Wales – poor, peripheral, reliably Labour voting – does not really figure in the political imaginations of Britain’s chattering class. To the extent that its politics are noticed at all, it is largely through the prism of expectations generated by developments in other parts of the UK.
Most recently, this has led to significant interest in the extent to which the Welsh might eventually come to emulate the Scottish preoccupation with independence. There is indeed ample polling evidence that somewhere between 25 and 30% of Welsh voters would now vote yes in any referendum, with the shift towards independence particularly pronounced among younger, remain-leaning voters.
This level of support is broadly adjacent to where things stood in Scotland a year before the independence vote. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that external observers search for signs that the entrenched nationalist-unionist binary that defines politics in what some Welsh speakers still call “yr Hen Ogledd” – the Old North – is about to be recreated in Wales.
This kind of thing isn’t new.
In the late 1960s and 70s, the extensive civil disobedience that eventually succeeded in ensuring that Wales is a now a visibly a bilingual country was constantly compared to (and often conflated with) Northern Ireland’s troubles. It is only now, in part through Richard King’s remarkable oral history, Brittle with Relics, that the story of this campaign – resolutely nonviolent and with women playing a leading role throughout – is being more widely discussed on its own terms. Yet what remains perhaps the most successful and sustained campaign of civil disobedience since the suffragettes remains remarkably little known in the rest of Britain.
It will not do for us Welsh to get too prissy about this. Especially given that, in keeping with their colleagues in the UK government, many of our leading politicians have made good use of ways that expectations of Wales are shaped by perceptions of other parts of the state, to gain traction for their own political priorities. “If you don’t do as we ask, then our ‘nats’ might end up being as scary and powerful as those in the other parts of Celtic fringe” is a well-worn trope. Since the establishment of the Wales Office in Whitehall in 1965, those Labour and Conservative politicians who have taken ministerial roles there would have had even fewer cards to play were it not for the existence of Plaid Cymru.
That said, reading across to Wales from Scotland, Northern Ireland or even England – as has often been the case in the context of Brexit – is almost always to miss out on what makes the country’s politics distinct and interesting. Take that unionist-nationalist binary now so deeply entrenched in Scotland. To the bemusement and indeed chagrin of many outsiders, that simply doesn’t apply in Wales. Whatever the differences between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, most of their supporters – and indeed elected members – would absolutely choose each other over the Tories. Indeed, the amount of common ground between them in terms of values and beliefs, even up to and including attitudes to Wales’ constitutional future, is genuinely remarkable. It is the Welsh Conservatives that stand out as being different – it is always worth recalling that England’s dominant party last won a general election in Wales in the thoroughly pre-democratic days of 1859.
Meanwhile, while it is obviously true that there was a majority in Wales for Brexit at the 2016 referendum, it is a mistake – one which the Tories have continually repeated in the intervening years – to interpret this as a vote to ditch devolution as well as Europe. In fact, data from the 2021 Welsh Election Survey shows that 52% of leave voters in Wales (alongside 88% of remain voters) reject the idea of reducing devolved powers in order to “maximise [the] benefits” of leaving the European Union. If Brexit was indeed a vote for “cakeism”, then there is a Welsh variety that blends Euroscepticism with continuing support for home rule.
But while it is possible to make a compelling case for discussing Welsh politics on its own merits, it is also a fact that Wales’ peculiar position within the union means that – as it stands – its political fate is being determined elsewhere.
Notwithstanding the growth in support for independence at one end of the spectrum, and an effusion of anti-devolution sentiment at the other, in terms of domestic politics at least, the majority in Wales are relatively satisfied with their constitutional lot. A devolved Wales – perhaps with some additional powers – nested within a UK that is a little more willing to take seriously Welsh concerns: this is still the sweet spot as far as the Welsh are concerned. The problem is, of course, that this version of the British state is also one that requires the agreement of its other constituent units. It is far from certain that this agreement remains forthcoming.
It’s not just that around half of Scotland’s electorate and that country’s dominant political party want out of the state altogether. Although, it must be said that the potential implications of Scotland’s departure from the union for Wales is the subject of a great deal of often anguished speculation across Wales’ political class – the Kingdom of England and Wales is not an attractive prospect. More immediately, the UK government is already using Brexit as a pretext for rolling back the powers of the Senedd and Welsh government. Egged on by Welsh Conservatives, in whose fervid imaginations Mark Drakeford stands “second only to Nicola Sturgeon” as a threat to the union, the Johnson administration is busily recentralising power, for example by cutting the Welsh government out from the post-EU economic development agenda. This all the while fetishising a version of parliamentary sovereignty that is very hard to reconcile with any form of devolution.
It is impossible to predict the eventual outcome of all these cross-pressures. Welsh electoral politics continues to follow familiar patterns – yes, Labour will do very well in this week’s local elections. But under the surface, the tectonic plates that underpin the wider state continue to shift. The questions remains: if the Welsh aren’t going to be allowed to have what they want, what do they then do about it?