Welsh nationalism on the rise and the reasons are very similar to Scotland
It was built, in all its Edwardian Baroque splendor, as the civic seat of a place that was not yet a city, let alone a capital.
But Cardiff’s new Fifth Town Hall, its white Portland stone facade designed to sparkle even on the grayest days, was a statement of intent when it opened in 1904.
Wales, he proclaimed, does exist.
The building, whose style somehow echoed that of fine arts capitals and new world assemblies, was the first structure in an entire civic center complex called Cathays Park.
Here there was a national museum, courts, university, war memorial, police headquarters and ultimately the classic stripped home of the Welsh Office and then the Welsh government.
This, says Richard Wyn Jones, with a wave of his arm, was also where the first interior rulers of the early 20th century wanted to put their parliament.
Wyn Jones is Director of the Welsh Governance Center at Cardiff University, his office just outside Cathays Park. He believes this is the place you need to understand if you want to know what is going on in Wales as the political realities of Brexit unfold in the countries of the UK.
Wales, like Scotland, is reassessing its relationship with the British state. But he’s doing it from a very different place. The country, as Cathays Park shows, built a nation, while Scotland built a state.
“In Scotland, the ‘Union’ was based on the survival of a plethora of Scottish institutions,” says Wyn Jones. “Wales, on the other hand, was annexed to England. Welsh law has been abolished; Welsh administrative units have been abolished and replaced by English units; etc. This means that since the national revival in Wales in the mid-19th century, Welsh nationalism has focused on building national institutions – you can actually see this manifesting physically in the Civic Center in Cardiff where it is located. the national museum, which was once the national (federal) university, and so on. It was about assembling the basic institutional elements of a nation.
Last month, as Scotland elected a majority parliament for full independence – and a second referendum – Wales again put their trust in Labor, who won half of the 60 seats in the Senedd , the national parliament for the city of Cardiff Bay. .
The pro-independence litigator Plaid Cymru only obtained a fifth of the votes. On paper, at least, it looked like a victory for the pro-British parties. But it turns out that Welsh nationalism is stealthy. Labor, more and more, is, as much as Plaid, the party of Welsh and Welsh national aspirations, and not just in the gentle nationalist way of the old Scottish trade unionists and devolutionists.
Wyn Jones and colleagues looked at the results of last month’s big vote. Their Welsh Election Survey (WES), a benchmark public research, reveals hidden flaws. Welsh Labor – after a century of electoral victories, arguably the most successful political party in its country – does very well among people who feel Welsh while Plaid does well among those who speak Welsh. Supporters of both parties have a lot in common. Increasingly, this includes support for greater autonomy, if not independence, certainly autonomy.
The WES shows something like 40% of independence supporters voted Labor. This is a huge proportion of around a third of voters who polls support a Welsh state
It’s new. Welsh politics did not quite crystallize for two tribes for and against independence. So much so that a vocabulary remains to be developed to express this difference. There is, for example, no Welsh word for unionism, an idea which only really makes sense in a Scottish or Irish context.
Wales legally became part of England in 1536, generations after the military conquest, with a document which is now called the Act of Union, but which was essentially just the suppression of the law and of the Welsh administration. But there was no real union. (Even the concept of a legal jurisdiction for England and Wales is only decades old).
Language, quite simply, has not caught up with politics. “The independence debate in Wales is very, very recent in origin and I was really surprised at how quickly it took off and how normal it has become in terms of political debate”, says Wyn Jones. “It has become quite common for my students who support Labor, for example, to be pro-indy – or to support a constitutional change so drastic in the UK that it is akin to indy. But it’s still so recent that we don’t really know what this means for the country’s politics.
‘Plaid clearly sees it as their great opportunity to get out of their base while Welsh Labor is keenly aware of what they would see as the Scottish Labor mistakes and do not want to end up teaming up with the Tories as part of some great unionist love and thus push the very large number of voting Labor indy-supporters towards Plaid.
“It’s really too early to tell where this is going. I think the only thing that is certain is that the actions of the UK government to undermine decentralization are a huge boost to the cause of independence. ”
The Tories are eager to put a Union Jack on Wales, reaffirming their role as one of the country’s two governments. The party, which won seats while British populist nationalists lost theirs, has a demographic bulwark against independence. In the last census, 16% of people identified themselves as “British only” and 12% said they were “English only”. In contrast, only eight percent of Scottish residents described themselves as ‘only British’.
Wyn Jones believes the Tories’ continued dominance in Westminster – and the potential challenges to decentralization – will force ruling Welsh Labor to make tough decisions.
He says: “The domination of the party hides what is a major structural challenge. His ambition for Wales is what the FM calls “home rule” – a radical restructuring of the UK, including the end of traditional notions of parliamentary sovereignty.
“But while it might persuade British Labor that it was a good idea, it is clear that Labor is far, far from power in London. He therefore cannot deliver. Meanwhile, the Conservative government we have now in London is undermining decentralization, and while the Welsh government bitterly complains about it, there is nothing in fact that it can do about it. So where is the Welsh job going? This is the big question for the next few years.
Wales, as the smallest of the UK countries, may feel their agency is limited. His fate could be determined by events elsewhere, such as Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Welsh Labor leader and Prime Minister, the popular Mark Drakeford, was asked this month what would happen to Wales if Scotland left the UK. Britain’s “geometry” would change, he told The Spectator. “Wales should think about the relationship it would like to have with the remaining components,” he added.
The designers of Cathays Park, a century later, have made their point. While Britain falters as a concept, no one can doubt it: Wales exists.