Wales’s long and proud history as a nation suggests it will endure whatever political hurdles and power struggles it faces in coming years
— 6 minute read — By Sam Portillo
This 1st March, millions of people in Wales and beyond celebrated St. David’s Day once again, an annual occassion named in honour of a sixth-century bishop.
Dewi’s preaches and monasteries however, predated the formation of Wales altogether. He lived in Dyfed, one of the middling kingdoms in Britain borne from the vacuum of Roman military rule. He would have worked not in ‘Welsh’, but Latin – the language of Roman Christianity.
Much as the Welsh identity is juxtaposed against the English today, the terms for England and English (Lloegyr and Saeson) predated the native term for Wales. The term for ‘the Welsh’ was first recorded in 940 A.D., in a rousing poem which calls for the collaboration of Britons to push the Anglo-Saxons out of the isles.
The Celtic tribes of Wales endured influences, raids and invasions from the Romans, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Wales’s second biggest city in the modern day, Swansea, was founded by Viking settlers, who called it Sveiney. The Welsh label of Abertawe came later.
Following the infamous conquest of 1066, Norman lords began to establish lordships west of the River Wye. The new king William referred to the frontier as the Welsh Marches, and allowed his lords to practice a level of autonomy from his rule in England.
Inevitably, the noisy Norman neighbours stirred some unrest among the Welsh kingdoms beyond the Marches. In 1216, Owain Gwynedd – king of Gwynedd – received the backing of other Welsh leaders to become the de facto ‘Prince of Wales’. Owain’s grandson inherited the title, and received official recognition from King Henry III.
In 1400, Owain Glyndwr – who had once fought for the King of England – led an uprising against English rule in Wales. Despite capturing a lot of land in the early stages, Glyndwr’s rebels could not match the artillery strength of the English, and the effort fizzled out. Despite large rewards being offered for his capture, the Prince of Wales was never ‘turned in’, and twice ignored offers from his military nemesis to draw a line under their quarrels. A follower recorded his death in 1415.
Anglo-Saxons and indeed their English descendents viewed the Welsh natives with suspicion and intrigue. Their culture carried features from the myth-and-magic obsessed Celts, and despite consistent pressure, the people continued to speak their own language. Both the Anglo-Saxons and Normans shared a label for the people: Walha, Gales, Wales. Beyond dialectual variance and non-standardised spelling, they all meaned the same thing: foreigners.
In more ways than one, Welsh society has been shaped by the ground it is built on. It is generally mountainous, particularly in the North and East, meaning that the largest settlements formed in the South and West. This also explains why places like Cardiff and Newport feel exponentially more ‘English’ today than Wrexham and Bangor in the north, having been more permeable to English nobility in Wales’s primordial age.
The Industrial Revolution converted Wales’s natural riches – coal, copper, iron and gold – into a bustling economy. In close proximity to the south Wales coal deposits and with direct sea access to mineral-rich Cornwall, Swansea became a global centre for metal smelting. At times in the nineteenth century, south Wales was producing 40 percent of Britain’s pig iron.
Increasing demand for coal saw Cardiff, Swansea, Barry and Penarth develop into major coal exporters. Many historians believe Cardiff Coal Exchange to be the location of the first recorded million-pound deal in history.
Welsh landowners could elect members to the parliament in London from 1485. With the right to vote massively expanded in 1832 – albeit, only to men – Wales’s industrial workforce demonstrated a strong preference for politicians who represented the interests of the working class.
In the 1906 general election, all but one of the MPs Wales returned to Westminster belonged to the Liberal Party. The exception was a certain Keir Hardie: MP for Merthyr Tydfil and first leader of the Labour Party in Westminster. Two years later, the Labour Party – primarily concerned with workers rights – formed a formal relationship with the Miners’ Federation, sparking a political dominance in Wales that has endured over a century.
In 1916, David Lloyd George succeeded Henry Asquith as leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore Prime Minister, marking him as the first (and to date, only) Welsh occupant of 10 Downing Street. In a way, George juxtaposed the political zeitgeist of his home country at the time. At the beginning of his premiership, the Liberals were the largest cohort of Welsh MPs. By 1922, Wales only elected 2 Liberal MPs, and in comparison, 18 from the Labour Party. All the while, George’s position was only teneable through the support of Conservative parliamentarians, who generally did not have the same appetite for expanding workers’ rights as those in the mining communities of South Wales.
In 1965, the UK Parliament voted to flood the Tryweryn Valley in North Wales in order to provide a reservoir to supply Liverpool. 35 of the 36 Welsh MPs voted against the bill, with a single member abstaining, and yet the Welsh parliamentarians were helpless in stopping the move. Needless to say, the flooding of Capel Celyn stirred nationalist sentiment in Wales, with many viewing Welsh MPs in Westminster as nothing but an overpowered and powerless unit.
In 1979, the UK Government offered the people of Wales the opportunity to vote for the creation of a Welsh Assembly – a legislative body responsible for health, housing and education among other policy areas. Despite a tangible nationalist sentiment that had endured throughout the twentieth century, the electorate at large voted strongly against the proposal, by a majority of 80 percent.
Two months later, James Callaghan’s Labour government made way for Margaret Thatcher, whose vision for modernising the country energised her party and much of the country. The ‘Iron Lady’ intentionally accelerated the decline of old industries across the country, and where 28,000 Welshmen worked in deep coal mines at the start of her premiership, by 1990, there were just 3,000. In response to a national wave of strikes that had brought the country to a painful halt, Thatcher also drastically weakened the trade unions that rallied the miners together and represented them at the negotiating table. For better or worse, she took much of the industry out of Wales that had come to define its economy, society and culture for the prior two centuries.
