Video report and article by ITV Cymru Wales reporter Ellie Pitt
“Westminster isn’t working for Wales”. These are the five words I have been hearing all week.
Over the last few days I have had numerous conversations with recent joiners to the Welsh Independence group YesCymru.
Anyone who follows the movement’s Twitter account will know just how fast-paced and exponential the membership growth has been, particularly over the last week.
It took YesCymru almost four years to gain 2000 members, but this week they had 2000 new sign ups in just over 24 hours.
For some the reasons for signing up are varied: Brexit, disillusion with Westminster politics, passion for Welsh culture, desire for more autonomy and accountability in Welsh political decision-making, to name a few.
But there is no denying that the support has surged since the start of the pandemic.
In February 2020 YesCymru has just over 2000 members on 5 November, they had more than 14,000.
One of the indirect results of the coronavirus outbreak is that devolution has been placed under the spotlight. The devolved nations have been able to tread their own path, exercise their own lockdown rules and make policy calls based on the spread of the virus in their country.
Wales has been no exception. Mark Drakeford has seized the opportunity to exercise devolved powers.
New YesCymru members like Gwyn Llewellyn from Caerphilly, Daniel Stephens from Newport and Barney Lloyd-Wood from Cardiff who were all indy-curious before, tell me they now believe in Wales’ ability to govern itself entirely.
Others have told me that the way Boris Johnson’s government has handled the COVID-19 outbreak pushed them to back an independent Wales.
In fact the Chair of YesCymru has revealed several key points over the last few months when the group saw a spike in sign ups, including:
The revelations about Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham
When Wales stuck to the ‘stay at home’ message while England unlocked
The Prime Minister’s announcement of England’s November lockdown and the Chancellor’s decision to extend the furlough scheme during this time.
While there are growing calls for Welsh independence, so too has there been a swell in support for the opposite political view. A recent ITV poll found the Abolish the Assembly Party on track to gain two more Senedd seats at next year’s election.
Cllr Claire Mills from the party says they have also seen a surge in engagements online, that interactions with their Facebook content are up.
They are calling for an end to devolution, the Senedd to be scrapped and say that all four nations should have adopted a united front for tackling the coronavirus crisis.
Despite suggestions his recent decisiveness has boosted the drive for independence, the First Minister does not support the cause himself.
He told Members of the Senedd this week that he makes ‘the positive case for membership of the United Kingdom’, citing Westminster’s resources as reasons to remain.
But Siôn Jobbins, Chair of YesCymru disagrees: “Wales isn’t poor, there are poor people here, but the country itself isn’t poor,” he tells me.
He also credits Welsh exports of electricity, tidal power generation and strong a food market reputation as sources of fiscal generation.
“If the argument is you’re too poor to leave, then after 400 years of being part of this union and still being too poor to leave, that to me isn’t a very strong argument for staying in the union,” he continues.
Siôn is, as you might imagine, overjoyed with the recent growth in membership. What has struck him about the developments he says, is the diversity of the new recruits.
Their geographical location in Wales, languages spoken and political party alignment are now varied.
During my chats with new members, I spoke to women originally from Northern Ireland and England who now live in Wales and have felt compelled to push for the independence of their new home.
“It’s not about being anti-English, it’s about what Westminster stands for and I felt that if any country has the opportunity to be removed from that government, it’s an opportunity not to be missed,” says Katie Gill from Y Felinheli.
She pressed join on the YesCymru website when MPs voted against extending the supply of free school meals.
What may have once been considered a marginal section of Welsh society, now has a growing voice.
“Once the genie’s out of the bottle, it will be out of the bottle and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger as time goes on.” Elizabeth Scammell, a recent joiner from Cardiff, tells me.
The Senedd elections next year will prove the test for whether movement’s momentum will influence political power.