Return of the Welsh nation

September 12, 1997

The Welsh will probably say yes to devolution, influenced more by the Scottish vote than by a clear sense of national identity, argues John Osmond

The real question being asked of the Welsh in the devolution referendum next Thursday is not whether they want an elected assembly, but whether or not they are a nation.

While the superficial arguments continue to be about issues of cost, bureaucracy and extra tiers of government, not far below the surface lurks a more impenetrable thicket of national identity. This is why Ron Davies, the secretary of state for Wales, says the issue is one of confidence, that the people of Wales should not be afraid to stand up for themselves. "An elected assembly will give Wales a voice, in Britain and Europe, after years of neglect," he says. And it is why the No lobby stress the perils of nationalism. Their president, former Labour MP and speaker of the House of Commons, Viscount Tonypandy, says, "The Welsh assembly will fan the flames of nationalism. When I was secretary of state for Wales my office was blown up by extremists who opposed the installation of Charles, Prince of Wales."

More subtly, No campaigners stress rifts within Wales, claiming that an assembly will accentuate them. "North Wales worries that South Wales will dominate," says businessman Julian Hodge, chairman of the Just Say No Campaign. "English and Welsh speakers worry that one group will benefit over the other. Labour voters worry that an anti-Labour coalition might, through proportional representation, run the assembly, and the rest of Wales worries that an assembly will take decision making even further away from them."

It might have been imagined that an assembly would provide a forum for resolving such differences. Nevertheless, such claims undoubtedly strike a chord and explain why the Welsh find it so hard to grapple with their nationality. It explains, too, why, even with the referendum just days away, many have yet to make up their minds. The latest polls indicate a fairly even split of opinion for and against devolution, with a substantial number of voters registering as "Don't Knows". This means that the final week of the campaign is likely to be decisive, with much hanging on the size of the turn-out. In the last referendum, in 1979, there was a four to one majority against an assembly, on a 58 per cent turn-out.

The large percentage of "Don't Knows" describes an essential difference between Wales and Scotland where, according to the polls, the majority made up their minds before the vote. It is not that the Welsh do not have strong feelings of identity. Rather it is that, unlike the Scots, they find these difficult to relate to institutions such as an assembly. Being Welsh is more diffuse and fractured than is the case in Scotland. There are many different Welshnesses - for some symbolised by the language, for others by the striking differences between the regions of Wales. The Welsh find it difficult to imagine Wales within an institutional framework, or even as a single entity. Communications in Wales run east to west, along the southern and northern coasts, rather than north to south in a way that would unify the country. Most people in southern Wales have rarely been to the north, and vice versa. Instead of Wales as a whole, the Welsh tend to identify first and most strongly with their locality - their valley, town, village or bro rather than with a sense of Wales as a whole.

Compared with Scotland Wales has an under-developed national press. Wales's "national newspaper'', The Western Mail, hardly circulates in north Wales, while the Liverpool-based Daily Post does not penetrate below a line drawn eastwards from Aberystwyth. Only 13 per cent of Welsh households take a daily morning newspaper published and printed in Wales; in Scotland the figure is 90 per cent. The broadcast media have a greater claim to national coverage, especially BBC Wales. However, the broadcasters are hampered by what are called the "overlap" regions, that is to say those parts of Wales that can receive English transmissions, from Granada in the north, to BBC West rather than BBC Wales in the south. It is estimated that some 30 per cent of the Welsh audience tune in to English rather than Welsh television channels. When, in answer to opinion polls on devolution, Welsh respondents say they "don't know" what to think, that is often the case. They literally have not heard the arguments.

Welsh institutions do, of course, exist - including the Welsh Office and the all-Wales quangos whose numbers have more than doubled to about 80 in the past 20 years. However, they are relatively recent. Both the Welsh Office and BBC Wales were only established in 1964, the Wales Trades Union Congress in 1973 and the Welsh Development Agency in 1975. For these reasons, and certainly in comparison with Scotland, Welsh identity is relatively weak in terms of institutions, and relatively strong in terms of cultural markers such as the language.

