Support for Welsh independence is growing – people are fed up with being forgotten | Will Hayward

The idea of an independent Wales is no longer just a hobby-horse of bearded men in Carmarthenshire pubs on Six Nations rugby match days. Polls put support for independence at about 30%, (and skew more pro- the younger you go): not enough to signal anything imminent, but high enough for us to be certain something real is happening. After all, Scotland was polling similar numbers in 2007, and just seven years later David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were making “the vow” to the people of Scotland as they scrambled to keep the union together.

Of course when we look at this 30% figure, there is a question of saliency. People may support independence, but how crucial is the issue for them? Most people support House of Lords reform, for instance, but it doesn’t result in a massive majority for the Lib Dems. Having spent the last 18 months immersed in the idea of an independent Wales, I can attest that this is a real movement, with legitimate grievances which should be taken seriously. This isn’t to say that independence is inevitable but just that, like the leave campaign or those for an independent Scotland, these issues are fringe, minority movements – until they’re not.

Perhaps the biggest surprise when I started researching this area is how, especially for people who have come to the idea of Welsh independence since Brexit, identity is only a secondary motivating factor. For them it is, first and foremost, a matter of the head not the heart. Most supporters have simply looked at the state of the United Kingdom, seen that it isn’t working for Wales, and view independence as the most effective vehicle for fixing Wales’s problems. That doesn’t mean independence necessarily is the answer, just that the status quo is leaving the country both impoverished and unable to fix the problems it has.

Take poverty. Wales has lower pay than the UK average, and just under one in four people in Wales live in poverty. Approximately 600,000 children live in Wales, and of them 200,000 – a third – are in poverty, with 90,000 in severe poverty. You could argue that this means Wales is too poor to be independent, but independence advocates may point out this situation has come about under the current system. Do these figures suggest Westminster has been a good custodian of Wales?

One way to bring people out of poverty is to improve their infrastructure. But here we see why Wales’s plight is only likely to get worse. Look at HS2. The UK government has decided to class HS2 as an England and Wales project, despite not a centimetre of track actually being laid in Wales. This accountancy sleight of hand means that Wales, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, will receive no Barnett formula cash from HS2. Successive Conservative chancellors have said that HS2 will benefit Wales, therefore no extra money is needed. When asked what the benefits will be, they point to the fact that people in north Wales will be able to get to London slightly faster.

If Wales got its fair share, it would be getting £5bn in funding. This could finance the south Wales and Swansea Bay metros, integrate the north Wales lines with Merseyside, and connect Aberystwyth and Swansea by rail (at the moment, perversely, you have to go across the border via Shrewsbury to get to Cardiff from the Welsh west coast). Puts getting to London a bit quicker in context, doesn’t it?

This decision to single out one of poorest parts of the UK as the only nation not to receive a substantial rail investment uplift underlines the emptiness of the levelling-up promise. And it’s the ultimate campaigning tool for those seeking an independent Wales.

The independence movement in Wales is at a crossroads. Campaigners have gained a decent following from visible, attention-grabbing online campaigning. But the time has come for legitimate, realistic conversations. For instance, the far greater physical complexity of Wales leaving the union compared with Scotland must be thought through. Fifty percent of people in Wales live within 25 miles of England, and the north-east of Wales is one of the most commuted out-of areas in the UK. The realities and challenges independence would pose to people’s way of life have to be reconciled.

Cameron’s decision to give Scotland a vote on independence set a precedent that the decision to stay in the UK lies with the people of the respective nations. In its last Welsh parliamentary election campaign, Plaid Cymru said that if it won a majority, it would hold an indicative vote in its first term, and a full referendum if it won a second. With his calls for “home rule” – essentially devo max – Mark Drakeford, the first minister, has essentially parked his tanks on Plaid’s lawn, leaving the party with only independence to aim for to differentiate itself from Welsh Labour.

But the very fact that we are having this conversation is positive. There is a reason why the UK government doesn’t dare pull the same trick with Scotland regarding HS2 as it does with Wales; having a Wales that is assertive will be a benefit, whether it is independent or not.

Despite being the oldest nation on these islands, there is still a feeling that Cymru is trying to work out what it will be when it grows up. The debate over independence, whether won or lost, can create a Wales better placed to tackle the myriad problems it faces.

  • Will Hayward is Welsh affairs editor at WalesOnline. His book, Independent Nation: Should Wales Leave the UK?, is published on 30 August

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