Why is Wales not like Scotland?

In 1997 the Scots voted in a referendum by a large majority to have a devolved parliament with considerable powers. In the same year a referendum in Wales created a Welsh Assembly with far fewer powers, by a majority of less than 7,000 votes, about a half of one per cent of the votes cast on a low turnout. In 2014 nearly half the Scots voted for independence. The SNP now hold every single Scottish seat in the Westminster parliament save three. Three is exactly the number of seats won at the last election by the Welsh nationalists and they have never held more than four. [pullquote]This article appears in the current issue of the Salisbury Review magazine – subscribe[/pullquote]

The final proof that the Scots are overwhelmingly more separatist than the Welsh came over Brexit, when the Welsh voted with the English to leave the dysfunctional European Union. There are seven UKIP members in the Welsh Assembly which is in marked contrast to the large Scottish vote in favour of remaining in the EU. The Scots voted to remain mainly as a symbolic gesture of defiance against England. Perhaps too they deluded themselves into thinking that if Britain stayed in the EU they could play Brussels against London to their own advantage.

Why then are there such major differences between the Welsh and the Scots? The answers lie in geography and economics, in history and mythology.

Scotland is a long way away while Wales is not geographically detached from England like Scotland. Wales is a peninsula, all of whose main road and rail links run from west to east and then into England. The easiest way to get between north and south Wales is via England. Consequently there is not a ‘Welsh’ economy for the economic ties of North Wales are with Cheshire and Merseyside and those of the centre with Birmingham. South Wales’s most important asset is its three hour rail or motor way link to London so the tolls charged on the bridges across the Severn that link our two countries should be scrapped. They are in effect an unfair tax on the Welsh. If Bristol and Gloucester can thrive as an extension of the south-east of England, then so can South Wales, so the Welsh will become ever more tightly drawn into the English economy and thus of necessity English society. Senior management wives will be quite willing to live in South Wales.

Scotland can look back to hundreds of years as a wholly independent kingdom; they were not peaceful or prosperous years but let that be. That is why the Scots often talk about their victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but they never mention Oliver Cromwell’s defeat of the Scottish army at Dunbar in 1650, which led to the dissolution of the Scottish parliament and Scotland’s complete incorporation into England for several years. The Welsh experience is exactly the opposite. Wales has never been a united country with a single ruler and was conquered bit by bit by the Normans, leaving just a few independent Welsh princelings who later signed Magna Carta, a very English thing to do. Apart from a few brief and unstable years of independence under Owain Glyndwr (Shakespeare’s Glendower) at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, the Welsh remained a subordinate people until Tudor times when they were suddenly, much to their delight, given exactly the same rights and laws as the English. For the Welsh freedom came with incorporation.

The Scots can look back on two golden ages, though they conveniently forget that both occurred after the Act of Union of 1707 because the first language of most Scots was and is English. The first golden age was the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century, that shining era of David Hume and Adam Smith, Colin Maclaurin, James Hutton and Joseph Black, Robert Adam and Allan Ramsey; Glasgow grew immensely rich from trading in slaves and tobacco during this time. The second Scottish golden age came in the nineteenth century with its industry, science and the expansion of the British Empire when the Scots seemed to run not only Britain but much of the rest of the world. The Ashkenazi Jews are the only other small population who have matched the Scots for sheer achievement in modern times. The Scots were the wonder of the world, better educated than the English and driven to achieve by their fierce Calvinist ethic. There was no field in which they did not excel.

Now Scotland’s days of glory are over, English education has caught up and the heavy industries of Scotland, like those of Ohio or Tyneside, have crumbled into rust. It is striking that the strongest support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum came not from traditional nationalist regions but from the ruined industrial areas in and around Glasgow and in Dundee. Meanwhile the Presbyterian churches, those great sources of Scottish identity and energy, as well as piety and social solidarity, are close to collapse, and their buildings are being sold off to be fast food outlets and even places of ribald entertainment. Without the Kirks what will there be left for the Scots to build on? However, the memory of the glittering prizes of Scotland’s past remains strong and the Scots dream of returning to their old greatness. Today’s failures are blamed on the English, as no doubt is the fall in the price of oil and the collapse of the Scottish banking sector.