There have been changes in Welsh society since the 1970s when devolution was last debated and decisively rejected. The Welsh economy has been substantially reconstructed, with the old coal and steel smokestack industries giving way to more modern service and manufacturing jobs, many the result of global inward investment. The renewal of the economy has taken place within a European milieu in which the Single Market and the structural funds have been crucially important. So has the Common Agricultural Policy for Welsh farming which has heightened European awareness in Wales in a way not present in the 1970s.

Over the past 18 years Wales has also experienced uncongenial rule by successive Conservative administrations at the Welsh Office, especially that headed by John Redwood. More than anything else this has changed Labour minds on devolution. But perhaps the most extraordinary change is that, unlike in 1979, the Welsh language has not become embroiled in the debate. In 1979 the language was deployed ruthlessly by the No side as a source of division and undoubtedly produced a response. For instance it was claimed that only Welsh speakers would, in practice, be elected to the assembly - an illogical claim since Welsh speakers only constitute 20 per cent of the Welsh population. Today it would politically be well-nigh impossible to repeat this attack. Attitudes to the language have softened. A generation that felt guilty about its loss of the language has passed on. Welsh medium schools are flourishing, and because of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh Fourth television channel, and successful rock bands, the language is linked with modernity rather than with a dingy chapel-ridden past.

A key leader to have emerged during the campaign is Welsh Office minister Peter Hain, MP for Neath. His main message, constantly repeated, is this: "Does Wales want to be the only part of the United Kingdom ruled directly from London?" A Scottish Parliament will be set up, says Hain. So will an elected authority for London, an assembly for Northern Ireland, closely followed by development agencies and devolution for the English regions. "Wales will be seriously disadvantaged economically if we get left behind,'' he warns. "Is anybody seriously saying that Wales wants to be ruled from Whitehall while everyone else in Britain has more say over decisions which affect them?'' There is some evidence to suggest that the point is well taken, at least by business leaders who worry that development agencies in England might steal a march. This time round the Wales CBI is studiously neutral in the debate, compared with 1979 when it campaigned for a No vote. Moreover, the opinion polls show a 10 per cent increase in support for devolution in Wales when the No and Don't Know respondents are asked their views in the light of a Scottish Parliament going ahead.

Another advantage accruing to the Yes campaign is the eccentric character of the opposition. The Just Say NO campaign is an amalgam of a few dissident Labour voices, refugees from the late James Goldsmiths' Referendum party, and Welsh Conservatives desperately trying to play down their party affiliation.

Campaign president Viscount Tonypandy burnt his boats with the Welsh Labour party by appearing in the notorious Referendum party video. Tonypandy's friend, Welsh financier Julian Hodge (father of Robert, the campaign chairman) is bankrolling the venture. Media advice is being provided by 24-year-old Matthew Gunther-Bushell, former researcher for the disgraced former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. Intellectual ballast comes from law professor at the Swansea Institute of Higher Education, Nick Bourne, vice-chairman of the Welsh Conservatives, who lost a 2,500 majority to Labour at Worcester in the general election.

Given the nature of Welsh politics, personalities dominate. Labour's Ron Davies is a target for the No campaigners, dubbed President Ron as a result of his thinly disguised ambition to assume a leading role in the devolved Wales. He has wooed Plaid Cymru to the Yes side by assuring them that "devolution is a process, not an event'' and that the powers of the assembly will inevitably develop over time, just as have those of the Welsh Office. In 1964 when it was set up, the department had a budget of less than Pounds 1 million. Yet it now oversees spending of more than Pounds 7 billion.

On Thursday the Welsh will again be asked, "Are you a nation?" This time, influenced no doubt by the more confident Scots, more than likely they will hesitatingly discover that perhaps, after all, they are.

John Osmond is director of the policy think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Cardiff.

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