YesCymru stickers are found in every town and village across Wales. It has been called a quiet movement for Welsh independence. However that is going to get a lot louder in Swansea, with the march for independence on May 20th. I spoke with YesCymru Chief Exec, Gwern Gwynfil about the march, independence, and some of the challenges the organisation has faced.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role in Yes Cymru?
I'm Gwern Gwynfil, and I'm the new chief executive of YesCymru. In fact, the first Chief Executive of YesCymru. It is a relatively young organisation that is still growing and maturing and a part of that is employing me. Our aim is to become the organisation we need to be to help Wales achieve independence.
We’ve seen issues with the SNP in recent weeks. Nichola Sturgeon has blamed growing pains. Has YesCymru faced similar problems?
Definitely. The pandemic was a catalyst for an incredible level of growth. Membership went from around 2,000 members to over 5,000 in a matter of months. At the time, the organisation was run solely by its members, on a voluntary basis, and inevitably things became a bit messy for a time. It was well publicised that the entire board stepped down at one stage. We needed the whole organisation to regroup and restructure. I like to think that during that process we went from being YesCymru 1.0 to YesCymru 2.0.
We still have a long way to go but we are making progress. In a way, we are in a better position than the SNP because we had all the shit in one go. It was all at the same time. You learn an awful lot from that. We know we need to be more professional. We need to be the most professional political organisation in Wales. That may not seem a very high bar to jump, but it will help us make great strides forward as an organisation and allow us to maintain momentum as we grow - as we surely will.
How difficult is it to keep everyone happy. I assume that you have independent supporters from all backgrounds. Those that want to rejoin the EU, those that are right wing, left wing etc.. How do you keep everyone focussed on one vision?
There is broad support for independence across the political spectrum and that is as it should be. One of the ways that we want to work is to encourage healthy debate. To make sure that everyone has a voice. We want to set up discussions. Dr John Ball, who I know has spoken to this magazine before, will be a part of that, for the economic forum for example. As an economist, he has strong views and it will be great to set up what could be quite a lively economic forum, where he and others can thrash out their contrasting cases for the economic structure of a future independent Wales.
There are a lot of different views, everyone can have their own vision for an Independent Wales after all, but none of these will be realised without first securing an independent Wales. When that happens, then it will be down to all the people of Wales to contribute to create our new nation. I’m hoping people in Wales who are disillusioned with politics today start to realise that their views and opinions matter. That they, you, me, all of us, we can make a difference, and we can do so by campaigning for Indy.
Right now, relative to the world, we are getting poorer in Wales all the time. Wales is one of the poorest nations in the whole of Europe today, not just in Western Europe but all of it and that’s hidden in the UK figures because the UK isn’t quite that poor yet - but we are. We need to persuade people in Wales that the only way to sort this out is for us to take control of our own lives, our own resources, our water, our energy - everything. We can only do this as an independent nation.
In terms of independence, when you look over the last nine years, the shift has been significant hasn’t it? In 2014, When pollsters asked people in Wales whether they would support independence 74% of people responded ‘no’. In polls today, that figure is often below 50%. How far are we away from independence? If the same rate of change continues for the next nine years then by 2032 only about one in five in Wales will still want the Union - Iet's accelerate that change, why wait?
In Scotland baseline support for Indy is about 46% or 47% and occasionally it jumps up to 55%. What is interesting about that baseline is that for the under 50s, that figure is above 60%. That's what you want - 60% across the board because you want it to work well from day one. You want about two thirds of people to be positive and to engage. To have confidence and enthusiasm, to be part of building a new nation. It would reinvigorate us all!
In the most general terms, at the moment here in Wales, we are about a third in favour. Maybe a quarter as a baseline but even that is 4 times higher than what it was just nine years ago. We then have a third that are soft unionists, so basically, they haven’t thought about it much. Then a third are strong Unionists. They are generally older and have moved to Wales, mostly from England. I’m generalising here by the way as some of our most fervent and passionate supporters are English people who have moved to Wales, fallen in love with the place and the people, and with the objectivity of an outsider very quickly realise how much potential we have as an Independent nation!
