Renewed electoral pitch for independence in Wales
Plaid Cymru did not have a standout general election. The party managed to retain its four seats, but failed to make any gains and its vote share across Wales dropped below ten percent. Plaid Cymru did succeed in one sense though. It pushed independence further up the political agenda in Wales.
Plaid Cymru wants Wales to be an independent nation. There is nothing new about that. What did change in the run up to the 2019 election though was how the party engaged with this proposition. Whereas independence was merely a footnote in Plaid Cymru’s pitch to voters in 2015 and 2017, largely side-lined and put on hold for the time being, it was much more prominent in 2019. Plaid Cymru may not have built its campaign around independence to quite the same extent as the SNP did, but it was one of the party’s more salient proposals nonetheless.
The general election of 2019 could start a movement towards “a new Welsh spirit of independence” said Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, when launching the party’s general election campaign. Their manifesto shortly followed suit, setting out proposals for significant constitutional change in Wales. Not only did it reiterate a desire for an independent Wales (in the European Union), but it also set a specific target of 2030 for achieving this objective and first concrete steps to facilitate the process in the shape of an Independence Commission. Chaired by former AM and Welsh Government minister Jocelyn Davies, it will “develop… policy to carve a clear pathway to… independence” and “draw up a written constitution for an independent Wales”.
The discussion around independence has still a long way to go in Wales, especially when comparing it to the one in Scotland. There is very little detail about what an independent Wales would look like, beyond it being a member of the European Union, even in Plaid Cymru’s own proposals. We do not know what kind of political institutions the party recommends, what it wants the Welsh Constitution to say, or even how exactly it foresees the independence referendum to take place. These questions, alongside many others, were left unanswered by the party’s general election campaign.
Plaid Cymru’s resurgent pitch for an independent Wales may lack practical detail, but we should not underestimate its importance in guiding the political agenda in Wales. Yes, independence still seems more like an ambition – just not quite as long term one as before – rather than an ‘oven-ready offer’, but there is now an emergence of a roadmap and a growing sense that this ambition might turn into a more tangible proposal from Plaid Cymru in the not too distant future. Coming at the backdrop of pro- independence marches and growing talk about indy-curiousity, the changing rhetoric of Plaid Cymru further raises the profile of the issue and pushes it up the political agenda.
Is there widespread support for independence in Wales? The increased saliency of independence in Plaid Cymru’s manifesto certainly did not lead to a groundswell of support as its vote share dropped to 9.9%, down from 10.4% in 2017 and 12.1% in 2015. Even if discounting seats where Plaid Cymru stood aside for Lib Dem and Green candidates, there is still no real evidence of Plaid Cymru surge in the popular vote. Recent opinion polls are more encouraging but, irrespective of how the questions on independence are asked, they still reveal only a minority support for independence. Even the most favourable recent poll – presenting a hypothetical situation where the rest of the UK leaves the European Union but Wales could remain a member if it became independent – saw only 33% saying yes to independence, with 48% saying no. Plaid Cymru’s resurgent pitch for an independent Wales is not, or at least not yet, an election winner. It does signal though that the party believes there to be a political opportunity, and necessity, to push the debate around independence further.
The Conservatives were the success story in Wales at this general election, winning back Brecon and Radnorshire from the Lib Dems and taking six seats from Labour. Whilst Plaid Cymru failed to make electoral gains, its campaign pitch for independence does reflect the growing saliency of the issue in Wales.
Note: This contribution is part of the UK General Election 2019 report.