At the second time of asking, when the next Labour government formed in Westminster, the Welsh electorate voted in favour of the creation of a national assembly – by the slimmest majority. Just 7,000 votes separated the two sides, but the decision was final: Westminster would devolve certain powers to Cardiff Bay, and for the first time since the fifteenth century, Wales would have a distinct political system to England.
Polling of voters in Wales has consistently exhibited a lack of consensus over the country’s political status. The largest cohort – just over a third of voters – support the notion of giving the Senedd “more powers than it currently has”, although this has fallen by 8 percent over the last year. At the same time, the numbers of people supporting independence and wanting to abolish the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) have grown. Many political commentators attribute this to the heightened exposure of the Welsh Government during the pandemic, which has either polarised voters in the way of endorsing Welsh home rule or advocating its abolition entirely.
R3trospect spoke to two young people living in Wales to understand the spectrum of thoughts around Welsh identity and nationhood. Through their votes, it is the younger generations that will likely determine the future of Wales’s relationship with the rest of the UK.
Joe Kidd, 20, is a member of Cardiff University Conservatives, and believes that Wales benefits from the political union. Moving to the Welsh capital from Oxford to study history and politics, Joe already believes that the union has had a bearing on his personal life: “I expect I wouldn’t be studying here if freedom of movement between Wales and the rest of the UK didn’t exist.”
Lloyd Warburton, 17, is a student living in Aberystwyth in West Wales. His dedication to processing and presenting the daily coronavirus statistics for Wales since the start of the pandemic have seen him amass over 20,000 followers on Twitter, and thousands of visits to his website. Lloyd is also a passionate supporter of Welsh independence, and belongs to the non-partisan ‘Yes Cymru’ campaign group. “Independence will give the people of Wales a chance to be run by a government that understands that Wales has different needs to the rest of the UK and will respect and act on that,” he says.
Joe cites the economic reality that Wales finds itself in as a reason to continue the union. “Most trade and business flows across the border to places like the North of England, the Midlands and the M4 corridor,” he says. “A majority of the Welsh population live within 30 minutes from England; the union ensures there is no unneccesary divison between the two countries.”
Lloyd believes that Wales’s separation from the UK would help to realise new opportunities. “Wales will be able to open up formal diplomatic ties with countries around the world whether or not we have a cultural or historic relationship with them”, he says. The opportunity to form advantageous relationships with other parts of the world was also a major promise of the Brexit campaign, which saw the UK withdraw from the European Union.
Joe asserts that any talk of independence as a realistic prospect is premature, and the apparent excitement among ‘nationalists’ is unjustified. “If Welsh independence was such a big issue, we wouldn’t be seeing Senedd election turnouts below 50 percent every time,” he says. “The most recent BBC poll shows support for Welsh independence is polling in the teens. There is no mandate for a referendum.”
Indeed, the latest data suggests that support for independence sits at 14 percent – or 1 in 7 voters. The polling sample included 16 and 17 year olds, who will for the first time be able to vote in national elections in May. Other polls have suggested higher figures – as much as 33 percent in a poll by YouGov in autumn 2020. While support for independence seems to be rising, so too does support for the reversal of devolution. The only comfortable conclusion that can be made then, perhaps, is that Welsh nationhood is an increasingly prevalent issue.
“Wales and England share a common ancestry, one that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years,” Joe says. “It’s a partnership different from that between other UK countries.”
“I think twenty years of a Welsh Labour Government has proven to everyone that trying to separate Wales from the rest of the UK isn’t a successful strategy, especially when it comes to performing with policy regarding the economy, education and health.”
When asked about his feelings towards Wales in comparison to the UK as a whole, Lloyd said: “I see Wales as my home country, and I see the world from a Welsh point of view… on the other hand, I see the UK as an old-fashioned, rather conservative place socially, and I feel no attachment to other parts of the UK as I do with Wales.”
In UK general elections, the Welsh popular vote has not coincided with the overall result since 2005, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Whereas the Conservative Party is consistently successful at a UK-scale, the Labour Party is the largest party in Wales, and has been since the early twentieth century.
“I think the independence movement is driven by a desire to improve people’s lives and give Wales the best chance at succeeding in the wider world,” he said. Lloyd will be eligible to vote for the first time in May’s Senedd elections.
Welsh identity has in part remained alive through the country’s language. It is the second or third most spoken language in the UK, depending on whether one chooses to consider ‘Scots’ as a language of its own or a dialect of English. Despite its association with mystical Celtic history, Welsh is spoken by over 800,000 people in every day life, and is very much alive and kicking, evolving to include modern words and terms, and being the medium of choice for quality music, television and literature. Even beyond the 800,000, many people who grew up in Wales incorporate terms such as cwtch, ych a fi! and diolch into conversation.
Despite centuries of political union, Welsh culture has proven to be remarkably resilient. The country has preserved its reputation as a ‘land of song’, and continues to celebrate the best of art and poetry in the Eisteddfod each year. Despite a relatively small-sized population, Wales punches above its weight in various sports – darts, football, athletics – not least rugby – its ‘national game’. Just last week, the Welsh men’s team defeated England’s by 40 points to 24, scoring four tries in the process and proving that the size of a country on a map does not always matter. As the eternal adage goes – there’s more to life than politics. And if Wales can survive Roman invaders, Norman conquerors, two world wars and the English monarchy, its identity will endure whatever political avenue it takes in the future.