There never was a Welsh golden age and until the 20th century the most notable Welshman to have ever lived was the theologian Pelagius, Morgan of Wales, who courageously defended Free Will against St. Augustine of Hippo. The Welsh became an inward-looking people and unlike the Scots were trapped by a language that no one else could understand. The industrialization of south Wales in the 19th century drew in a huge wave of English-speaking immigrants from the rest of Britain. They assimilated not by learning Welsh but by becoming Nonconformists : Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists of their several kinds – and by voting Liberal. The Welsh Church Act (1914) which disestablished and disendowed the Church of England within Wales was the most successful assertion of Welsh nationalism.

The Welsh had become in all senses an anti-Establishment nation, for there is no respect for any kind of hierarchy in Wales. The Scots until recently deferred to their lairds, soldiers and empire builders but the Welsh were an amazingly egalitarian nation. Even the leaders of the ruling Labour party in Wales received no deference. A story is told in Wales that Lord Heycock of Taibach (his title itself contains humour), County Councillor Llewelyn Heycock was once found at a gathering in Wales looking disconsolate. ‘What’s up with you, Llew?’ asked a colleague. ‘You are looking pretty sour.’ ‘They are treating me the same as everybody else’, replied the indignant peer. Not surprisingly the main achievements of Welsh politicians in the twentieth century were the creation of the British welfare state by Lloyd George and the NHS by Aneurin Bevan. They did not do it only for the Welsh, but for people drawn from the same social classes who voted for them in England and Scotland. The Welsh have long since given up trying to fight the English and have devoted themselves to outwitting and manipulating them in the most charming and devious fashion. If you want to know what we are like read the novels of Kingsley Amis set in Wales.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, is too closely tied to the preservation of the Welsh language. Its most heroic moment came in 1980 when its leader Gwynfor Evans forced the British government to set up the new Welsh language television channel, S4C, by going on hunger strike like Mahatma Gandhi. Needless to say few people watch it so the audience for many Welsh language programmes is too low to be measured. Only about a fifth of the population of Wales are able to speak Welsh and of this number many, though literate in English, cannot read or write Welsh so Plaid Cymru’s support is limited to the Welsh speaking heartlands of west Wales where Welsh is the standard language of everyday use. These heartlands are shrinking as their young and ambitious inhabitants leave for the fleshpots of England and are replaced by elderly English folk seeking a pleasant rural retreat and by earnest, greenists fleeing those very same fleshpots that appeal to the Welsh. Neither of these groups makes much attempt to integrate with the local population, as with foreign immigrants in England. Perhaps this is why the Welsh voted for Brexit.

The census of 2011 revealed that more than a quarter of the Welsh population had been born outside Wales and most of these were born in England, a far greater proportion than is the case in Scotland. Furthermore most Welsh people live near to the border with England and there is a good deal of movement back and forth across it. Most of the Welsh people who choose to move to England in search of economic or cultural opportunities can therefore quickly and easily return to visit their families and original homes. When in England the Welsh are almost invisible. They do not live by themselves in particular areas, they do not make demands for special treatment and they tend to marry English spouses. They assimilate, yet they remain in constant contact with their kin across the border in Wales. In this way the dominance of the English language and both the good and bad aspects of English culture are constantly reinforced. Wales and England are too closely integrated for the Welsh ever to seek let alone become a separate country.

Both the Scots and the Welsh share the same problem, that of sharing the same island with the English, and yet retaining some control over their own destiny. Their problem has been greatly exacerbated by the abject failure of governments of all parties to redress the regional imbalance between the overcrowded south-east of England, but where there is no affordable housing, and the economically declining periphery – not just Wales and Scotland but most of the north of England and sections of the Midlands. The Scots’ response to their problem has been to indulge in defiant and romantic identity politics, whereas the Welsh stance is one of a worldly-wise and at times cynical realism.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain. He grew up in Swansea. Of his eight great-grandparents seven were Welsh and the other was Scottish.

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2 Comments on Why is Wales not like Scotland?

  1. I have the impression that, by and large, the Welsh are not as chippy as the Scots. In Scotland there are too many ‘jokes’ against the English, too much resentment and too many invented grievances. It’s all rather pathetic. In contrast the Welsh seem to be able to have a positive identity that doesn’t completely revolve around being resentful pseudo-victims.