The march for Welsh independence and dreaming of a better, fairer world

35,35,199,213.041809Like the political meetings of old, yesterday’s March for Welsh Independence was a mix of the serious and the theatrical.  With the sun shining, there was a joyous and good-humoured mood amongst the crowd. A few had come up in fancy dress and far more had brought flags. Alongside the Red Dragon and the logo of Yes Cymru (the umbrella movement for Welsh independence), were the banners of Glyndŵr, Scotland, Cornwall and Catalonia. There was singing and chanting that any football crowd would have been proud of.

There was even some pantomime booing of the representative of Welsh Labour. But of all the speeches, he made one of the most important points. If Welsh independence is going to happen, it needs the support of people who vote Labour. The turnout and atmosphere at the march may have been uplifting but it does not change the fact that Welsh independence remains very much a minority position. An opinion poll this month had support for it standing at 12%.

This owes something to perceptions that Wales is too small or too poor but it also owes something to how nationalism is perceived. Although the vast majority of people across Europe are nationalists in the sense they believe in nation states, nationalism remains a word that a great many people find uncomfortable because of its historical associations with arrogance, racial hatred, and conflict. The Second World War looms large in the popular cultures of the UK and Europe.

That was not the kind of nationalism that was on display yesterday. The speakers emphasised that Wales is a country that belongs to everyone who lives here. They spoke of social justice, equality, the environment, feminism, and internationalism. They spoke of a Wales that welcomes people rather than shuts them out. It was a vision of a better world.

The current economic and political model that dominates the UK and much of the western world is broken. It prioritises economic growth and works on the assumption that wealth will trickle downwards from large corporations and the well off. It fails to understand that wealth is finite because the physical resources that generate wealth are finite. It fails to understand that communities and economies work better when built from the bottom rather than the top.

Those who support our current economic and political model understand that inequality is the source of most of the discontent that exists in the world. Yet they fail to do anything radical to tackle that and remained wedded to the very model that has created the inequality. That model needs discarding. As more and more economists are arguing, there is a need to replace targets of growth with ones based around sustainability, redistribution and well being. This requires a change in mindset as much as policy.

The United Kingdom is probably incapable of making this shift, at least in the short and medium term. But the longer nothing happens, the greater inequality becomes, the longer people carry on living in poverty, and the greater the damage done to the only planet we have.

A new Wales is an opportunity for a new economy and a new society built around principles of sustainability, equality and well being.  It is an opportunity to rethink our core principles and to start again. Even having a debate about independence can help deliver change because it challenges us to ask big questions and to reconsider the very way we organise our world.

Of course, not every supporter of Welsh independence would agree with the vision outlined by the new generation of economic thinkers or yesterday’s speakers. There are supporters of independence on the right who have a very different vision for Wales. There are also others who might agree with the ideas of social justice that independence could deliver but who are primarily motivated by the principle of Welsh independence. There were elements of that visible yesterday in calls and chants for a Free Wales.

The case for Welsh independence will never be won by such calls. Yesterday morning I told a friend I was going to a march for Welsh independence and she asked ‘independent from what?’ The majority of people in Wales simply do not regard themselves as living in an unfree country; they do not see the British state as an alien imposition. Survey after survey shows most people in Wales regard themselves as British as well as Welsh.

This is not false consciousness or Stockholm Syndrome. National identity is subjective, personal and emotional. Feeling British is no more ‘wrong’ than feeling Welsh is. Feeling Welsh and British is no more illogical than feeling Welsh and European. It is perfectly possible to feel you belong to more than one place. The movement for Welsh independence seems to be led (quite understandably) by people who do not regard themselves as British but electoral numbers mean it cannot be won without those who do consider themselves British.

For all the patriotism displayed yesterday, this is not what will deliver Welsh independence. What could deliver it is the speakers’ vision of a society that puts social justice first and it is the potential for independence to deliver a better, fairer world that makes it worth discussing at the very least, regardless of any question of nationality.

Yesterday was about optimism and looking forward. It was about imagining better ways of doing things. That is a message that has loud resonance and which can overcome doubts and fears about nationalism. It can win over people regardless of how they label themselves.  Whatever happens to Wales’ constitutional status, our society and our politics needs more optimism and the confidence to not just dream of a better world but to deliver one too. For our small corner of the globe, yesterday was a small but significant step in that direction.

