Welsh nationalists are often most effective when they say or do little on their own accord, so unsubstantiated their arguments have been for independence and how unconvincing they have looked like an alternative party of government.

Think it harsh, you may, but this is the political reality, and has been throughout modern Welsh history. That being said, activists for the preservation of the language and some Plaid Cymru members have shifted the political tectonics in Wales – notably during the Tryweryn crisis and in the campaign for devolution – but still there is little electoral success to show for it.

Throughout the pandemic, the same trend continued. An extraordinary growth of support for the grassroots group, YesCymru, came primarily not because of its successful campaigning or social media strategy but due to the mistakes of the UK government and, ironically, the relative competence of a unionist Welsh Labour administration in Cardiff Bay.

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Paradoxically, like Adam Price, the First Minister’s comrade Keir Starmer has found it impossible since garnering public attention in 2020 to gain a respectable foothold in the polls. In a similar struggle experienced by the Plaid Cymru leader in Wales, the UK government’s dominance of the news agenda has shut down most opposition cut-through in England.  

Things are, however slowly, changing in Westminster. For the first time in twelve months, Labour have edged ahead of the Conservatives in the most recent surveys by Redfield and Wilton Strategies. The explanation requires little deliberation; Tory sleaze, fuelled so explosively by Downing Street’s contemptuous behaviour during the Paterson standards affair, is now back in the public domain.

A spate of stories has followed since the resignation of the North Shropshire MP – primarily of Tory parliamentarians, including former Cabinet Ministers, using the privileges of their day job to make private financial gain on the side.

The fact that the Prime Minister sought to protect one of his own caught out in such a situation, after Paterson had been found responsible by the parliamentary standards commissioner of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, emphasises that this is not a story of a few rotten apples but a systemic failure of the political system.

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The Prime Minister, as ever, pleads with the public that there is nothing to see. And while Boris Johnson may understandably insist the country he governs is not “remotely” corrupt, he is wrong. Britain has always operated tentatively on the “good chaps theory of government”, as put forward by historian Peter Hennessy, whereby the country’s unwritten constitution is left in the hands of “good chaps” that respect rules and follow them.

The National Wales: Boris Johnson's government has been embroiled in a corruption scandal. Photo: PABoris Johnson's government has been embroiled in a corruption scandal. Photo: PA

But what happens when the good chaps are gone? The last few weeks give you the answer.

Yet there is a wider problem. British politics has been fragmented and archaic for some time, long before ‘Tory sleaze’ entered the political dictionary during John Major’s premiership.

Take the House of Lords, the second-largest legislative chamber globally (proudly behind the Chinese National People's Congress), filled to the brim with political donors for decades. It was only the hostile reaction of peers to David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget that spurred the Parliament Act of 1911 to curb the Upper House’s powers. Quite regrettably, it was then the Welsh Wizard who so tainted the system by selling peerages to fund the Liberal Party coffers in the 1920s.

A hundred years after the "cash for patronage" scandal, you would think things would be different.

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The House of Lords certainly isn’t. And, what’s more, too many parliamentarians – a quarter of the Conservative benches, and others from different political persuasions – have outside interests alongside their work as an MP. This was brought to the fore following the UK government’s manoeuvre to throw out the sanctions against Owen Paterson and then amend the standards system in its favour. Such actions have, as my colleague and former Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones writes for The National, a “Trumpian air to it.”

Straight allegations of sleaze is no good scenario for any democracy, and certainly not for a state as fragile as the United Kingdom. But the combined and continuously unfolding events of the last few weeks – individuals’ own behaviour, the government’s response and wider spotlight on archaic political frameworks – can catalyse terminal decline. If, and only if, there are forces working actively to untie those frameworks.

Here is the opportunity for Welsh nationalists.

Adam Price has spoken time and again about how the pandemic exposed Britain's “crushing poverty” and “corrupt elite”. Addressing his party’s virtual conference earlier this year, he said Wales faced a “moment of truth”. Indeed, perhaps we did as Wales went to the polls on May 6; but the Welsh people decided to stick with Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour for another five years. For reasons yet to be properly publicly debated, Plaid Cymru lost that election.

The National Wales: Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyPlaid Cymru leader Adam Price. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Largely because, as I and others have suggested, of intertwined reasons including poor national and local political strategies and being overshadowed by Welsh Labour on the constitution, the pandemic and general competence.

The reckless pledge to hold an independence referendum, without still being able to answer fundamental questions on the economic consequences and process by which it would come about, simply did not appeal to the general public.

In spite of this, there is still a clear difference between Wales and England in how politics works and its actors. Of course, as Professor Gerald Holtham once noted, Cardiff Bay is not immune from “crony capitalism”, where the revolving door between business and government is so often blurred. Wales, however, could never rival the scale of structural political issues across the border.

The National Wales: Theo Davies-Lewis argues Tory sleaze exposes two very different political systems in Cardiff and London. Photo: PATheo Davies-Lewis argues Tory sleaze exposes two very different political systems in Cardiff and London. Photo: PA

The corruption that plagues Westminster is therefore a golden ticket for nationalists to reaffirm this distinctiveness. No doubt it will be used by Mark Drakeford to make his case for greater control in Cardiff Bay, and the difference of Labour compared to the Tories, but the long-term strategy of those in Plaid Cymru’s ranks and across the wider nationalist movement should be to show why Wales would be better off governed in a different way.

Economic arguments about independence will always be debated. Nationalism often flourishes, regardless. But in a nation like ours, which values its role as part of British society and as a modern constituent of the UK, convincing arguments will have to be made for a change to the status quo.

Making the debate about the proper governance of our country would be one way to show why the situation today is not sustainable.

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