To what extent is Welsh independence on the agenda?
The issue of Welsh independence has gained greater prominence in recent years, following Plaid Cymru’s shift to a more openly pro-independence position, and in the context of continued debate about independence for Scotland.
At the 2021 election, Plaid Cymru committed to holding a referendum on Welsh independence by 2026 if the party won a majority of Senedd seats. 21 Plaid Cymru, ‘Vote for Wales: Senedd election manifesto 2021’, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/plaid2016/pages/10962/attachments/original/1618308502/Plaid_Cymru_Manifesto_2021_ENGLISH.pdf?1618308502. In the event, however, the nationalist party gained only one seat on their 2016 total, and fell behind the Conservatives to become the third party in the Senedd.
Nonetheless, independence remains under consideration as a potential future constitutional option for Wales.
In 2021, the Welsh government (led by Labour) established an Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales to “consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales”. All major Welsh political parties are represented on the commission. 22 Welsh Government, ‘Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales: What we do’, https://www.gov.wales/independent-commission-constitutional-future-wales.
In December 2022, the commission published an interim report. Alongside options to protect and strengthen devolution within the union, the commission found that independence was a “viable future constitutional option". 23 Welsh Government, ‘Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales: interim report’, https://www.gov.wales/independent-commission-on-the-constitutional-future-of-wales-interim-report.
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price welcomed the report, saying the report “acknowledge[s] that independence for Wales is both a credible and viable way forward” and “the significance of this cannot be overstated”. 24 Plaid Cymru, ‘Independence is a viable future constitutional option for Wales landmark Government Commission concludes’, https://www.partyof.wales/independence_viable.
Does the Welsh public support independence?
Opinion polls consistently show that a clear majority of Welsh people oppose independence. Support for Welsh independence was highest in 2020 and 2021, when most polls found that between 30% and 40% of voters would vote for independence.
Support for independence has since fallen from this peak: polling conducted in early 2023 suggests that support for independence has dropped below 30%.
More Welsh voters are undecided on the issue of independence compared to Scotland. Around 20% of Welsh voters say that they are undecided or would not vote in an independence referendum, compared to around 10% in Scotland. These responses are excluded from the figures cited above.
What is the position of the Welsh parties on independence or other constitutional change?
Plaid Cymru are the only pro-independence party in the Senedd. Its constitution lists “securing independence for Wales in Europe” as one of the party’s primary aims. It also supports immediate further devolution to the Senedd, including over rail, welfare, justice and broadcasting.
All other parties represented in the Senedd oppose Welsh independence but hold varied views on further devolution to Wales.
Welsh Labour is supportive of further devolution. Its 2021 Senedd manifesto stated the party views the United Kingdom as a “voluntary association of four nations with sovereignty shared among its four democratic legislatures”. It favours “far-reaching federalism” and pledged to “pursue the case for the devolution of policing and justice”. 29 Welsh Labour, ‘Moving Wales forward: Welsh Labour manifesto 2021’, https://movingforward.wales/documents/WEB-14542_21-Welsh-Labour-Manifesto_A5.pdf.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats also support further devolution within a federal United Kingdom. It called for enhanced fiscal devolution, including devolving borrowing powers and “greater freedom and autonomy in allocating spending”. 30 Welsh Liberal Democrats, ‘Put recovery first: 2021 manifesto’, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ldwales/pages/4049/attachments/original/1618503084/Welsh_Liberal_Democrat_2021_Manifesto.pdf?1618503084.
The Welsh Conservatives oppose further devolution. Andrew RT Davies, the party’s Senedd leader, said that “rather than seeking more powers, more politicians or raising your taxes, we will use the powers Wales already has to level-up across the country and deliver improvements for everyone”. 31 Welsh Conservatives, ‘A plan for recovery and change: the Welsh Conservative Party manifesto 2021’, https://www.conservatives.wales/sites/www.conservatives.wales/files/2021-04/2021%20Senedd%20Manifesto_Wales%20ENGLISH.pdf.
Could the Senedd hold a referendum on independence?
The question of whether the Senedd could hold an independence referendum has never been tested, since a majority for this policy has never existed.
However, precedent from the Scottish independence debate suggests that the Senedd could not hold a referendum on independence unless it were empowered to do so by the UK parliament.
The Wales Act 2017 lists “the union of the nations of Wales and England” and “the Parliament of the United Kingdom” as ‘reserved’ matters that the Senedd cannot legislate on.
In November 2022, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that similar language in the Scotland Act prevented the Scottish Parliament legislating for a referendum without Westminster consent, saying “it is plain that a bill which makes provision for a referendum on independence – on ending the union – has more than a loose or consequential connection with the union." 32 UK Supreme Court, ‘Reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998: Judgement’, https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2022-0098.html.
Any Welsh independence referendum would therefore almost certainly require the passage of authorising legislation at Westminster, as occurred in advance of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 when the power to organise such a vote was temporarily devolved.