Welsh nationalism is strong but independence isn’t yet on the cards — or is it?

On May 6, there will be local council elections across the UK, as well as elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. The Hartlepool by-election is also expected to be a nail-biter and is seen as a key test for Labour in the ‘red wall’. The attention of most commentators and politicians will be on key battlegrounds in England. They will also be keeping their eye on events north of the border, given the growing danger of Scottish independence.

But one Celtic nation that does not seem to be worrying the government or commentariat very much is Wales.


Welsh identity is strong

Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, no poll so far has shown that a majority support Welsh independence. Furthermore, Wales, like England, voted to leave the European Union, while Scotland and Northern Ireland, voted to remain. Therefore, the latter two have a more immediate and obvious reason for leaving the United Kingdom.

However, there is a risk of complacency in relation to Wales. Wales may still be pro-union (although Plaid Cymru is making gains). But make no mistake, Welsh identity is strong. For example, the Welsh government has gone to great lengths to ensure the preservation of the Welsh language (especially by making the teaching of the Welsh language compulsory in all state schools). The current First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, is a Welsh speaker, as was his predecessor, Carwyn Jones. In fact, Welsh is the only Celtic language not classified as endangered by UNESCO.

Roger Awan-Scully has made the point that the way in which the Welsh government (i.e., Welsh Labour) has embraced the Welsh language may, in fact, partly explain why nationalism is still not as strong there as it is in Scotland. They have used it to give the Welsh a distinct sense of their own identity within the United Kingdom, whereas Scottish Labour was often accused of simply being a ‘branch’ of the National Party. Furthermore, the Welsh Senedd (devolved assembly) was designed to be as different from the Westminster Parliament as possible (for example, they call each other by their first names).

But the fact that support for Welsh independence does not, presently seem to be very strong, and the fact that Welsh Labour has been savvy in navigating devolution, does not mean that British politicians should not be concerned about what is happening west of the border.

A growing nationalist movement?

For one thing, the polls suggest that while most of the Welsh public are against independence, those between the ages of 18 and 24 are most likely to support separatism. This should worry the British establishment, as it suggests support for independence will only grow in the future.

Moreover, the relationship between England and Wales has, historically, not always been an easy one. For example, after Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536, the official status of the Welsh language was removed. This meant that Welsh could not be spoken in the courts, and the language was suppressed in education as well. My great-grandmother was banned from speaking Welsh at school. If any child was caught speaking Welsh, they would be given a ruler or a stick with the letters ‘WN’ (which stood for ‘Welsh Not’) engraved on it. One way they could get rid of the ruler/stick was to denounce another child for speaking Welsh. The child who had the piece of wood at the end of the day would be struck/flogged. And as recently as 1965, the Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn (north Wales), was flooded to provide Liverpool (England) with water. Seventy homes were lost. This troubled history is something that could be used by nationalists in any future independence campaign.

Furthermore, it is worth considering how attitudes in Wales would change in the event of Scottish independence and Irish reunification. Would Wales really want to be in a union just with England?

In the short term, there is little chance of Wales becoming an independent country. But there are a whole range of factors that could come together to make it a more practical and tempting possibility — especially if British politicians demonstrate the same complacency towards Wales that they did towards Scotland.