Devolution for Wales follows naturally, in many minds, after devolution in Scotland. But Wales is not Scotland; in fact it has almost nothing in common with Scotland except beautiful scenery.
Scotland was an independent kingdom for centuries. There has never been a firmly established Welsh state. Edinburgh has long been the capital of Scotland. Cardiff was first recognised as capital of Wales in 1955. The Scots are a people. The Welsh – if by that we mean those British subjects who now live in the geographical unit we call Wales – are not a people.
That has not always been so. The Cymru (as they call themselves) were for many centuries the principal inhabitants of large areas of Wales, particularly the uplands. They and related peoples had originally occupied the whole island of Britain, but with the invasion of Teutonic tribes in the Dark Ages, they were driven back into the hills, which were less attractive as agricultural land and easier to defend. The natural border where the Welsh hills begin was fought over for centuries, with the invaders penetrating also (where they could) the fertile river valleys that intersect the hills. Wales was conquered, with much difficulty, by Edward I, and English colonies were established round his castles along the coast.
Then four things transformed Wales. The first was the battle of Bosworth, where Welshman Henry Tudor defeated Richard III and became King Henry VII of England. He brought with him to London Welsh supporters. He favoured them and they prospered in England in a way they could never have prospered in Wales. One of them was called David Syssil. The Cecil family which he founded became one of the great political families of England and still is. Another was called Morgan Williams. He settled in London in the wake of the new King and married Katharine Cromwell, sister of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VII’s great minister. His son Sir Richard Williams adopted the Cromwell name in 1544. Sir Richard Cromwell’s great grandson was called Oliver.
Thus a tradition was established by which ambitious young Welshmen, like ambitious young men from all parts of England, came to seek their fortune in London, where it was said, the streets were paved with gold. By contrast, Scotland had its own universities and commercial opportunities and most ambitious young Scots were drawn naturally to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
When in the 18th century, England became the centre of the Industrial Revolution, Welshmen were drawn into the new factories in large numbers: Birmingham and the Black Country, in particular, are very near Wales and to this day, Welsh surnames are common in the West Midlands. Then occurred a movement of population in the reverse direction, when the South Wales coalfield was first developed and experienced miners were brought in from Newcastle. And finally, in the later nineteenth century, when the better-off people in the industrial centres of North West England and the Midlands started to be able to afford seaside holidays, the railways were there to take them to the Welsh coast. Fishing villages became holiday towns and English people stayed on there to open boarding houses or to retire.
For all these reasons, the destinies and people of England and Wales have been very closely bound up with one another for centuries in a way which is very different from anything which has happened in Scotland.
The areas of Wales least affected by these changes remained Welsh-speaking and, in the eighteenth century, experienced a nonconformist religious revival. The tradition of eloquent chapel preaching developed into the oratorical brilliance of Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan. The close association between the Welsh language and nonconformity became the origin of what we now call Welsh nationalism.
What makes some parts of Wales very different from England today is the persistence of the everyday use of the Welsh language and the vigorous traditions of beautiful Welsh-language poetry and music. But today, only about 20% of the population of Wales can speak Welsh, and all of them are also bilingual in English. They watch TV in English, they often use English in their lives outside the home; they are drawn into the international world of the English language. But they place great value on the Welsh language and its traditions and they are concerned lest their children forget them. If they support Plaid Cymru and Welsh devolution, it’s not because of any particular political aspirations, it’s because they see Welsh devolution as a means of preserving the Welsh culture that they love.
Plaid Cymru has never controlled the Welsh Government and it is not very likely to do so in the future. But Wales is ruled by a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. The deal is that Plaid Cymru will support Labour in power and in return the resources of the state in Wales shall be concentrated above all on the perpetuation of the Welsh language. It’s called the Welsh Language Policy.
All road signs and street names in Wales are in Welsh as well as English. Everything that happens in the political world of Wales has to be heard or read in both Welsh and English. Welsh speakers are employed in large numbers as translators and interpreters. In fact, it has become more and more difficult to get any job in the state sector in Wales if one does not speak Welsh.
But the effect of the Welsh Language Policy is felt above all, as might be expected, in education. Welsh schools are probably at least as good as English schools, maybe better. But if you want your child to be well educated in Wales, you send him or her to a Welsh-language school or into the Welsh-language stream of a mixed language school. That is where the class sizes are smaller and the money is being spent. Your child grows up speaking Welsh as well as English; but he has been taught to write essays in Welsh and has learned technical and scientific language in Welsh. These skills are likely to be of limited usefulness outside the state sector in Wales.
I live in Wales and I’m partly of Welsh ancestry but I don’t speak Welsh and I consider myself English. I admire the old Welsh traditions greatly and I don’t want them to perish. I agree with the many Welsh speakers who dislike so much of what we read and hear on the media in English and American English. But the Welsh Language Policy is unacceptable. And I believe that discussion of the principle of Welsh devolution needs to be informed by an awareness of some of its effects in practice.