 

 

 

The Welsh devolution referendum, 1 March 1979

It’s forty years since the 1979 referendum on devolution, one of the defining moments in modern Welsh history. This account is taken from my book Wales since 1939 (2012), where it is preceded by a discussion of earlier calls for devolution. The references have been removed but can be found in the book. 

When devolution became a serious political proposition after 1974, many of the arguments against it focused on its economic impact. Neil Kinnock was one of six Labour MPs in Wales who campaigned against devolution and his arguments centred on a belief that it would harm the interests of his working-class constituents. Kinnock told Parliament in 1976 that the £12 million annual running cost would pay for four hospitals, ten comprehensive schools, ten miles of motorway or two Welsh-language television channels. He argued, ‘We do not need an Assembly to prove our nationality or our pride. This is a matter of hearts and minds, not bricks, committees and bureaucrats.’ He maintained that his opposition came not from being anti-Welsh but ‘fundamentally because we are Welsh’ and want to protect Welsh interests.

But such arguments did not stop the reappearance of the old divisions over what being Welsh actually meant. As the devolution bill passed through Parliament, Kinnock claimed (wrongly) that children in Anglesey were being prevented from going to the toilet unless they asked in Welsh. Leo Abse argued that an Assembly would represent ‘xenophobia and nineteenth century nationalism’. He spoke of ‘a packed gravy train’ steaming out of Cardiff, with the ‘first-class coaches marked “For Welsh speakers only”’.

Others used more mundane arguments. Tom Hooson, the prospective Tory candidate for Brecon and Radnor, announced in the press that an Assembly would not only take power further from the people but lead to more dangerous rural roads in the winter. Aware that defeat was a real possibility, the government chose St David’s Day 1979 for the referendum, which Nicholas Edwards MP (Conservative, Pembroke) suggested was intended ‘to build up an Arms Park atmosphere and to smother fact and argument in a simple appeal to Welsh loyalty’. In response, opponents played on British patriotism. ‘Keep Wales united with Britain’, declared a full-page advert from the ‘no’ campaign in most of the Welsh papers on the day of the vote.

Political and cultural nationalists were uncertain what to do. The Welsh-language press was supportive of the measure but Dafydd Wigley MP (Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon) thought there was a lack of leadership on the issue, claiming ‘At the dawn of one of the most important milestones in Welsh history, the nationalist movement is unsure of itself, is afraid and nervous. It is like a child preparing for an important exam, but refusing to acknowledge its importance in case he fails it.’ Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg decided not to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, noting the absence of any provision for the use of Welsh in the Assembly. Indeed, Angharad Tomos, one of its prominent members, thought the scheme ‘a Labour conspiracy’ to tame nationalists.  Saunders Lewis did weigh in with a letter to the Western Mail that argued the question was really whether Wales was a nation or not. He pointed out, perceptively as it turned out, that if the answer was ‘no’ a general election would follow and the government would try to tackle inflation. This mattered because ‘In Wales there are coal mines that work at a loss; there are steelworks what are judged superfluous, there are still valleys convenient for submersion. And there will be no Welsh defence.’

Amid all the arguments there appeared to be widespread apathy and some confusion. Once the details of the exact form of devolution being proposed were known, opinion polls never showed support for an Assembly at higher than 34 per cent. Things were perhaps not helped by the fact that, unlike Scotland, Wales was being offered an assembly with no legislative powers. There was no rationale for this differentiation beyond the need to placate the nationalists and the tradition of administrative devolution both being stronger in Scotland. In Abergele the Daily Post found ‘a tidal wave of indifference’. A bricklayer from Ely (Cardiff) told a writer, ‘I don’t know what it’s all about. I’m not really interested. It’ll make no bloody difference to me one way or the other. I hear some of them talking Welsh in the other bar and it means nothing to me. They’re foreigners to me.’  Not a single elector attended one devolution meeting in Merthyr during the campaign. The hostile South Wales Echo noted on the day before the vote: ‘There are many people in Wales who are thoroughly sick of being bombarded with the views and counter-views. After all, it was an issue that the Welsh did not want in the first place.’

