‘Demands for independence’: new research explains secessionist party strategy

New research argues Plaid Cymru downplayed its demands for Welsh independence to prioritise vote-seeking goals between 2003 and 2015, and foregrounded calling for independence after 2019, with the new party leadership spurring this shift in the dramatically changed political context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Demands for independence have increased across parts of Europe in the last decade, and now new research will assist understandings of what leads secessionist parties to be more ambiguous or assertive on the issue.

The findings are revealed in a new article authored by Elin Royles, and published in the Regional and Federal Studies journal based on analysis of Plaid Cymru manifestos 2003-2021 and supported by other research including interviews with leading individuals past and present in Plaid Cymru.

Some of the factors that influenced Plaid Cymru’s approach to the issue of independence were internal power relations, party competition dynamics and multi-level politics, as well as state wide developments, particularly the state-level governing party’s position on demands for greater sub-state autonomy and the impact of secessionist parties elsewhere in the state.

The analysis also confirms the strong impact of party ideology on Plaid Cymru’s limited demands for independence between 2003 and 2015. The party’s first President (1926-1939), Saunders Lewis’ opposition to identifying self-government and independence as party aims deeply influenced the party’s reticence towards the issue of independence. A more gradualist and moderate approach was also a strategic calculation within the party leading to prioritising developing self-government to Wales in the 1990s, following the National Assembly’s establishment in 1999 and the party’s commitment to the ultimate constitutional aim of ‘independence in Europe’ in 2003. This was influenced by the constitutional arrangements at the time, the electoral competition environment of devolved and Westminster elections, with the electorally successful Welsh Labour’s constitutional position aligned with Welsh public opinion where the trend was growing support for greater powers for the then National Assembly for Wales, now Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament).

In contrast, shifts in greater assertiveness on independence post-2016 were strongly influenced by the Brexit referendum result and the UK Government’s changed approach to devolved governance in the UK, often referred to as ‘muscular unionism’. These circumstances led to public opinion changes on constitutional preferences with indications of greater support for independence in Wales, particularly during 2019-2021. Adam Price’s leadership (2018-2023) is also considered to be pivotal in this context in driving the party’s shift to being assertive and making independence the party’s main constitutional objective in the 2021 Senedd election.

The framework developed in the Regional and Federal Studies article can also be used to further understanding of pro-independence party strategies in Catalonia, Sardinia and Galicia.

The full article can be read here.


This article originally appeared on the Centre for Welsh Politics and Society website.