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Behind The Surge In Support For Welsh Independence

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The United Kingdom is America's closest ally. The countries have fought wars together and helped build the liberal international order. But now America's old friend is at increasing risk of breaking apart.

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In Scotland, pressure has been building for a second independence referendum. Most people in Northern Ireland think the province will eventually reunify with the Republic of Ireland to the south. And even in Wales, 1 in 3 people say they would vote to leave if they could. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on this disunited kingdom from the Welsh town of Barry.

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FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's a cold, gray day in this former coal port about three hours' drive west and a world away from London. A small group of activists are waving the Welsh flag emblazoned with a red dragon as cars drive past, honking their support. John McAllister (ph) helped organize the event.

How did you do today?

JOHN MCALLISTER: I think the response was extraordinary. The local population of Barry is proving that it is overwhelmingly positive in terms of Welsh independence.

LANGFITT: How did you get interested in independence?

MCALLISTER: I've been a believer in Welsh independence for a good few years now just because I think Wales has been given the wrong end of the stick. And I don't think we are fairly treated in terms of the United Kingdom.

LANGFITT: This is a common complaint in Wales, the lush landscape of mountains, beaches and medieval castles. Wales is about the size of Massachusetts, where the politics are liberal and sheep outnumber people by nearly 3 to 1. The real political power lies in London with the British Parliament, which is dominated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party and England, which makes up more than 80% of the U.K.'s population. McAllister, who's 22 and works in a cafe, cites a famous example here. Back in the 1950s, members of the British Parliament, or MPs as they're called, voted to flood a Welsh village to supply water to the English city of Liverpool.

MCALLISTER: Welsh MPs overwhelmingly rejected it. There was outcry across the entire country. And still, because Wales is outvoted in parliament, it makes no difference.

LANGFITT: When McAllister uses the word country, he's talking about Wales, one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom. Each nation has its own distinctive culture and identity, as well as regional governments, which oversee education, housing and the environment. In recent years, support for independence has been rising. A poll in February found 35% here would vote to leave the United Kingdom.

RICHARD WYN JONES: Which in historic terms is, you know, remarkable.

LANGFITT: This is Richard Wyn Jones, a professor at Cardiff University who studied Welsh politics for more than two decades.

JONES: I'm really genuinely surprised by this.

LANGFITT: Jones says several factors are driving support for Welsh independence. A 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, which failed, inspired people here to think about self-rule. Two years later, when Britain voted to leave the European Union, many here who voted to remain felt alienated.

JONES: The kind of pro-European side responded to the Brexit vote by going, actually, where is the U.K. going? Do we really want to be part of a state that, in their view, is cutting itself away from its neighbors?

LANGFITT: Then last year, the pandemic hit. Boris Johnson's government bungled the early response, while people here gave Welsh officials higher marks. And Jones says in conversations here, even in business and establishment circles, there's a sense of fatalism.

JONES: The premise of the conversation is usually, well, we all know that Scotland's going. And there's a sense that somehow, Northern Ireland joining the republic is also inevitable at some point. (Laughter) And that leads people very often saying, well, if that is the future, then Wales, almost by default, has to become independent.

RACHEL BANNER: I think the independence movement is getting more organized, but a lot of it is just noise. It's slogans and sound bites.

LANGFITT: Rachel Banner (ph) opposes independence. An English teacher who lives in Barry, she thinks Wales can't afford to go it alone. After all, it has only 3.2 million people, runs a big fiscal deficit and is the poorest nation in the U.K.

BANNER: We've had 5.2 billion pounds extra in additional COVID assistance. If you look at the tax base in Wales, there is no way we would have been able to do that if we were independent.

LANGFITT: Independence advocates point out there are seven EU countries with smaller populations and argue that if Wales had complete control to raise its own taxes and borrow, it could build a more competitive economy. The British government has responded to rising support for independence by calling the United Kingdom the most successful political union in the world and says the country is strongest when its nations work together. A breakup of the U.K. would alarm the American government because it would distract and weaken a key ally the U.S. relies on for military, diplomatic and intelligence support. Any independence referendum here in Wales seems, at best, a long way off. But even fierce opponents such as Rachel Banner worry.

BANNER: I'm not going to pretend that there isn't a risk. I hope that we stay together. I think it would be disastrous if we split up, and I think it will be really bad for the Western world.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Barry, Wales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.