It is becoming increasingly difficult to make the unionist case. The whole point of the Union is to have shared goals, shared burdens, and the insurance policy that Mark Drakeford talks about. The reality today though is that we don’t have shared values. We don’t share the values of middle England. Even Keir Starmer has drifted towards the Tories. Remember that Wales hasn’t voted for the Tories for over 100 years; it is highly unlikely to vote that way any time soon. I don’t know how many Tories you come across in the pubs in Swansea but the Welsh ones that I know, they are not Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg type Tories but tend to be softer conservatives like John Major or Ken Clark - which probably puts them where Keir Starmer is now politically!
Isn’t that the case for many areas in England as well. I know that the north went more Tory than ever. But historically, we could be talking about Liverpool, Manchester, is it not nationalistic which is driving this as against economic?
It’s definitely the case that the northeast of England is as poor as Wales. And that is a problem for the northeast of England, but that is a part of England. Wales isn’t. it is a different country; we play football and rugby with a different shirt on. Somebody told me recently that on a per-capita basis, Wales is second only to New Zealand in terms of its sporting achievements globally. If we are like that now, imagine if we were independent. We have so much to offer. It isn’t just nationalist, although that is there, it is about all that we have to give globally when we have control of our own future.
Wales does have a confidence issue. We are great in Wales at putting ourselves down. ‘Pathologically modest’ is what Mark Drakeford recently called us. It is such a contrast with places like Iceland or Estonia or Slovenia or Ireland. They are all independent small nations, and they think that they can do anything because they are independent. They stand tall because they know they are free.
Slovenia is a good point because if you look at the old Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia were by far the wealthiest parts of Yugoslavia and since the break-up, they still are. Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro all lag behind with their GDP. If Wales is poor now, wouldn’t we continue to be poor if the Union broke up? what would be different?
You are forgetting a key point. Wales is actually a really wealthy country, and it is held back by the union. Slovenia gained independence in 1991 and at that time, Slovenia was not as wealthy as Wales but today it is wealthier than Wales. In thirty years they have gone from being poorer than Wales to being richer than Wales. Independence sets you free.
Other people would say, the reason that it was poorer was because it was propping up the poorer parts. We aren’t propping up England are we?
We are certainly contributing to England in vast ways, and we will continue to do so within the Union. We certainly aren’t getting our share back, just look at HS2 and HS3 or Northern Powerhouse Rail as prime examples. We all fall into this trap, ‘too small’, ‘too poor,’ ‘too stupid’ and it’s a confidence thing. What we all forget is that all the data on Wales is collected by the ONS (office of National Statistics) and this is based on England and Wales. When doing that, when they talk about our deficit, they include everything that happens in England. The whole of the military, all the public buildings in England. Anything they choose to label as 'England and Wales' even if it has zero benefit for Wales. Think about this too, if the whole of the UK is getting poorer, where are the politicians going to send all the money? Not to Wales or Scotland for sure.
Already we don't even get what's ours. The crown estates have been devolved to Scotland, they get to do what they want with it and keep the profits. Here in Wales, we don’t. It’s about to become a massive honeypot too, the wind farms in the Celtic sea are about to become a massive source of revenue but we won’t see it here in Wales. These renewable energy projects will bring in billions a year for the public purse. What that means is that it’s going to the UK treasury, none of that comes here to Wales. £1 billion is currently 5% of the entire budget of the Senedd, all of that should be Welsh but it isn’t. To put this in perspective, each billion is enough to build three brand new hospitals - worth thinking about isn't it?
