Why Nationalists Fail

The Welsh independence movement lags far behind the Scottish version. Why?

Welsh-nationalist demonstrators holding signs that read "Liverpool—hands off Wales" are dragged away by police officers.
Welsh-nationalist demonstrators protest the opening of the Tryweryn reservoir, which flooded the Welsh village of Capel Celyn to supply water to the English city of Liverpool. (Western Mail and Echo / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

This year, a graffiti slogan began to appear on walls across Wales. Typically spray-painted in white letters on a red background, it read Cofiwch Dryweryn—“Remember Tryweryn.”

The phrase first appeared half a century ago, on a wall in a Welsh seaside village, and the mural quickly became a local landmark. It commemorated the village of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn Valley, which was flooded in 1965 to create a reservoir. The “drowned village” was Welsh, as were the 70 residents who were forced to leave their homes. The water supply was destined for the English city of Liverpool. Remember Tryweryn: Remember what England does to Wales.

The destruction of the village was a deep enough wound to feature on the most recent season of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown: Over dinner with his tutor Edward Millward, a Welsh nationalist, Prince Charles sees a photograph of Capel Celyn. “I have so many places to visit,” he says, wistfully. “You wouldn’t be able to visit anymore,” is Millward’s brisk reply.

Cofiwch Dryweryn. Remember Tryweryn. Clearly, many in Wales do: Earlier this year, the original mural was defaced, and soon after, the phrase began popping up elsewhere, as if in sympathy. WalesOnline reported more than 50 sightings within a month, from Newport in the south to Anglesey in the north. “It’s a symbol of English rights over Wales,” Liz Silversmith, a Labour Party activist and environmental campaigner, told me. She had seen four examples of it herself.

A map of the United Kingdom with Wales highlighted.

The United Kingdom is a union of four nations. England, the largest, most populous, and most dominant, conquered Wales by force in the 13th century and absorbed Scotland in the 17th. (Northern Ireland is the most tenuously attached, having remained under British rule when the rest of Ireland became independent in the early 20th century.) The union has often been uneasy, and in the last two decades, independence movements in Scotland and Wales have followed very different paths. At a time when many states in Europe are threatened by fragmentation, what does their experience tell us about what these movements need to thrive?

“Devolution”—transferring powers to the individual nations—was one of the big political projects of Tony Blair’s governments, an effort designed to contain any separatist urges, allowing each part of the union to maintain its unique identity within the whole.

The plan was driven by the realistic assessment that there was no reason the U.K. should endure as an entity, any more than the list of “vanished kingdoms” drawn up by Norman Davies in his history of Europe: Burgundia, Litva, Borussia, Aragon. The decision to establish devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales took place when the former Yugoslavia’s violent splintering was still fresh in voters’ minds.

Now, Brexit has again put the idea of Britishness under severe strain. The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon, is agitating for another independence referendum. The last one, in 2014, in which Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K., may have been billed as a “once-in-a-generation event,” but her party argues that leaving the European Union has profoundly changed Scotland’s circumstances, and its citizens deserve another say.

Compared with this, Welsh nationalism feels like the dragon that has never roared. Certainly, there is anti-English sentiment washing around—Cofiwch Dryweryn—but its impact on the ballot box is limited. The nationalist party Plaid Cymru (the “Party of Wales”) holds just a tenth of the Welsh seats in the British Parliament (the SNP has more than half of Scotland’s) and has little chance of making net gains in Thursday’s election. Support for Welsh independence is at only 28 percent. When voters are given a range of options on further devolution, the most popular choice is to leave things as they are now.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the first devolved elections in 1999, Plaid Cymru received a higher share of the vote than the SNP. So what went wrong for Welsh nationalists—or, perhaps, what went right for their Scottish counterparts?

When it comes to separatist movements, James Mitchell tells me, “memory is more important than history.” Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, has devoted his career to studying the conditions needed for states to break apart. National identity, unsurprisingly, is key—but that identity is often mythical as much as observable. When we spoke, Mitchell was in Italy, where the far-right League party of former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has invoked the concept of “Padania,” an alternative name for the Po Valley in the country’s north. Salvini contends that the region is subsidizing the rest of the country. Padania, in its own way, is as symbolic as the drowned village of Capel Celyn.

That idea of subsidy brings us to another factor: a sense of grievance—or, to put it more neutrally, injustice. Both Scottish and Welsh nationalists chafe against England’s dominance, but Brexit gives the SNP’s cause an extra boost. A majority of the Welsh voted to leave the European Union, whereas a majority of Scottish voters opted to remain. Sturgeon, therefore, can credibly claim that Scotland is “being taken out of the EU against our will.”

Nicola Sturgeon and Adam Price wave to a crowd at an SNP event.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon waves with Plaid Cymru's leader, Adam Price, at the Scottish National Party's conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Russell Cheyne / Reuters)

Scotland’s economic case for independence is stronger, too. Ahead of the 2014 referendum, Scottish nationalists argued that any decline in revenue after independence could be offset by a “North Sea oil fund.” The exact figures were endlessly disputed, particularly because of the fluctuating price of oil, but the debate created the meme that, far from being a poor relation, Scotland was a country whose natural resources had been exploited by a government in Westminster. Most Welsh jobs, meanwhile, lie within 30 miles of England, and Wales’s economy appears more reliant on its bigger neighbor, according to Roger Awan-Scully, the head of the politics department at Cardiff University.

Geography overall is also a factor. The rural north of Wales is close to Liverpool, and it arguably has better transportation links to the English city than the Welsh capital, Cardiff, in the south of the country. (Scotland also has a more rural north, but it sits in the middle of the chilly North Sea.)