Apart from lukewarm support from the Western Mail, which saw devolution as an issue of democracy and accountability rather than cost, language and separation, ‘yes’ campaigners found little support from the press in Wales. The South Wales Echo played the fear card throughout the campaign, with editorials claiming that a majority of people would vote ‘no’ because ‘they are afraid of being hived off from the rest of the country. They are right to be afraid.’ The Daily Post, meanwhile, played on north–south tensions, claiming in its referendum-day editorial that Wales ‘deserves better than this half-baked folly … a pretentious little super council, housed in a Cardiff backwater, trifling endlessly with minor governmental issues and failing to achieve anything of primary importance’.

The most widely read papers, however, were based in London (the Sun and the Daily Mirror alone accounted for over 40 per cent of all English-language newspapers sold in Wales) and they paid scant attention to the vote, thus contributing directly to the confusion and apathy. Television was not much more helpful considering perhaps 35 per cent of people tuned to English rather than Welsh transmitters and both the BBC and ITV refused to broadcast the Welsh devolution programming on those English transmitters.

At the end of a decade when Welsh rugby had suggested a confident, even aggressive national identity, only 11.8 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the creation of a Welsh Assembly

 Results of the 1 March 1979 referendum on Welsh devolution

  Percentage of electorate voting ‘yes’ (percentage of turnout) Percentage of electorate voting ‘no’ (percentage of turnout)
Clwyd 11.0 (21.6) 40.1 (78.4)
Gwynedd 21.8 (34.4) 41.6 (65.6)
Dyfed 18.1 (28.1) 46.5 (71.9)
Powys 12.2 (18.5) 53.8 (81.5)
West Glamorgan 10.8 (18.7) 46.7 (81.3)
Mid Glamorgan 11.8 (20.2) 46.7 (79.8)
South Glamorgan 7.7 (13.1) 51.0 (86.9)
Gwent 6.7 (12.1) 48.7 (87.9)

‘Yes’ votes: 243,048 (20.3 per cent of turnout; 11.8 per cent of electorate).

‘No’ votes: 956,330 (79.7 per cent of turnout; 46.5 per cent of electorate).

Turnout: 58.3 per cent.

It was an emphatic result or, as John Morris, the secretary of state, put it: ‘When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know it is there.’

Whereas just under 12 per cent of the electorate actually voted ‘yes’, from 1975 to 1978 opinion polls had consistently showed at least 27 per cent of people said they would vote that way. By the time of the actual referendum, political circumstances had swung firmly against a ‘yes’ vote. Devolution was being proposed by a struggling Labour government that seemed to have lost control of the unions and the country. It came at the end of a ‘winter of discontent’, when strikes seemed to have crippled the nation. In the background were lingering doubts about the quality of Labour politicians likely to dominate an Assembly and continued fears about levels of public spending in an inflation-ridden economy. Moreover, the government seemed unenthusiastic and it had not produced its own campaign literature. One poll a couple of weeks before the vote even suggested that 12 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters were going to vote ‘no’.

Although the result was a comment on the political circumstances of the day, it was also unavoidably about nationality. In an opinion poll the week before the vote, 61 per cent of ‘no’ voters said they were motivated by the Assembly’s cost, 43 per cent by the fear of another level of bureaucracy and 40 per cent by wanting to preserve the union. The ‘no’ campaign’s arguments that devolution would mean the southern English-speaking majority being ruled by a Welsh-speaking clique from the north and that it would ultimately lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom hit home. One writer of a letter to the press feared, ‘It’s another case of jobs for the boys, with higher rates and taxes when England pulls out.’ After the result, a cartoon on the front page of the South Wales Echo showed a lady sitting down with a map of Britain on her wall, saying, ‘There’s lovely – still in one piece’. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg’s magazine concluded that the referendum had ‘shown clearly that this last decade has not resulted in any loosening of the British knot in Wales’.

Thus, despite the specific political issues of the day, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 1979 referendum also marked the majority of Wales asserting its satisfaction with remaining within the UK, even among those whose sense of Welshness overrode any feeling of being British. In the 1979 Welsh Election Survey, 59 per cent of respondents said they were Welsh rather than British or English but only 22 per cent of this group voted ‘yes’, while 42 per cent voted ‘no’. Those with a higher involvement in Welsh culture – be it through language, chapel, schooling or using the Welsh media – were most likely to have voted ‘yes’. This explained why the ‘yes’ vote was highest in rural areas but everywhere in Wales, despite, and perhaps because of, the mess that Britain seemed to be in, there was little widespread appetite for leaving it.

 

The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.