There is less money overall to be made from water, but water isn’t so much about income alone but it is a blatant example of the unfairness of the Union. Severn-Trent Water has plans to take up to another 500 million litres of Welsh water out of our system every day. This, when Wales itself often has rolling drought warnings across mid-Wales, what happens when Welsh farmers can’t have water because it’s going to London? And remember, they aren’t paying for it – they are just taking it. Wales loses so that others gain and we get nothing in return. Meanwhile, some years Severn Trent Water makes a billion in profit in a year whilst they are losing 600 million litres of water a day because they can't be bothered to fix their own pipes! But why bother fixing stuff when you can just take Welsh water for free eh?
Did the pandemic help or hinder YesCymru?
Both. The pandemic created the window of opportunity which allowed YesCymru to become more prominent and to build the brand quickly but then that electric growth itself led to the challenges we faced. There was a time when Nation.Cymru effectively wrote an obituary for YesCymru!
Around half of the Board members responsible for rebuilding YesCymru have stepped down burnt out by their Herculean effort. I'd like to pay tribute to all of them. These are volunteers after all. Some were giving 40 hours a week and more for months and months. All working around their day jobs of course. We still have a lot to do but our foundations are strong because of their hard work. Across the last year or so a lot of memberships have lapsed, mostly because of technical glitches with transition to our new systems. But I do occasionally have conversations where people are saying, and I'm quoting here - ‘we are waiting to see if the bat shit crazy people have left’ and I get that. If you are concerned that the organisation could be hijacked, then you are not going to give it your money. If you think that money won't be used effectively to promote Independence then a little nervousness is understandable. I can assure you that it’s not going to happen on my watch. I’m very confident that’s not going to happen. I'm here to say that every penny will make a difference directly in supporting the Indy campaign. It's my job and I will ensure that we maximise value and push hard towards the goal of an Independent Wales.
You can join, or rejoin, with confidence.
We need you. We are under-resourced as we are. We need to increase our financial capacity, it can’t just be marches, stickers, the odd panel discussion. We need more resources to get our argument out there. The ultimate goal is to try and get everyone in Wales talking about independence. Once we get that then the argument is so strong that nobody is going back. Nobody ever goes back. Once you start to look up and outwards at all the other small, successful, Independent nations, across Europe and the world, it becomes very hard indeed to believe that somehow Wales isn't good enough to be a small, successful, Independent nation. When you look a little deeper you start to realise that we have even more to offer than most other small nations and that we are simply chronically underselling and underestimating ourselves.
Mark Drakeford is likely to step down as Labour leader in the next twelve months or so. Around 40% of Labour supporters would vote for independence. Are we likely to see a pro-independent candidate challenge for the top job in Wales? If so, who?
I think the Labour Party in Wales has a big challenge as Labour in Wales is not the same as Labour in England. The parliamentary Labour party from Wales is more in line with English Labour of course, but this is because it is in their interest. If you are a Welsh Labour MP in London, then supporting independence is like a turkey voting for Christmas, you'll be putting yourself out of a cushy job! You do sometimes see this division rising to the surface but Welsh Labour are good at balancing the conflicting beliefs of their members. About a third are Indy supporters, a third are unionists and a third are in this no-man's land where if Scotland becomes independent then they want to too. For this last third, when you think about it, that's a bizarre position - they are just Independence supporters who haven't yet found the confidence to cross the line, they feel the need for Scotland to go first and show them the way. That's not for me, it's a race I'd like to win! We should find our ambition, our confidence and lead the way instead of being led.
Do you think that there are closest AMs in Welsh Labour?
Definitely. They are not closet AMs either. Off the record, some will tell you that they are supportive. However, I'm sure some feel that if they came out and said so they would be deselected, others, I'm sure, are trying very hard to keep the delicate balance on this issue internally for the sake of the party.
Surely then, these people have a massive opportunity to come out and to be First Minister. If the support in the party is there, then they can be leader of Labour and be First Minister?
I think that you misunderstand the depth of the problem for Welsh Labour. As a party, it is based on socialism. That means that they put their party first. It believes in the unity of Labour across the globe, not just in the UK. You can see the tension in Mark Drakeford, he is very proud to be Welsh. He is massively in favour of our Welsh nation but also a strong believer in the Labour movement. It is a big challenge for him and for others. I genuinely sympathise with this inner conflict but in the real world the idea that English Labour will ever set priorities in the interests of Wales or allow Wales to grow and flourish is just an empty dream.
