Blog: Welcome to Wrexham, where it’s never been cooler to be Welsh – ABC News

In years gone by, Adam Phillips would roam the streets of north Wales with a loudspeaker, preaching about Welsh history and his dreams of a sovereign Welsh state.

Nobody seemed very interested.

“They probably thought I was a nutter,” he told Foreign Correspondent.

“I’ve always felt our history has had inequality, our language has had inequality, our people have had inequality.

“Yes, we’re part of the UK, but we’re like the forgotten cousin of the UK.”

Nowadays, Adam says people on the streets of Wrexham, a city in north Wales, are much more receptive to his calls for the country to break away from the UK.

Adam Phillips often marches through Wrexham singing Welsh songs and commemorating key moments in the country’s history.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

As he parades through communities clad in Welsh tartan and playing Welsh tunes with his marching band, he’s noticed a new-found sense of national pride. 

It’s due in part to the worldwide attention Wrexham is getting.

In 2020, the local football club Wrexham AFC was bought by Hollywood A-listers Ryan Reynolds and Rob McEIhenney.

Not only did they breathe new life into the club and the working-class city, they started proudly promoting Wales to the world.

Through their popular streaming series Welcome to Wrexham, their self-deprecating social media videos and their US television appearances, the pair has rarely missed an opportunity to share a slice of Wales with a global audience.

McElhenney, the star and creator of the TV sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has even mastered some tongue-twisting phrases in the Welsh language, Cymraeg.

“I love him for doing it,” Adam said, who hosts a bi-lingual radio show in Wrexham.

“[Previously] you might have had youngsters dissing the language because it’s not cool. When you’ve got Hollywood superstars coming up and [speaking it] they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s okay, that’s cool’.”

While neither Wrexham AFC nor their Hollywood owners get involved in the politics of Welsh independence, Adam believes they’ve helped change the way some Welsh people think about their own country.

“They’ve used football as a platform to build on a bigger story,” he said.

An image of Deadpool, played by Ryan Reynolds in the Hollywood film, in the Turf pub in Wrexham, Wales, where the actor has bought the local football club.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)
Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds hold a Wrexham AFC scarf in a picture on a shelf in a Welsh pub.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

A fringe movement goes mainstream

A sense of Welsh pride does not automatically mean people are willing to embrace the idea of independence.

Unlike Scotland, where leaving the United Kingdom has strong support, in Wales it’s never been anywhere near a majority view.

But in recent years, the once-fringe movement has become mainstream.

Last year, thousands of people marched in rallies in the Welsh capital Cardiff and Wrexham calling for independence.

Polls suggested up to 30 per cent of the population supported leaving the UK.

Around the same time, pro-independence song Yma o Hyd became the anthem for the Welsh national football team and its fans during the World Cup campaign.

Singer Dafydd Iwan’s pro-independence ballad Yma o Hyd — “still here” — became the official anthem for Welsh football fans during last year’s World Cup in Qatar.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

Nationalist folksinger Dafydd Iwan led a rousing chorus at Cardiff Stadium, as the crowd belted out his song about Welsh survival.

“The history of Wales is a history of people standing up for their rights,” Dafydd said.

“Singing is a part of any freedom movement and to have your song at the forefront of the campaign is a great privilege.”

It all coincided with one of the most turbulent times in British politics in decades.

A string of scandals led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation, which resulted in the elevation of Liz Truss, who lasted just six weeks in the job.

Watching on were ordinary Welsh people struggling with rising interest rates and double-digit inflation.

“Westminster is a shit show,” Adam said. “If anyone out there thinks Westminster is doing a great job, they must work in Westminster.”

One of the driving forces behind the new push for independence is YesCymru (Wales), a grassroots organisation with branches across Wales.

Kieran Thomas, one of the group’s organisers in Wrexham, said he’s not surprised so many people are showing an interest in the movement.

“I think they look at the UK around them; they look at Brexit and how that’s been a failure,” Kieran said. “They look at the fact that they have to choose between heating and eating.

Kieran Thomas is one of the driving forces behind the YesCymru movement in Wrexham, a grassroots organisation campaigning for Welsh independence.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

“They look at the constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, and they think … why couldn’t Wales be better than this? Surely Wales can be better than this.”

The 27-year-old said he grew up being “drip fed” an idea that Wales was “too small and too poor” to leave the UK.

A 2020 report by researchers at Cardiff University estimated a 13.5 billion pound shortfall between revenue and public spending in Wales, creating significant barriers to independence.

However, research published by pro-independence party Plaid Cymru suggests the gap could be as low as 2.6 billion if Wales were to leave the UK.

Kieran believes independence would give Wales a chance to set its own national priorities and harness the potential of its natural resources.

“We’re blessed with water and wind,” he said. “We’re the fifth-largest net exporter of electricity in the world at the moment, but obviously a lot of that we don’t see the benefits of [or] the profits from.”

YesCymru campaigners say Wales should leave the UK and go it alone, but some who oppose independence say it would leave the country worse off.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

In a 1997 referendum, 50.3 per cent of Welsh voters supported devolution, a process that transferred some control from Westminster to Wales.

The Welsh parliament, known as the Senedd, now has legislative powers over certain aspects of life like health, education and agriculture.

But while Wales can raise some revenue including a proportion of income taxes, most of its funding is allocated by the UK government in Westminster.

‘It’s not Great Britain, it’s sad Britain’

The state of the British economy is fuelling discontent within the union.

The UK is facing its biggest decline in living standards since modern records began, as stagnant wages fail to keep up with the cost of living.

In Wales, where one in three children live in poverty, the pre-Brexit promise of a “better Britain” hasn’t become a reality for many.

