My parents and I were driving through Haverfordwest in South Wales – Batman country – when an insistent voice came on the radio. “Do you want to know what’s wrong with the roads?” it asked of the talk show host. “It’s the English. They all come over here and none of them can drive properly.” At which point, this voice was hurriedly ushered off the airwaves.
It struck me then, ten years ago, as it strikes me now: there is nationalism in Wales, just not of the same sort as there is in Scotland. At its angriest, Scottish nationalism strikes out at the English people south of the border. By contrast, Welsh nationalism is more likely to strike out at the English people who have crossed over the border. People such as my family and me. We’re the ones diluting the pool of Welsh speakers. We’re the ones who can’t drive properly.
As so often, it’s mostly about demographics. The last census revealed that 21 per cent of people living in Wales were actually born in England. In Scotland, the proportion is 9 per cent. If you extrapolate the trends into the future, Welsh people could be outnumbered in their own country by around 2080. I think they call that a Dai-stopia.
And why would such an Anglicised country ever vote to separate from England? According to that same census, it’s already the case that only 66 per cent of people living in Wales identify as Welsh. In England, 70 per cent identify as English. In Scotland, a full 83 per cent identify as Scottish. The politics are contained within those proportions. In a way, the Welsh people don’t clamour for independence because there aren’t that many of them.
There are other reasons too, of course. Wales’s union with England is basically 200 years older than Scotland’s – so the two countries have had longer to get acquainted. And that acquaintanceship has evolved into a form of dependency. Wales may not receive as much public money per person as Scotland does, but there also seems to be less enthusiasm to live without it. This is, after all, a small country that has been impoverished by decades of deindustrialisation. It doesn’t have the solace of any North Sea oil reserves.
All of which is to say: the cause of Welsh independence is unlikely to take off. But that doesn’t mean it will never rise from the Valleys. Anyone flirting with complacency on that front should compare the results of Wales’s various referenda on devolution. In 1979, only 20.3 per cent of voters wanted a Welsh Assembly. In 1997, after which the Assembly was established, that proportion had risen to 50.3 per cent. And last year, 63.5 per cent of people wanted that same Assembly to gain more powers. In just over thirty years, opinions have changed dramatically.
This goes to show the importance of political context. One difference between ‘97 and the 70s was that devolution had become a relatively uncontested part of cool, new Tony Blair’s cool, new Britannia. One difference between now and ‘97 is that Welsh Labour, the governing party in Wales, has worked to distinguish itself from its UK equivalent, and consistently calls for more and more powers. Devolution is the new default.
Will Scotland’s referendum alter this context? The truth is that, whatever tomorrow’s result, it already has. The leadership of Plaid Cymru – which historically has struggled to commit fully to independence – is panting enthusiastically at the Scottish example, and asking why Wales shouldn’t have the same. The First Minister, Welsh Labour’s Carwyn Jones, has responded by demanding a whole smorgasbord of new powers. “What is on offer to Scotland should be on offer to Wales,” is how he put it recently. The SNP has encouragé les autres.
This emboldened Welsh politics will remain in the case of a No vote. But what about a Yes vote? If Scotland disbands from the United Kingdom, England will represent 92 per cent of the remaining population. The great and terrible question that will lour over the Union, in that case, is whether Wales feels unfairly treated by the 92-percenters.
This is where those quick-changin’ demographics should come into play, but they might not be decisive. As the Scottish campaign testifies, nationalism isn’t always simply about nationalism. It is often a handy vessel for other disgruntlements. If you’re down and out in Aberystwyth, wherever you were born, then you may feel that Westminster is a distant and disinterested place. Plaid Cymru could capitalise on that sentiment, just as the SNP has done in Scotland, and UKIP is looking to do in England.
Welsh Labour, although it has failed in so many significant ways, has already demonstrated one method for lessening that threat. When it rebranded itself away from Blair’s Labour in 2000, it ostentatiously draped itself in the Welsh flag. That’s why Jones and his ministers talk incessantly about devolution. They want to take away the point of Plaid.
Judging by the latest opinion polls, they’re succeeding. Even at the feverish climax of Scotland’s referendum, only 17 per cent of Welsh people want independence for their own country. But public opinion is a fragile thing that can bend in the wind. Rebranding and flag-waving isn’t a strong enough bulwark against nationalism.
And so I alight on a point that I have made many times before: on ConservativeHome, in a couple of articles for the Times, and even in a recent film review for the Spectator. Poverty is rife within Wales. Its public services are sclerotic. Its people and businesses have been let down by both political action and inaction. Yet Westminster seems to barely mention it, much less care. If the Union is to be spared another a referendum, that must change.