By Jack Reed
Independence derives from the idea of liberty, enabling a country to operate under self-government. In the past year, independence and the concept of isolationism has gathered momentum, what with the vote for Brexit separating the UK from the EU and Trump’s ‘America comes first’ attitude proving successful in the US election. And now, with the calls for Scottish independence becoming louder, it seems the independence ship in Wales is getting ready to set sail, with Leanne Wood the captain of this expedition.
Wood is both optimistic about achieving Welsh independence, but equally realistic. When asked whether becoming independent was possible in the next five years, she acknowledged that this was unlikely; it’s clear there needs to be a large amount of preparation put in place as well as a campaign to push for independence across the country. However, Wood is confident of achieving independence by the end of her political career, especially after what has happened in recent times. “In the aftermath of the referendum on EU membership, an opinion poll showed a third of people in Wales would support independence from the UK as a means of our country remaining an EU member.”
As well as the rise in nationalism that has been evident in recent elections, Wood believes the push for Welsh independence will also be helped by the failures of the British governments to properly represent the Welsh people. “As we are subjected to successive Tory Governments who do not have a mandate in Wales, more and more people will see in the Westminster system the inherent lack of democratic accountability and its failure to represent places like Wales adequately.” To achieve independence, the Welsh ship will need strong currents to push it forward, with a captain like Wood to use them to the best advantage.
Wood puts the rise in nationalism and anti-establishment politics down to the broken promises of politicians and the failure of modern governments to properly provide for their people. “Many people feel let down by the establishment in general. Too many promises to count have been broken by those establishment, mainstream political parties so trust in politics is now at an all-time low.” Furthermore, she acknowledges much of the success of the Leave campaign was down to their exploitation of these sentiments, especially amongst the working class, who saw their vote as the opportunity for something different than what they had had all through their lives so far. “The Leave campaign was successful at tapping into this significant disenchantment with the establishment, even though many of their key figures are quintessentially establishment.” To achieve independence, many key Welsh politicians may have to tap into these feelings, to gather enough workers on the crew to operate the ship.
But, significantly, the captain of this independence ship isn’t like other politicians. Her background and experiences have shaped her in ways that the run-of-the-mill politician cannot know or necessarily understand. For example, she has witnessed the impacts of the policies introduced by the Conservative and Labour governments in the second half of the twentieth century. “I saw first-hand the effects of the policies on my community by a Thatcher-led Government with no mandate to represent us. I cannot let Labour off the hook either as they undertook a pit closure programme when in power in the 60s and 70s.”
While discussing these past events, Wood notes a number of similarities, between the governments when she was growing up and those of the present day. “The Tory Government leans to the right and the former coalfield communities of south Wales continue to be neglected. While jobs in manufacturing were attracted to Wales during the 80s and 90s, they never fully replaced the mining jobs.” The blame for this she puts at the feet of the Conservative and Labour governments; for this reason, it’s clear why, in Wood’s eyes, the independence ship must leave the docks as soon as possible.
Wood’s upbringing has shaped the way she views society and the politics that she believes are required to improve people’s lives. With her working class childhood, she recognises her uniqueness within modern politics: “my background is unconventional by modern political standards – I grew up in a working class family, did factory jobs and worked as a probation officer.” Furthermore, she is inclusive and encouraging in her social policy believing that, ‘nobody should think they are not capable of holding the highest political office.’ Because of where she has come from and the position she is in now, it’s clear to see why Wood hopes more people from working class backgrounds achieve important positions within national politics. Perhaps if the journey to independence is successful, then this is something we will see more of in Wales.
Within modern politics, and modern society in general, the issue of the media seems to be gathering more attention, most notably with the recent claim of news outlets publishing ‘fake news’ by President Trump. However, Wood takes a different approach, instead focusing on the decline of the media’s presence in Wales. “In many ways the influence of the media, in Wales particularly, has waned since I was first elected to the National Assembly in 2003. There are now fewer reporters covering political stories which is a problem from the point of view of accountability of politicians.” To replace it in some form, social media has taken a considerable surge in use and application by those involved in politics. Wood sees this move as a positive one, especially given the ‘low voter turnout amongst young people that is a habit which will be carried into later life.’
The ship for Welsh independence is certainly ready to set sail. It has its captain in place, it is slowly gathering a crew to support the voyage and it has a destination that is certainly achievable within the current political climate. From Wood’s point of view, she will certainly hope her captaincy and expedition will lead to a result similar to that of Columbus rather than that of Edward Smith. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the movement and the end result will both be titanic for Wales.
Photograph: Leanne Wood