Wales has never embraced the notion of independence and perhaps never will. So it was unsurprising that YesCymru, a grassroots nationalist movement formed to support Scottish secession in 2014, was more or less irrelevant for the first five years of its existence. Its official launch in 2016 went without notice. Wales’ decision to follow England – not Scotland – in voting to leave the EU also complicated arguments for separation. And despite a march in 2019 through Merthyr Tydfil featuring celebrity guests, the group’s 2,000 members at the start of last year was a modest figure – signalling they had little hope, like Plaid Cymru, of winning popular support.
Then Covid came along, with constitutional fissures growing across the UK and Wales. It has spurred more than 15,000 people, each paying at least £2 a month, to join YesCymru over the last year. Such developments caused a steady earthquake across Welsh politics, propelling YesCymru from a nationalist fringe group to a relatively wealthy lobbying powerhouse. Its success, for example, spurred Plaid Cymru to (recklessly) include an independence referendum in its election manifesto and, more significantly, piled pressure on Welsh Labour to lobby for reform to the relationship between the UK’s four nations.
But the wheels appear to be rapidly coming off the YesCymru bandwagon: Siôn Jobbins, Chair of the campaign group, announced his resignation this weekend for personal reasons. An effective operator who regularly made confident media appearances across British and European outlets, Jobbins’ departure has put the organisation at a critical juncture. And, more profoundly, it threatens the very existence of the Welsh nationalist movement that depends so heavily on its pressure group to deliver long-term cross-party success.
Jobbins insists he has not taken the decision for political reasons, or that he is the subject of a coup. But outsiders have watched on bewildered as internal divisions have consumed YesCymru from top to bottom in recent months, perhaps on a scale only comparable to the Corbynite reign over the Labour party. Major issues include ideological differences with YesCymru’s outreach beyond the left, egotistic politics that continues to consume what is perceived by many members as an out-of-touch leadership, and allegations of institutional transphobia.
One of its co-founders, Iestyn ap Rhobert, captured the scale of strife when he revealed why he had withdrawn to be re-elected as the group’s secretary: ‘We are in the middle of a culture war. YesCymru is our battlefield.’ It is difficult to disagree. But many of the key generals are now missing from the field: the group has no elected chair, and three positions on the supreme ‘Central Committee’ unfilled. The social media bubble which delivered YesCymru such blistering success has now also became a cauldron of nationalist bickering and even led to the ‘targeted harassment’ of YesCymru volunteers. While the war may have started there appears to be at least a dozen different armies.
YesCymru’s challenges are so severe because they are largely interconnected. The organisation, as Jobbins referenced in his resignation statement, requires deep structural changes to keep up with its unparalleled growth and intense scrutiny. It is clear that dozens of regional and local branches are disconnected institutionally. Amateurism and unprofessionalism, something that is no fault of a small start-up initially, now characterises the political operation of a supposedly serious movement. There are issues with transparency, governance and accountability that are, frankly, deemed unacceptable from what is arguably Wales’ most powerful political movement.
Some are astute enough to recognise YesCymru neither has the policies nor personnel to manage the various reputational risks which now engulfs its day-to-day functions and derails its longer-term strategy. But because of its descent into disarray, it is unclear what that strategy exactly is either. For too long, YesCymru’s strategy has been to plaster stickers in every possible location and wave flags on bridges in Wales. That will be no more effective in winning the hearts and minds of the public to the cause of independence than the plastic patriotism espoused by Downing Street.
Only proper reform of the leadership would save it from a sudden and rapid split. David Buttress, of JustEat fame, is open to being the new chairman. But a full-time, paid and politically savvy CEO – something Jobbins was not – is needed to deliver wider institutional change. There is no obvious candidate. And who would be daft enough to take over? YesCymru is an organisation beset by crises on multiple fronts that have little sign of dissipating.
To nationalists’ horror, their self-destructive qualities present an unrivalled opportunity for Welsh unionists. Now is an opportunity to develop a more coherent and sensitive approach to drag Wales away from the lure of independence, which would – if there was any understanding of Welsh history and culture in SW1 – go beyond draping a colossal Union Jack on a UK government building in Cardiff city centre.
Such an opportunity may not come around again, even though divisions in nationalist movements have happened before. In Wales, we have particular form. The only true predecessor to YesCymru was Cymru Fydd, a movement spearheaded by the Welsh Liberals, then led by David Lloyd George, at the end of the nineteenth century. Dreams of Home Rule faded after the future British Prime Minister was howled down at a meeting in Newport in 1896, as the industrialists of south Wales feared being run by a rural hinterland in the north.
Here lies a warning for YesCymru. If a leader with the political ability and enigmatic qualities of Lloyd George – a far cry from any politician in Wales today – could not unite a national movement under a common cause 125 years ago, before the advent of devolution, then who can? Lloyd George abandoned his project, and with it, the dream of Welsh autonomy died for another century. Today’s nationalists face the same fate, although most fail to recognise it.