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Young people in Wales are ready for independence

After over a decade of Tory rule and austerity they didn’t vote for, the youth of Wales are finding new ways to call their power back

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. 

Signs of the Welsh independence movement can be found all over Wales (and increasingly on public property across England). One that caught the public’s attention recently was the splattering of YesCymru stickers, pro-independence graffiti, and some eggs, all over a postbox just outside the Owain Glyndŵr pub in Cardiff’s city centre, which had been given a redesign for the coronation of King Charles III. 

The notion of independence has been bubbling rapidly in recent years, especially among young people. Back in 2021, WalesOnline reported that “people aged 16 to 24 are far more likely than any other group to want independence for Wales”. Given that statistically young people are also the least likely to vote Conservative, it’s clear to see the primary reason for wanting independence is to do with control and democracy.

Jac Jolly is a 20-year-old student from Tregaron in West Wales. His support for independence was solidified by two events, which both happened in 2018. Firstly, the second Severn Bridge connecting Wales and England was renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge, without any consent from the Welsh people. Secondly, Westminster ordered for mud that had been contaminated with nuclear waste at Hinkley Point, in Bristol, to be dumped in the sea off Cardiff Bay, parts of which are protected conservation areas. “I thought it was ridiculous that a government in England could tell us they were going to use our natural resources as a dump,” he says.  

At around the same time, pro-Welsh independence streetwear brand Tropical Wales launched, and meme groups including “Welsh Independence Memes for Angry Welsh Teens” and “Fiery Welsh Memes for Feisty Independent Dreams” began popping off properly. The combination of all of these factors led to Jolly realising that, despite never voting for a Conservative government, Wales has often been ruled by Conservative governments via Westminster. 

For many who support independence in Wales, this fact is the primary reason. Evan Powell, 20, is from Cefn Hengoed, near Swansea in south Wales. He makes Welsh-themed stickers and contributes to the independent Welsh football magazine Alternative Wales. “No country should be governed by a next-door neighbour, a different political power,” he says. “We’ve never voted for a Tory government in Wales, but we’ve been affected by what the English have voted for, for most of my life.” 

“No country should be governed by a next-door neighbour, a different political power. We’ve never voted for a Tory government in Wales, but we’ve been affected by what the English have voted for, for most of my life” – Evan Powell

Additionally, a reclamation of Welshness is being embraced across the land. “There’s a resurgence at the moment as a whole,” Powell continues. “We’ve got sports teams channelling our language, history, and culture.” He goes on to detail how the national football teams and their fanbase are huge for independence, mainly through their adoption of the Welsh language (for example, referring to the team as Cymru not Wales), and their choice of defiant pro-Welsh folk songs such as “Yma O Hyd” as unofficial second anthems. “[Football is] our only large sport where we are truly independent, as Welsh rugby has an affiliation with the British and Irish Lions,” Powell says. He also points out that “bands who are singing in the Welsh language, like Adwaith, are smashing it worldwide. It’s officially cool to be Welsh again.”

Gwenllian Anthony, 25, is from Carmarthen, southwest Wales. She’s the bassist in Adwaith. “I want Welsh independence because I feel majorly under-represented in parliament. People are sick of voting for Labour but getting Conservative governments,” she says. On the music, Gwenllian is more reluctant to suggest the band has contributed to the Welsh independence movement, but does concede that “we’re very Welsh people who sing in Welsh, and in doing so, we’ve brought awareness to Welsh language music and culture to people outside of Wales, maybe.” 

The reason people feel Wales isn’t represented politically is because, in parliament, there are 650 seats, and Wales has just under five per cent of them. Scotland has just under nine per cent, while Northern Ireland has under three per cent. England, therefore, has just over 83 per cent of the seats in parliament, which sets most of the rules for the entire United Kingdom. While Scotland and England unionised in 1707, and Northern Ireland’s majority Protestant and Unionist population kept ties with the United Kingdom after the partition of Ireland in 1921, Wales’ involvement within the United Kingdom is a little more longstanding. 

“A lot of people don’t like to talk about it, but it’s simply [a] fact that Wales was colonised. We were colonised under the English crown in 1282. We were betrayed by Edward I who murdered our lineage,” says Jolly. “And although you can’t get held up by things that happened 700 years ago, what happened then has led to where we are now, with a system where our voices are completely drowned out in Westminster.”

“I would say we’re now not that far off where Scotland was in 2014. Scotland voted no to independence in 2014, but I do think there’s a general trajectory toward independence in Wales” – Joshua McCarthy

In 1997, a referendum led to Wales getting devolution for the first time, meaning that the majority of young people have only ever lived under a system where Wales does hold some of its own political control. But this doesn’t make them happier about the state of politics in Wales. “​​Devolution hasn’t really allowed us to stand on our own two feet, we should be fully allowed our own control,” Powell says.  

It‘s also young people who are leading the charge for independence. Jac has been setting up YesCymru campaigns in Bangor; Evan and Gwenllian both celebrate Welshness through their respective work. And Joshua McCarthy, 22, from Bargoed in the south Wales valleys, is a campaigns officer for Plaid Ifanc, the young wing of Plaid Cymru, a centre-left to left-wing Welsh nationalist political party which is committed to Welsh independence. All of them are optimistic Welsh independence will happen in their lifetime. 

“I would say we’re now not that far off where Scotland was in 2014. Scotland voted no to independence in 2014, but I do think there’s a general trajectory toward independence in Wales, but also across the world,” says McCarthy.

He adds that he thinks achieving independence will be difficult. “A lot of my work within Plaid Cymru is trying to reach out to people who don’t support independence,” he says. The main point he hopes to communicate is “the idea of constitutional and economic issues. I’m trying to show that we can achieve other political goals – like getting rid of the House of Lords, the monarchy, First Past the Post voting systems – through independence,” he says. 

Evan adds that at the heart of successfully getting Welsh independence is through “patient, logical, and rational conversation. Effing and blinding at unionists is just going to cause more of a divide. At the end of the day, I fucking hate the idea of British rule. But we’re not going to get out of it by saying ‘fuck the Brits’”. 

Throughout the last 700 years, Wales has been a place with its own identity, culture, and a language that English leaders have continually tried to bury. They were unsuccessful, and in a world where ideas of empire and colony are continually being undone, the young people in Wales are keen to ensure they can live within the country they are from, without restrictive interference. As Jolly succinctly says at the end of our conversation: “I’m not anti-English. Welsh independence is about us having the choice to make our own decisions. The union isn’t democratic.”

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