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All eyes on Wales - the slow march to separation | Matthew MacKinnon

Wales, on the western flank of the United Kingdom, is a proud, patriotic nation, with its own language, rich history and culture. A nation of three million people, the demographics vary greatly with over 600,000 people living in the two main cities of Swansea and Cardiff (approximately one fifth of the total population). Industry and business dominate the south and east, as a consequence of the rich coal and steel trade of the last century. Cardiff, the capital city, is home to the Welsh Senedd. Mid-Wales, the rural west and north, in contrast, are dominated by tourism and farming; less populated and in some parts, Welsh is often still the first language.

Wales is a land romanticised in poetry, music and the arts, a country of rolling green hills and valleys, with some of the finest coastlines in the world. In the market town pubs, politics is not the mainstay of conversation over a pint of local ale. Community affairs are of more interest. In stark contrast, in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, politics is a normal part of conversation, openly discussing the future of Wales and its place within the UK in the new wine and coffee bars in the gentrified districts. These debates invite anti-English sentiment, which the media of Wales has done little to suppress.

The devolution vote in 1997 asked the people of Wales if they would like some autonomy from the government in Westminster. The result was an extremely narrow leaning in favour of devolution: 50.3 % for and 49.7 % against it.

During the campaign, the full weight of the Welsh political, cultural and media establishment threw their weight behind the drive for devolution. Even popular Welsh music bands, such as the Stereophonics, Welsh rugby stars and all Welsh MPs supported devolving powers to an Assembly in Wales. The new devolved Assembly, now known as the Senedd, would be given the right to control the important areas of policy such as the Health and Education systems, The leader would be known as The First Minister.

The devolution supporters knew, however, that this referendum win would herald a new political era in Cardiff Bay. A mini-Westminster would mean careers and businesses could be built, public affairs firms established, and an army of civil servants and political staff to work in the newly built Assembly building in Cardiff Bay. Now, wherever you look in Welsh political life, the political make-up of the think tanks, pressure groups, charities and public sector is made up almost exclusively of people with soft or proud nationalist persuasion.

This new political establishment recognized that the Labour Party would dominate, historically strong in Wales from the outset. It enjoyed sympathetic support from the Liberals and Plaid Cymru, whilst the Conservative members seemingly stood alone as the main opposition. The narrow result on a low turn-out, of 50.2% in favour of devolution meant the new political establishment had work to do to persuade the people of Wales that a more independent Wales would benefit them.

Over the last twenty years, a movement to entrench their ideals in all areas of Welsh political, cultural and economic life has been ongoing. The Welsh language is at the forefront and has been funded in all areas, primarily through education, immediately being made a compulsory subject, to be taught to GCSE level. Currently, it is considering making all primary schools Welsh first language schools.

The push for independence has been gaining momentum over the last two decades but recent events have been pivotal in enabling the First Minister to strengthen his position by highlighting our differences to England and its people, rather than what makes us part of the UK. This happened due to the events of early 2020 and the pandemic.

The UK Prime Minister’s response during the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic was to include the first ministers of all devolved nations within the UK to adopt the restrictions imposed, but with the freedom to adapt them to the particular needs of their own demographic. This proved to be a pivotal point in the Welsh First Minister’s career. As with Westminster, holding daily briefings, Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford, re-imagined himself in the same state as Scotland, and this empowered him to force restrictions on the people of Wales that were different to that of England and establish an idea of us as a separate nation who do not need or should follow the restrictions given in England. On almost every decision made in England with regard to lockdowns in England, Mark Drakeford followed his own path to further compound the idea that Wales is different from England. An anti -English sentiment was not discouraged by the Welsh media, often, it was actively encouraged, when restrictions preventing people from coming into Wales from England, because of fear of transmission of the virus were established.

In the last two years, the political left has, on the back of this new-found autonomy, ramped up its push for more independence and powers to make its own laws from Westminster. it has made a pact with Plaid Cymru to promote more Welsh nationalistic ideals, and voted for an increase of members in the Senedd from 60 members to 96. It is in the process of changing the political geographical boundaries of the voting system which will ensure the Labour Party which has been in power for 20 years will remain so. Most importantly it has renamed the original Welsh Assembly as a Welsh Parliament – Senedd in Welsh, an obvious way of planting the idea that we could be an autonomous nation, ready for independence.

Welsh people who wish to remain part of the UK and consider themselves British as well as Welsh have had their position weakened over time, despite working with organisations within the Welsh political system to gain relevance. While considering themselves true Welsh in every aspect of their lives they recognise that Wales can never sustain itself as an independent nation and therefore oppose any more devolved powers being given, preferring the model of the umbrella of power of the Westminster government establishing laws.

So why does any of this matter? While Westminster frantically tries to create a solution to preserve the union with Northern Ireland and Scotland, whose first minister constantly calls for a referendum for independence, they have dangerously failed to recognise the push towards nationalism in Wales which has taken hold over the last two decades. They have not acknowledged there has been a remarkable shift in attitude towards independence over the last few years in Wales, not helped by the economic failings of the current Conservative government.

A poll taken in 1999 highlighted nationalism as 7 - 9% in Wales. It now polls at 25 – 32%. If this current rise continues, nationalists will soon be in a position where they feel support for a referendum for independence would be high. How have they achieved this? In un-devolved governance, the Welsh economy has stagnated whilst promises of Welsh job creation have not come to fruition. The default has been to blame ‘Tory England’ for any criticism of Wales’s leadership.

This nationalism has been spread through culture. More recently, it is football which has captured the imagination of the nation, with its rising popularity it is evident the nationalists have hijacked the movement for their own ends. Recent marketing videos, created by the Official Football Union of Wales push political messaging including footage of the 1997 devolution vote and nationalistic messages. Their recent appointments include former senior Plaid Cymru staffers to run their public affairs operation. At a recent event held in Welsh Parliament senior media executives boasted of how they are pushing ‘Welshness’ through Welsh football. What makes this concerning to a proud Welsh man and unionist such a’s myself is that their version of ‘Welshness’ does not include people like me. Their movement centres around the Welsh language and the government is using its powers to entrench nationalism and socialism. There is talk of a plan to send unions into schools to teach children about joining unions when they leave and have focused much of the new curriculum around their version of Wales, in an effort to entrench nationalistic group-think.

This two-decade movement is almost complete and apart from a few unionists elected in the Welsh Parliament there are few voices speaking against the one-way journey to independence. Independence or federalism will be implemented via the back door in Wales with little resistance as the people have been drip-fed through the media, sport and culture subconsciously promoting it as an idealistic goal with almost no reference to how Wales would fund itself or its consequences.

Westminster would do well to take Wales seriously and pay attention. The political establishment in Wales has separated itself ideologically and it is a matter of time before the calls for independence and federalism come.


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