Visiting Scotland by train has always been an uplifting experience for me. There’s something very special about crossing the border into Dumfries and taking in those spectacular vistas as the train rumbles northwards. I’ve always considered this wonderful and spirit-enhancing landscape to be a metaphor for Scotland itself, full of glorious potential just waiting to be realized.
This journey also takes us through the lands of “Yr Hen Ogledd” (the old north), the heartland of the old Brythonic language, the prototype of modern Welsh and the seven kingdoms which established themselves in the intervallum of several centuries after the Romans left these shores in 400 AD.
The old Brythonic names of these kingdoms such as Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde), Galwyddel, (Galloway), Aeron (Ayrshire) and Lleddeiniawn (Lothian), are instantly recognizable to a modern-day Welsh speaker, and being confronted with a cultural link which stretches back over well over 1,000 years cannot fail to touch one deeply.
The motif of a Scottish journey is also quite apt, bearing in mind the lead-up to next year’s independence referendum. Far from being the dry, constitutional issue that some feared it would be, what strikes this keen Welsh observer is the sheer vitality and creativity of the grass-roots nature of the YES campaign.
It’s turning out to be much, much more than the process of political independence itself. It’s about re-imagining a country, re-imagining what sort of communities can be built within that country, and ultimately re-imagining what individuals themselves can be and become in such a new country.
It must be fantastic to be living in Scotland during such a heady and epoch-making period. Spare a thought then for your very envious Celtic cousins here in Wales.
The coalition at Westminster has just declared that Wales must now hold a referendum to achieve a small modicum of tax-varying powers for the Senedd. Even more depressingly, the political class in Wales seems to have meekly accepted this unionist diktat, with very few dissenting voices. Furthermore, Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones has kicked such a proposal into even longer grass by declaring that he doesn’t believe that such a referendum could be won at this point in time.
This situation – Scotland actively moving towards independence and Wales trailing hopelessly behind – is of course a reflection of wider historical factors. Wales lost its independence at the end of the 13th century, whilst Scotland remained a nation state for a further 400 years, enabling the Scots to build up national institutions in areas like education, law and media, forging a strong and enduring Scottish identity.
The modern civic nationalism presented by the SNP is firmly grounded in this identity, enhanced by a common language appropriated as a Scottish language for several centuries. Compare this with the fragmented nature of Welsh identity. Having had to share such a porous border with all-powerful, invasion-happy England, with no means of forging its own political institutions, the idea of Wales only managed to survive at all because of the cultural continuity provided by the existence of the Welsh language.
One of the great Welsh poet RS Thomas’s abiding themes was the ever-present threat of cultural annihiliation, suggesting in essence that all of Wales is border country. The further internal divisions within Wales was also well summarized in the Three Wales model outlined by political commentator Denis Balsom in the 1980s.
This model argues that Wales can be divided into three parts; Y Fro Gymraeg (the Welsh-speaking heartlands in the west); Welsh Wales (the old industrial areas in the valleys, strongly Welsh identifying, albeit through the medium of English); and British Wales (parts of north-east Wales, southern Pembrokeshire, and the two big cities in the south, Cardiff and Newport, areas which have traditionally identified themselves as more British than Welsh).
Since devolution in 1999, politicians and opinion-formers have hesitatingly attempted to construct a Civic Wales project, seeking to unite these disparate areas in order to move Wales forwards. There are however some major problems with this approach. The Civic Wales project is fast marginalizing the Welsh language (currently spoken by around 23% of the population), in order to achieve a pan-Wales consensus through the medium of English. It pays lip-service to the idea of a “bilingual Wales”, while shying away from any real measures to tackle the growing anglicization in Y Fro Gymraeg.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the Civic Wales project is a really no more than a regionalist approach driven primarily by the tribal needs of Welsh Labour to maintain their vice-like grip on Wales and retain the comfort blanket provided by Westminster. Under this vision, Wales is really no more than a convenient administrative unit, which poses no threat to the British status quo.
Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party, obviously has to be part of the Civic Wales project, but in doing so, there’s a danger of the party being co-opted into the project’s utilitarian rationale. Over the past few years, Plaid has modelled its approach on the SNP’s vision for Scotland, aiming for independence, but also emphasizing the catch-all terms of accountability, responsibility, and democracy.
The party has a new female leader in Leanne Wood who is starting to make an impact, and who is probably more in touch with grass-roots nationalists in Wales than any previous leader in Plaid Cymru’s 85-year history. But some wonder whether Plaid’s bid to replicate the Civic Scotland approach is really enough in Wales at this point in time.
What seems to be missing from the Civic Wales project is any consistent and trenchant critique of the British state and how it has created the problems that we actually face in Wales today, reflected in the fact that there’s something like a £9 billion deficit in the Welsh budget despite it suffering from some of the worst poverty, ill-health, obesity and mental health problems to be seen in the whole of Europe.
Unfortunately, the political consensus insisted upon with the Civic Wales project means that the damage the UK is continuing to inflict on our country has to be constantly downplayed. Plaid Cymru are doing a good job of holding Welsh Labour to account in the Senedd, but almost 15 years after the arrival of devolution, Wales desperately needs more nationalist voices.
Scotland has the SNP, SSP, Scottish Greens and a growing faction within Labour all actively campaigning for independence. Achieving this type of nationalist plurality is just as important for Wales. To that end a new party, Plaid Glyndwr, has recently been formed to contest the UK and Welsh elections in 2015 and 2016, promising a more political, as opposed to cultural, nationalism than that of Plaid Cymru.
Whatever the implications for our own particular journey, apart from the grassroots momentum mentioned earlier, two additional factors suggest that Yes will prevail in Scotland next September.
UKIP is likely to do very well in next year’s European elections in England, taking votes from the three main unionist parties. This will obviously shift the whole political terrain at Westminster to the right, and is surely likely to influence how Scottish voters approach the independence issue a few months later.
But there’s at least an upside to that grim prospect. Such success for UKIP will also introduce an all-important change meme into the political landscape – that the British state in its present format is no longer fit for purpose.
*Aled Job is branch secretary for Plaid Cymru in Felinheli, NW Wales.