“Sleepwalking” to independence? Changing attitudes to Welsh independence in the wake of Brexit.

James Griffiths

University of Manchester

Brexit has highlighted both the constitutional ambiguities (Keating 2021) and the limitations of territorial actors (McEwen & Murphy 2021) within the United Kingdom. Researchers have explored the threat that Brexit poses to Northern Ireland’s place within the union (Hayward 2020, Murphy 2021), how it represents a politicisation of English constitutional grievances (Kenny 2016, Henderson & Wyn Jones 2021), and how it (alongside independence) divides the Scottish electorate (McMillan & Larner 2021). Wales often receives less attention, despite the recent rise in support for both independence and the pro-independence group YesCymru (Evans 2021). The Welsh government has expressed concerns over the effect of Brexit on devolved authority (Bradbury 2021), and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford claimed recently that the UK was “sleepwalking” towards dissolution (Meighan 2021). Here, I explore how attitudes towards Welsh independence have changed in the wake of Brexit.

To explore this, I use data from the Welsh Election Study (WES), which includes multiple measures of constitutional preference that I label as BSA, St David, Scale, and Referendum (see end of blog for further details). Across each measure, support for independence was low and static between 2007 and 2016 (Figure 1), with support being far lower than the 44.7 percent seen in the Scottish referendum (BBC 2014). After 2016, this changes as support increases in both 2019 and 2021 (albeit with independence still being a minority position). The increase in support appears conditional on the position of a prospective independent Wales within the European Union, as support for independence outside the EU has not increased since 2007 (Figure 2).

I recode both independence options in the BSA question together in Figure 1. All analysis is weighted by the relevant weighting variable and all values exclude ‘don’t know’ responses. I also exclude those who would not vote in a prospective referendum, and those who respond ‘none at all’ for the St David’s Day question in 2021, as this option is not present in the question in any previous years.

Overall, a minority of the Welsh population have changed their position on independence since 2016 (Table 1). Yet, these recent converts are important because they now represent the majority of pro-independence supporters (Table 2). The relatively small sample size of the converts does pose a problem for examining the group. However, an even larger proportion of Wales has become more supportive of independence during this period (Figure 3), which is indicative of the spread of indy-curiosity throughout Wales in recent years.

Here, the ‘don’t support’ options include those who responded ‘don’t know’ in 2016 and 2021 (as well as ‘none at all’ in the St David’s Day question) as I did not want to exclude those who have moved to/from uncertainty on this issue. All analysis is weighted by the relevant 2021 weight variable.
Respondents were asked to place themselves on a scale from Abolish Senedd to Independence. These values indicate a person’s position on the independence-abolish scale in 2021 minus their position on the independence-abolish scale in 2016. The scales are different (0-10 in 2021, 0-100 in 2016), so I normalise them between 0 and 10 prior to subtraction. The ‘unchanged’ category represents those who have not changed their position by at least 1 point (so any increase/decrease within this category may represent an artefact of the different scales). All analysis is weighted by the relevant 2021 weight variable. Don’t knows are excluded as I need positions on both the 2016 and 2021 scale to calculate within-individual change.

The role of Brexit appears clear when looking at who changed their position after 2016. There are few differences in age, social grade, or place of birth between the converts and those who still do not support independence, nor between those who have become more/less supportive of independence (see end of blog). There are some slight linguistic and gender differences, with a slightly higher proportion of those who have become more supportive of independence being women and fluent Welsh speakers. Yet, the major differences emerge in Brexit positions. Converts to independence are far more likely to have voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum than those who continue to oppose independence (Figure 4). The same is then true (to a lesser degree) for those who have become more supportive of independence (Figure 5). These results are consistent with the rise in support for independence within the EU, which suggests that Brexit is pushing some individuals in Wales away from the UK. Levels of university education are also far higher among independence converts, which probably reflects the connection between Remain voting and education (Sobolewska & Ford 2020).

Values exclude non-responses but include those who did not vote in 2016. Weighted by relevant 2021 variable.

However, support for independence does not mean that an individual does not feel British. Those who do not support independence (Figure 6), and those who have become less supportive of independence (Figure 7), tend to prioritise their British identity and report stronger English identity. Converts to independence tend to prioritise their Welsh identity, but their British identity is far stronger than that of more long-standing independence supporters. Similarly, those who have become more supportive tend report similar (and strong) British and Welsh identities (albeit their British identity is slightly lower than the less supportive). Thus, while conventional research often emphasises the competition between state and sub-state actors (e.g. Lipset & Rokkan 1967), many individuals do not appear to see support for sub-state independence as inconsistent with state identity.

National identities are measured on a scale from 0-10, where 0 means “not at all British/English/Welsh” and 10 means “very strongly British/English/Welsh.”

Furthermore, a shift towards independence does not mean that an individual will support a party that pursues this goal. A majority of those who already supported independence in 2016 voted for Plaid Cymru in both their constituency and regional list (Table 3). A similar number of converts voted for Plaid in their regional list vote, but far fewer voted for them in their constituency. Instead, nearly half of these individuals voted for Welsh Labour, despite the party’s pro-union position. The same is true for those who have become much more supportive of Welsh independence since 2016 (see end of blog). Why these individuals would still support a party that opposes a policy they support requires further analysis, but Welsh Labour have been successful in articulating a ‘soft’ nationalist position within Wales (Moon 2016) that may be isolating them from losses to Plaid.

Rising levels of support mean that Wales’s position within the UK is now up for debate. The motivations of these changes require further analysis, but these results suggest that Brexit is pushing some individuals in Wales towards independence. Given the connections between British identity and Leave support in Wales (Henderson et al 2020), these results should concern some unionists that one of their favoured policies (Brexit) is undermining another (protecting the union). For pro-independence actors, this suggests that there is a utility to mobilising anti-Brexit sentiments within Wales. However, the divisions that this creates in Scotland suggest that there are limits to this strategy (see McMillan & Larner 2021). Furthermore, these results suggest that converting to independence does not mean that an individual reports weak state identity or votes for a pro-independence political party. Understanding why these patterns occur will be crucial for analysing changing attitudes towards constitutional preference in Wales.

Bibliography

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Bradbury, J. (2021). Welsh Devolution and the Union: Reform Debates after Brexit. The Political Quarterly, 92(1): 125-131.

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Meighan, C. (2021). Mark Drakeford: Boris Johnson ‘sleepwalking’ into break up of the UK. The National. 14th July. Available at Mark Drakeford: Boris Johnson ‘sleepingwalking’ into break up of the UK | The National

Moon, D. (2016). ‘We’re Internationalists, not Nationalists’: The Political Ramifications of Welsh Labour’s Internal Power Struggle over the ‘One Wales’ Coalition in 2007. Contemporary British History, 30(2): 281-302.

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Sobolewska, M. & Ford, R. (2020). Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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