national TV channel that we have which tells the story of Wales and our communities back to us.