Ambivalent Autonomy

The vote to create an independent regional authority did not come automatically to Wales, as it did to Scotland. The startlingly close vote reveals much about a nation that has both embraced and resisted a colonial mentality


FEW people in Wales went to bed early on the night of September 18, 1997. A week before, in Scotland, Tony Blair's Labour government had held a referendum asking voters if they were for or against a Scottish Parliament -- in effect, asking the Scots whether they would prefer to govern themselves for a change. More than 70 percent of them had said yes. But in Wales the referendum vote on devolution -- the movement to decentralize political power within the United Kingdom -- was expected to be a squeaker. Unlike the Scots, who gained a Parliament with legislative powers, the Welsh were being asked to approve a weaker, albeit democratically elected, Assembly that would receive a block grant to administer the principality.
At 3:30 A.M. on September 19, with nineteen of the twenty-two Welsh counties reporting results, the BBC forecast a victory for the campaign against an Assembly, and the first big defeat for New Labour. Then, around 4:00 A.M., the count was received from Carmarthenshire, which had voted heavily in favor of devolution. The final tally came to 559,419 for the Assembly, and 552,698 against, with just over 50 percent of the electorate having bothered to vote. The Welsh had chosen the path toward effective participatory democracy by 6,721 votes.

An old joke about God and the first Welshmen has God saying, "I've got good news and bad news. I'm going to give you soaring mountains with thick green flanks, perfect for grazing sheep; I'll give you beaches and coves and gorse-grown headlands above a plentiful sea; I'll give you rolling hills and valleys beneath which you'll find rich minerals. Your land will be one of the most beautiful on earth."

"Great!" the first Welshmen reply. "What's the bad news?"

"Wait until you see your neighbors."

More than seven centuries ago Edward I usurped the power of Wales's last native-born ruler, naming his own first-born son the Prince of Wales; Wales's legal system was dismantled; its mineral wealth was commandeered to fuel an empire whose first, involuntary colony it became; and its language was squeezed almost to a dying breath by the boa constrictor of English. Recent history hasn't been much more cheerful. From 1979 to 1997, while England (though not Scotland) voted in one Conservative government after another, the majority of Welsh voters kept up unwavering support for the Labour Party. The result was a "democratic deficit" so great that the economist Gerald Holtham assessed the situation as "nothing resembling democracy" and "unique in Western Europe." Plaid Cymru (pronounced Plide Kum-ree), the National Party of Wales, called for Welsh autonomy as early as 1925. It likens the principality to a colonial governor-generalship run by the Welsh Office and by agencies staffed as often as not by Tory appointees with no accountability to the Welsh electorate. Next month the office will be replaced by the National Assembly.

Are the Welsh afraid of freedom? When James Callaghan's Labour government put the issue of limited self-rule to Wales, in 1979, voters trounced it by a ratio of four to one. Even the Welsh cited as reasons a historical strain of national timidity and a lack of self-confidence bred into the country through centuries of subservience. A visiting African journalist told a local reporter in 1997, "The colonial mentality is more firmly entrenched in your country than in any other I have been to."

Yet devolution is not, as some of its Welsh opponents fear, a sly way of breaking apart the United Kingdom. It is aimed at sharing power, so as to avoid another democratic deficit. How much power is shared has so far depended on the eagerness of the recipients -- and on their political maturity, as perceived by the Westminster Parliament and Whitehall.

Unlike members of the Scottish Parliament, who will be able to initiate laws, National Assembly members will only be able to vote on secondary legislation. This is actually a significant responsibility. The Westminster Parliament traditionally votes on principles -- decreeing, for example, that every child in Britain must have an education -- but does not sully itself with the minutiae of administration. The new Assembly, not appointed ministers, will now see to the details. (Issues of foreign policy and macroeconomics, however, will remain under the jurisdiction of the British government.)

That Blair's government offered Scotland but not Wales a full-powered Parliament reflects the fact that Welsh differences with the English have been mainly religious and cultural, whereas Scots differences have been political and legal. Because Scotland was incorporated into the United Kingdom at the relatively late date of 1707, it had already evolved its own modern legal and education systems, which the British government allowed it to maintain.

Wales, in contrast, was officially appropriated into the United Kingdom by Henry VIII's Acts of Union, in 1536 and 1543, before it had developed the apparatus of a modern state. Like Siamese twins, two distinct nations grew up sharing political, legal, and education organs. Methodism, social radicalism, rugby, and especially Welsh became the apolitical badges of national identity. It's telling that for most of this century the nationalist movement in Wales has sought not only political independence but parity and protection for the native tongue, which is called Cymraeg (pronounced Kum-rig). Although Welsh-speakers were persecuted in the United Kingdom for more than 400 years, and today only about 20 percent of the population speaks the language, it is currently on a strong upswing and is becoming essential in the media and the civil service.


The Motherland

The 1979 Welsh referendum was the culmination of a nationalist movement begun in the hurly-burly of the sixties, and stigmatized for its vaguely "revolutionary" associations. At that time the question was essentially nationalist: whether Welsh identity should have a political dimension. Only later did the question become constitutional: whether an Assembly would improve the quality of Welsh representation within a reformed United Kingdom. (Many people believe that the United Kingdom is in the midst of the greatest -- if unacknowledged -- constitutional reorganization since 1688, and that devolution is the first step in a process likely to include not only a reformation of the House of Lords but also a new electoral system.) In 1979 the notion of limited self-governance was bound up with civil-rights-style protests in behalf of Welsh. Though modest in its goals (bilingual signs on roads, in post offices, and the like), the language campaign increased the fears of English-speakers that a semi-autonomous Wales would mean an extremist Welsh-speaking Wales -- a Wales in which they would become second-class citizens. No one in 1979 could have predicted that the very success of the campaign to protect Welsh -- which has made it the lingua franca of hip rock bands and common enough to be heard daily on radio and television -- would render language a nonissue in the 1997 campaign.

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