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.

Coupled with the coincidence of Welsh nationalism and constitutional reform, this defusing of the language threat molded devolution into an issue that the Labour Party mainstream could embrace. Why, then, did the referendum win so narrowly?

IN Ceredigion, in the heart of Welsh-speaking western Wales, the hills undulate around farmsteads, and there are more sheep and dairy cows than people. Six months after the referendum, John Morgan, the owner of a woolen mill, explained why he had voted no. He sounded apologetic, as if he'd already begun to doubt his reasoning. "I'm as Welsh as the next person," Morgan said, "and I'm proud that Welsh is the language of my home. My children speak Welsh. But I voted against [the Assembly]. At the end of the day it's just another tier of government. And who's going to pay for it? The taxpayer, that's who."

The question of who would foot the bill for the Assembly resonated with an already highly taxed public that was leery of funding "just a big county council that'll give jobs to the boys down in Cardiff," as a waitress in Aberystwyth described it. The promise by Peter Hain, the undersecretary of state for Wales and a Labour Party member, that the running costs of the Assembly would consume only 0.03 percent of the British government's £7 billion (about $11 billion) block grant to Wales was dismissed as a politician's toeing the party line. A general cynicism toward any expression of government undermined the Welsh public's enthusiasm for a new one, even one of its own making.

Ignorance played a role as well. Because the vast majority of Welsh people get their news from the London-based media, which covered the Assembly debate scantily at best, they were flummoxed by the choice before them and prey to bizarre rumors. Richard Wyn Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wales, reported that a third of the voters in one district believed that if devolution was successful, travelers would have to carry passports between England and Wales. Other factors included Wales's centuries-old sense of inferiority, and an abiding impulse toward imperial unity -- the flip side of Welsh nationalism. If Hitler couldn't break the United Kingdom fifty years ago, the argument went, why should we do it ourselves now?

After the votes were counted, the yeses and nos seemed at first to follow the lines of the language debate: with one exception the twelve counties of Welsh-speaking western Wales and the old mining valleys of the south -- worldwide icons of Welshness, thanks to How Green Was My Valley, even if today they are primarily English-speaking -- voted for the Assembly, and the ten traditionally English-speaking eastern counties voted against it. Electoral maps showed Wales virtually split down the center. But this image was skewed, because counties were designated in favor of or against devolution based on a simple majority of votes, even if the results in many counties were extremely close. A full 40 percent of the yes votes were actually cast in the eastern counties, which are far more densely populated. Feelings pro or con seemed to derive more clearly from generational and economic differences. Older people tended to have more at stake in maintaining a British self-image than voters who came of age during the campaign for the Welsh language, when the idea of a distinct nation called Wales had begun to take hold. Members of the middle classes had fared pretty well under the Conservatives, and had no ax to grind; working-class voters, however, especially those from the valleys devastated by the miners' strike of 1984-1985, felt so poorly treated by the British government that they could see nothing to be lost by bringing legislators closer to home.

EVEN if it was not a decisive issue, language did cast many shadows both before and after the referendum. Although it would seem that a self-ruling Wales would be the best guardian of its own tongue, Welsh has flourished over the past two decades under the British government. Public funding for Welsh-language television, for instance, far outweighs that for English-language programming in Wales. If the Assembly assumed control of Welsh TV, activists had to ask themselves before voting, could English-speaking Assembly members -- whose constituents will sorely need funding for jobs and social programs -- afford to be as generous as London politicians? (The concern is now moot: after the referendum Parliament decided to keep media funding under its own auspices.) Did activists remember the warning of the Welsh writer and Plaid Cymru founder Saunders Lewis, who said that if Wales should gain political autonomy before its language was secure, its language would be lost? Did they vote for the nation and cross their fingers?

Now the National Assembly for Wales is no longer a phantom possibility but instead is set to occupy a handful of buildings on the Cardiff harborfront. "Devolution is a process, not an event," Ron Davies, the former secretary of state for Wales, was often quoted as saying. With the vote over, the task before Wales lies in attempting to follow his example as a hybrid Welshman -- an English-speaker who has learned Cymraeg and wholeheartedly embraces the Assembly. Until now the British government has served as a buffer between Wales's cultural and economic interest groups. What will happen when the groups are thrown together? Will the Assembly become what Rachel Lomax, the former Welsh Office permanent secretary (now the permanent secretary of the department of social security), has called "a forum in which we can at last talk to each other"? Or will it disintegrate into what many voters feared: a Babel of factions arguing fruitlessly at taxpayer expense? Either way, the talk and all debate will be fully bilingual.

About 1,500 years ago native Britons lost what is now England to invading Anglo-Saxons, who called them "Welsh," which can be translated as "Romanized foreigners." Now, after all these years as outsiders on their own island, the Welsh finally do possess something: an opportunity.

Scotland's Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales will be the first democratically elected regional bodies to serve the distinct nations of the British Isles. As such, they may not only touch off far-reaching constitutional changes (there's talk of regional assemblies for England as well) but also help to normalize the institution of an Assembly in the political quagmire that is Northern Ireland. Plans for the National Assembly include gender parity among members -- difficult in a patriarchal country like Wales -- and an unusual election strategy by which forty of the Assembly's sixty members will be elected by a simple majority of votes, whereas the remaining twenty will be appointed according to proportional representation, ensuring a place at the table for all major parties.

No one -- in private, at any rate -- believes that the Assembly will have powers sufficient to run Wales properly. Plaid Cymru is already calling for a Scottish-style Parliament, and that may very well come one day. In the meantime, sixty politicians will soon take their places in Cardiff, and in so doing will define themselves and their constituents as self-governing citizens of Wales and not merely subjects of the Crown. For the first time Wales is in the vanguard, with an arena of its own in which the Welsh people can opt to heal or to worsen their differences. The late Welsh poet Harri Webb once said, "Wales is walking backwards into independence." Maybe the Welsh will turn around and stride forward.

Pamela Petro is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh (1997). She is at work on a travel narrative about storytellers in the American South.

Illustration by Jean Hirashima

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Ambivalent Autonomy; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 20 - 24.