Welsh Independence

Background

Wales was last an independent principality in 1282, when Edward I of England finally defeated the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn the Last, after years of on-off warfare and manoeuvring. Edward named his son as Prince of Wales in 1301 to seal his victory.

The late 13th Century saw a series of unsuccessful revolts against English rule, and from 1400 to 1409, Owain Glyndwr waged a war of independence against England, reclaiming the title Prince of Wales for a time.

However, Wales was not formally incorporated into the English state until the 1536 Act of Union, under Henry VIII. As well as abolishing the power of the local marcher lordships, the Act banned the use of the Welsh language in official proceedings and documents - excluding much of the population from public life. Wales was subjected to English law and permitted to send Members of Parliament to Westminster.

Nonetheless, the Welsh language survived, and throughout the following centuries stood at the heart of Welsh nationalism, supported by a persistent cultural distinctiveness and shared sense of history. The second half of the 19th Century and early 20th Century saw Welsh nationalism, along with many other European nationalisms, begin to grow, generating unsuccessful home rule movements in the 1890s and again in 1910.

But at the same time, industrialisation and the decline of the Welsh language (50 per cent of the population was wholly Welsh-speaking in 1901, compared to 43 per cent by 1911) was thought to be eroding 'authentic' Welsh culture itself, to the alarm of the nationalists.

In 1925, the Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (National Party of Wales, later shortened to Plaid Cymru) was founded, but the domination of the Labour Party in industrial Wales left political, as opposed to cultural, nationalism on the margins until the 1950s. During that decade, Wales' staunch support for the Labour Party left it unrepresented during years of Conservative rule - exemplified by the decision to flood the Tryweryn Valley, which was not supported by a single Welsh MP.

Efforts were made by the Conservative Government in 1955 to foster a sense of Welsh identity, with the establishment of Cardiff as its capital, and the new reference in Acts of Parliament to "England and Wales", rather than just England. In 1964, the Labour Government established the Welsh Office and a separate Secretary of State for Wales in the Cabinet, creating a new context for the governance of Wales.

Plaid Cymru achieved a modest share of the vote in the 1959 general election, and won its first Parliamentary seat in 1966, securing more seats in later elections.

The Labour government of 1974-1979 promoted the cause of Welsh devolution within the UK, impressed by the German federal model and alarmed at the emerging wealth gap between London and the south east and the rest of the country. However, the 1979 referendum saw the proposed Welsh Assembly comprehensively rejected by a vote of 956,330 to 243,048.

Devolution was off the agenda during the Thatcher-Major Conservative governments, but remained a Labour commitment that was executed shortly after the 1997 election.

The September 1997 referendum produced a narrow majority in favour of devolution of 559,419 (50.3 per cent) to 552,698 (49.7 per cent). The Welsh National Assembly - a body without primary lawmaking or tax-raising powers, and excluded completely from large 'reserved' areas of policy-making kept at Westminster - was established under the Government of Wales Act 1998.

Controversies

Welsh independence is generally regarded to have generated less popular support than Irish and Scottish nationalism, which some say is a reflection of Wales' longer integration with England.

Plaid Cymru has been unable to consolidate its position as the dominant political force in all but a few parts of north and west Wales, and although it is the official opposition in the Welsh National Assembly, its numbers of Assembly Members fell from 17 to 12 in the 2003 election. However, four years later Plaid did manage to take three more seats from Labour in the 2007 election, although the latter remains the largest party in the Assembly.

Plaid Cymru has been accused of having an ambiguous position on full Welsh independence: it only adopted independence as an objective in 2003, during a highly divisive party conference, after years of promoting the more vague aim of 'full national status'. Former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley was famously emphatic that his party had "never ever" demanded independence. The refusal of leader Ieuan Wyn Jones in 2000 to support the adoption of independence as an objective led to many Plaid Cymru separatists leaving to form Cymru Annibynnol (Independent Wales Party).

Therefore, popular Welsh political nationalism is largely limited to the goal of winning more power from Westminster. Much of the perceived lack of enthusiasm for devolution shown in the 1997 referendum may have been because of the weak powers proposed for the National Assembly, compared to those proposed for the Scottish Parliament.

However, the translation of Welsh national sentiment into votes has also been hampered by the longstanding dominance of the Labour Party in the populous Welsh industrial heartlands. Much of the energy that might have gone into a campaign for independence is today channelled into the campaign for greater powers for the Assembly.

Subsequently, support for an independent Welsh state, separate from the UK, remains a minority cause.

Nevertheless, the leader of the Plaid group at the National Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has acknowledged that questions continue to be asked about Welsh independence and the party has recently launched the WalesCan website to provide a forum for debate and discussion about "how a future independent Wales would look."

Statistics

Political party groups in the National Assembly for Wales

Labour – 30 seats
Welsh Conservative – 14 seats
Plaid Cymru – 11 seats
Welsh Liberal Democrats - 5 seats

Source: Electoral Commission

Quotes

“Could Wales flourish as an independent nation? We think that Wales can. We have recently celebrated the first ten years of devolution – but we believe that the next ten years will be the real decade of change. Wales and her people are ready and willing to ask the difficult questions – and also to come up with the solutions.”

Plaid Cymru - 2013
 

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