At St Peter’s Church in Holywell, north Wales, grandmother Lynne Thwaite comes for a hot meal every week with her two-year-old grandson Elliot.

She said it’s “disgusting” that she needs to rely on charity to survive in a place like the UK.

Lynne Thwaite never imagined she would be relying on groceries from a food bank at this church in Holywell, Wales, to make ends meet.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

“We’re living in poverty. I’ve never lived in poverty [before],” she said. “And it’s awful that you have to come to a place like this to get yourself a bit of luxury.”

The UK government has spent tens of billions trying to control household energy bills, but Lynne can’t afford to heat her home properly.

Winter temperatures in north Wales can often sink below freezing.

“We were all out in blankets yesterday instead of putting the gas on,” she said. “It’s just hand to mouth really, isn’t it?”

Wales used to benefit from European Union funding for community projects that supported education and jobs.

The Welsh government administered the programs with oversight from the Senedd.

To replace the EU support, the Conservative government created UK-wide “shared prosperity” and “levelling-up” funds which it says fulfils its promise to match European funding.

Flags bearing the Welsh red dragon hang in a village pub in north Wales. (Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

However, Westminster has taken control over where the cash is spent and the government in Cardiff claims Wales will be more than 750 million pounds worse off as a result.

Concern over entrenched poverty has prompted the Archbishop of the Church in Wales, Andrew John, to declare his support for independence.

He said it is “not acceptable” that so many people in Wales were suffering.

Lynne isn’t sure what the answer is but said something needs to change.

“There is no Great Britain anymore,” she said. “It’s just sad Britain.”

A healthy dose of Brexit regret

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 52.5 per cent of Welsh voters chose to leave the European Union, but polls now show Wales is suffering a significant case of Brexit regret.

An UnHerd/focaldata survey conducted in December found the number of people who regretted Brexit outnumbered those who still supported it in every Welsh electorate.

Welsh farmers were among those told they would be better off outside the EU.

Beca Glyn, a cattle and sheep farmer from the Eidda Valley, didn’t believe the sales pitch.

Beca Glyn (right), who runs a farm with her father Glyn Roberts (left), said if Wales leaves the UK it might be able to re-join the European Union.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

“A lot of people’s votes were based on lies,” she said. “We have to live with it now and try to deal with the consequences of Brexit. I don’t believe we’ve seen the true costs … yet.”

Beca runs the farm with her father Glyn Roberts, who is also the head of the Farmers’ Union of Wales.

Not only have they lost unrestricted access to the European market, they can no longer rely on agricultural subsidies from the EU.

In Wales, those subsidies accounted for about 80 per cent of the average farmer’s income.

The UK government insists it has kept its promise to match the EU budget for Welsh farmers, but Wales says by next year there will be a shortfall of more than 200 million pounds.

Beca and Glyn are also concerned about the long-term impact of post-Brexit free trade deals that Westminster signed with Australia and New Zealand.

Welsh farmers once made about 80 per cent of their incomes from European Union support payments. Some like Beca Glyn say Brexit has made them worse off.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

They say if the big players in the southern hemisphere decide to export more meat to the UK, small Welsh farms could struggle to compete.

“[I’ve got] nothing against Australia, don’t get me wrong,” Glyn said. “But what I question is the fairness of the whole thing.”

As president of the Farmers’ Union, he is reluctant to involve himself in the independence debate.

But Beca has no such reservations. “If you ask me, it’s the right way to go,” she said.

Re-joining the European Union could take many years for an independent Wales to negotiate, but Beca hopes it’s achievable.

“Many young people are pro-independence … I don’t think it’s a matter of if we’ll go independent, but when.”

A ‘viable’ path, but not without risks

As the Scottish government charts a course for another independence vote, and Northern Ireland contemplates its future, Wales is also considering its place in the United Kingdom.

The Welsh Labour government has established the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales to find a better way of governing the country.

Last year, its interim report concluded independence was one of a number of viable routes for the country, but the government doesn’t support Wales leaving the United Kingdom.

The Welsh government has created an independent commission to help map out the future for Wales. It’s already found the status quo isn’t working.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

“I think it would automatically make Wales a poorer nation,” said Vaughan Gething, Wales’s economy minister.

He said the country spends more than it raises in taxes, so leaving the UK would have profound consequences for people’s lives.

“I see the union as being something that gives us a greater sense of security,” he said. “It gives us a greater call on shared resources and shared risks.”

Instead, the Welsh government wants to strengthen the devolved powers it already has and protect them against what it sees as interference from Westminster.

“The union certainly has a future, but it’s one in need of reform,” he said.

“We are going with the grain of Welsh public opinion. There’s still an overwhelming majority in favour of Wales staying within the union.”

The co-chair of the constitutional commission, Professor Laura McAllister, said the financial viability of an independent Wales would be a key focus for her team.

“The biggest question … is whether that fiscal deficit would be so substantial that it would threaten the delivery of key public services, and if so, for what period of time?” she said.

In Wrexham, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have been using their star power to put Wales in the international spotlight.(Foreign Correspondent: Shaun Kingma)

“Clearly our economy is poorer than big chunks of the rest of the United Kingdom [but] there’s an argument to say that’s been based on governmental decisions over the centuries as much as any intrinsic weakness within the Welsh economy.”

Whether or not people support independence, Professor McAllister said there’s a clear desire for more control.

“The Welsh people are thinking, well, why couldn’t we do it better ourselves with more powers?” she said.

“There’s a greater sense of confidence and belief, I think, in the Welsh nation around self-government. There’s a greater sense of Welsh identity more generally, especially amongst younger people.

“So if you put all of that together, it’s quite a … potent cocktail.”

Watch Waking the Red Dragon tonight on Foreign Correspondent, 8pm on ABC TV, ABC iview and YouTube.

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