These are the factors no political movement can control: terrain, ease of car or train travel, and natural resources. In turn, these factors influence the development of civil society—a regional media and regional political parties, universities, financial institutions, and cultural centers. An independence movement needs citizens to be able to live full lives—economically, socially, and politically—within the nation it hopes to create.

Scotland is certainly farther down this road than Wales. It has its own legal system, and its parliament has more powers than the Welsh Assembly. It also has its own successful newspapers, including stalwarts such as The Scotsman (established in 1817) and the more recent National (founded in 2014). By contrast, the native Welsh media is much less developed, meaning that voters don’t pay as much attention to devolved politics. Awan-Scully’s team keeps track of surveys of the Welsh electorate that ask what they think of party leaders, at both the British and Welsh levels. In the latest poll, by YouGov on November 25, the most common answer for every Welsh leader, including the current first minister, Mark Drakeford, was “Don’t know.”

More than anything else, though, the difference between Scotland and Wales is a political one. Any successful independence movement needs strong leaders and a weak opposition. And that means the story of the two countries’ difference is intertwined with the fate of one political party: Labour.

When devolution took place in 1999, Labour was the dominant political force across Britain. It has reliably gained the most seats in every Welsh election since the early 20th century, but in the 1997 election, which brought Blair to power, it also secured a landslide in Scotland, gaining twice as many votes as the SNP.

From there, however, the countries’ paths diverged. After devolution, Labour’s Welsh leader Rhodri Morgan gave a speech putting what he called “clear red water” between him and his party in London; the message was that he was further to the left than Blair and believed in universal benefits such as free milk for schoolchildren and free medical prescriptions. It helped that he and his successor Carwyn Jones were both fluent Welsh speakers. (The Welsh language, repressed for decades by the English, is a potent symbol of national identity.) Today, the Welsh Labour Party still maintains distance between itself and Labour more generally. In the current election, its advertisements heavily feature Drakeford, the current leader of Welsh Labour, and barely mention the national leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Members of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh National Party, cheer during a joint conference at Caxton Hall in London. They are celebrating Scottish Nationalist Winifred Ewing MP taking her seat at the House of Commons.
November 16, 1967: Members of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party, celebrate as the Scottish nationalist Winifred Ewing takes her seat at the House of Commons. (Wesley / Keystone / Getty)

Plaid Cymru has, meanwhile, struggled to find a charismatic, unifying figure. The language issue has worked against it. While Labour benefited from Morgan and Jones’s fluent Welsh, which highlighted their distinctness from the national party, Plaid Cymru is seen as more exclusively for Welsh speakers, which limits its appeal in the more densely populated south. It is notable that the party, trying to overcome this, has recently appointed leaders who either do not speak fluent Welsh or even were born in England. It has also struggled to find the correct political space for its policies other than independence.

In Scotland, Labour has proved no match for its nationalist rivals. While the SNP’s Sturgeon has had a difficult year—among other challenges, her predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond is currently facing sexual-assault charges (which he denies)—she, like Salmond before her, has dominated Scottish politics in a way that no other party leader there has matched. After devolution, the SNP steadily gained ground in the Scottish Parliament, eventually becoming so successful that it effectively broke the proportional voting system, which was supposed to deliver coalitions, winning an overall majority in 2011.

As the SNP rose, Labour faded. It faced complaints that its politicians were, in effect, absentee landlords—they held Scottish seats but lived primarily in London. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Cabinet Minister Douglas Alexander, both Scots, made their careers in Westminster. (And since Scots Gaelic is little spoken, with around 58,000 speakers in the last census in 2011, Scottish Labour was deprived of a language to signal its unique identity.) A run of lackluster leaders were outgunned by Salmond and Sturgeon. And from 2010 onward, more and more right-wing versions of the Conservative Party gained power in Westminster, giving the SNP, which is firmly in the progressive tradition, a vivid opponent with which to contrast itself. It now offers Scotland what Blair’s Labour once did—a relatively competent, center-left ruling party.

As Britain goes to the polls this week, there is one final quirk to the story of the Scottish and Welsh independence movements: While Plaid Cymru is expected to stall at the polls, it is perfectly possible that the SNP will continue to thrive as a political force—without Scottish independence moving any closer to becoming a reality.

When I asked Ailsa Henderson, a politics professor at Edinburgh University, what was necessary for a successful independence movement, she named three main components: an argument that balances fear against hope, a narrative of a nation’s values being repressed, and an “other” to rail against. The SNP has all of these, and it has been given extra firepower by Brexit. Despite this, there has not been an expected spike in support for independence. Henderson wondered whether Brexit seemed like enough disruption to voters, without severing another old alliance.

Awan-Scully told me there is a phrase that often comes up when politicians talk about devolution across Britain: “And, to a lesser extent, in Wales.” The nation’s parliament has fewer powers, its legal system and media are more intertwined with England’s, and its nationalism finds a cultural expression, in language and events such as the Eisteddfod, that can flourish more easily within a political union. So far, its separatist movement has been unlucky in its leaders, and unlucky in its opponents. Plaid Cymru’s current leader, Adam Price, now hopes to replicate the SNP’s success in building a power base close to home: He is focused on wresting control from Labour in the Welsh Assembly elections in 2021.

The story of Wales and Scotland tells us many important things about how political movements succeed and falter, often depending on factors far outside their control. But perhaps the most important lesson is this: National identity is neither fixed nor immutable. It can be massaged and encouraged by strong separatist leaders or contained by skillful rivals who address the root causes of voters’ discontent. Nationalist sentiment often points to disillusionment with a political system that feels remote and unresponsive. This is why, as Britain heads to the polls, its politicians should heed the writing on the wall. Cofiwch Dryweryn. Memory is as important as history.