Welsh Labour have squared the circle by going for home rule or devolution max as an aspirational policy. The problem with that is, firstly, that it will never happen. Starmer won’t give it. He talked recently in a speech about giving back to Wales what the Tories have taken away over the last few years but nothing extra, nothing new. That’s as far as he will go on the record, which is shockingly poor. That shows that Labour in England is not truly supportive of Labour in Wales but rather just takes the support of Welsh Labour for granted.
From my perspective, if we can persuade Labour in Wales to at least allow Independence to be an open question, part of the conversation, to allow MS’s to come out and say what they think then that would be a great step forward. At the moment, Welsh Labour is adept at keeping this issue behind closed doors but with more and more of their supporters pushing for Independence it does make you wonder when something has to give.
We have a march in Swansea coming up next month. I wonder how different support for independence is from place to place. I assume there isn’t the same support in Swansea as there is in Carmarthen for argument sake?
What is really interesting about the polling that we now have, is that support is evenly spread across Wales. Every area has a baseline between 20% and 25%. It is really consistent. Surprisingly so. Even in places where you wouldn't expect strong support.
The data is getting better and better too. Between 2014 and 2018 there was only one poll a year on Independence in Wales but since 2019, we have had over 30 polls. YesCymru is producing one every 6 months and there are others too. That’s getting much better.
Swansea is the second city and it could be a sleeping giant for Indy Wales. Swansea has its own mind, I love Swansea. If Swansea decides that it does want to support Indy, then it will move. I know there are a lot of people that are resistant but the ones that I’ve spoken to have struggled to explain to me why they support unionism; other than ‘it’s the way that it has always been’ – and I hate that. We want things to get better and we have to change. The way it's always been just isn't good enough for us and it definitely isn't good enough for our children. We have to have change to make things better, for ourselves, but most importantly, for our children.
Finally, on a personal level. How big is this job? You potentially have the future of Wales in your hands. Do you feel pressure?
That’s an excellent question. When they offered me the job. I didn’t accept it for weeks because I was conscious that once I walked through the door then there would be no way back. I knew that I’d have a target on my back. I’ve been doing it for 6 months now. 3 weeks ago, I had worked out that over the previous couple of weeks I’d worked 200 hours - which is bonkers.
There is so much to do. I’ve got 4 young kids and one adult kid too. Also, like many people in Wales, at the moment, I have more money going out every month than I have coming in, which is a scary thought when you’ve got young kids to feed and clothe. How big is this job? Massive. Is it worth it? Definitely. 100%.
With the magazine, I get to talk to a lot of pub landlords and landladies. I can see, and I often say, that It is not a job, it’s a way of life. You start in the early morning, go to bed early hours and everything in-between is taken over by the pub. I’m picturing that you are doing the same?
It's all-consuming. Sometimes I start at 5am and I don’t finish until 10pm (and I have to finish because I'm dead on my feet by then!). When I look at how much we have to do, the challenges that we have, the obstructions we are getting over then it drives me. Getting our message across is really challenging because the mainstream media doesn’t engage but when I pause and look back at what we have achieved in the last 6 months and what the movement has done over the last nine years, then it seems more than worth it.
The support across young people is much, much higher than older people. I would dearly love that my children don’t have to get involved in campaigning, because we’d already be independent. I’m also conscious that all empires fall. That there is an inevitability about Welsh independence for these reasons.
Scotland will get its independence. Northern Ireland will be absorbed into a united Republic of Ireland. I’m basically very competitive and I really want Wales to go first. If we can get to Indy before Scotland then I’ll be completely overjoyed! Swansea can play a big part in that - Glasgow was the first pro-Indy city in Scotland, how about Swansea being first over the line in Wales?!