Cardiff, Wales – Something is stirring in Wales.
This second-smallest of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, with a population of three million, has for years trailed behind Scotland in its demands for independence.
Now all that is changing.
A little under two years ago, in May 2019, thousands of people marched through the streets of Cardiff in support of Welsh independence. It was the first in a series of rallies and marches in towns and cities across the country over the following months.
COVID-19 put a stop to the rallies. But it has not stopped the interest in independence.
At the beginning of 2020, Yes Cymru, the non-partisan campaign group behind the rallies, had just 2,000 members. Today it has more than 18,000.
In February, one opinion poll put support for independence at 39 percent. That was an outlier, with most polls showing support closer to 25 percent. But even that is twice as high as it was six years ago.
There is no doubt that more people support independence in Wales now than at any time in recent history.
So what is behind this change in mood?
Progressively invaded and conquered by a succession of English monarchs from the 11th century onwards, Wales was more thoroughly integrated into its larger neighbour than Scotland or Ireland ever were.
Its devolved government in Cardiff still has less power than its counterpart in Edinburgh.
Once an agricultural backwater, Wales’ population boomed during the Industrial Revolution when its coal, iron and steel captured world markets. But the decline of its heavy industries has seen Wales slip to the bottom of the UK wealth table – and stay there, despite 30 years of devolution.
Now its per capita GDP is only approximately a quarter that of Ireland, and parts of Wales count as some of the poorest regions in Europe.
But it is recent events that have swelled the ranks of the independence movement.
Although a majority in Wales voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, the chaotic handling of the UK’s departure from the EU has undermined belief in a strong and stable Westminster government, according to Roger Awan-Scully, professor at Cardiff University and chair of the Political Studies Association of the UK.
“That’s the period, 2018 to 2019, when you start to get this uptick in support for independence,” he said.
Then came COVID. With health devolved, the Welsh government was free to impose its own lockdown rules.
The pronouncements of the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford loomed larger in the country than those of Boris Johnson – often to Drakeford’s advantage.
“The handling of the pandemic has very trenchantly exposed the differences in policy choices between the governments of the UK,” Laura McAllister, professor of public policy at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, told Al Jazeera.
“The Welsh and Scottish governments have had consistently higher approval ratings from their nations than the UK Government. It’s elevated the visibility and profile of the Welsh Government and first minister.”
Awan-Scully, referring to a scandal which saw Johnson’s top Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings accused of breaking the government’s own lockdown rules, said: “Since Barnard Castle, people have consistently said they evaluate the Welsh government’s handling much higher than the UK government’s.”
The first test of this new support for independence will come in May when the people of Wales get a chance to vote for a new Welsh Government.
The latest opinion polls indicate a three-horse race between the ruling Labour party, the Conservatives and the pro-independence Plaid Cymru, with a Labour government dependent on Plaid Cymru support seen as the most likely outcome.
Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price has responded to the growth in separatist feeling by announcing a dramatic shift in the party’s policy: if elected, a Plaid Cymru government would hold a referendum on independence within its first term.
Conservative ministers in London fear that if Labour returns to power in Cardiff relying on Plaid Cymru votes, it will be forced into holding an independence referendum, according to a report in The Times.
First Minister Drakeford has maintained a difficult balancing act, on the one hand describing the union as “fractured”, on the other saying that he believes in the UK and that he would not hold an independence referendum if elected, because there would not be a democratic mandate for it.
Labour’s own voters are split on the issue, with 51 percent in a recent poll saying they supported independence, despite Labour being officially a unionist party.
Sion Jobbins, chair of Yes Cymru, said this was partly due to the perceived rightward drift of Conservative governments since the Brexit vote.
“There’s a section of people on the left in Wales who feel the British state they thought they knew is different now,” he said.
“There’s also a constituency of Labour voters who feel they vote Labour here in Wales and get a Tory (Conservative) government in London.”
Support for independence is highest in the younger age groups, and May’s election for the Senedd Cymru, the Welsh Parliament, is the first in which 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote.
But there are signs of polarisation in attitudes, with a growing number of voices on the right calling for rowing back from the autonomy Wales currently enjoys.
The anti-devolution Abolish the Assembly party is also doing well in the polls and is expected to win seats in May.
Will support for independence continue to grow, or has it peaked?
“If you were asking this question two or three years ago, no one would have predicted support for independence being at 39 percent today,” said Auriol Miller, director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs think tank.
“If greater awareness of devolution coincides with a Westminster Conservative post-COVID recovery plan that many people are unhappy with, then support could well grow.”