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Divided We Stand

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Kenneth O. Morgan contrasts the differing historical roots of devolution in Scotland and Wales, and argues that the two nations may be on the verge of a renaissance

Since the Tudor period, Britain has had one of the most centralised governmental systems on earth. The elections to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly this May, therefore, foreshadow a new departure towards a more devolved, pluralist structure, even conceivably a break-up of the United Kingdom entirely. But they also show the historic differences between Scotland and Wales. Scotland now has a parliament with tax powers, Wales only a limited elected assembly with no powers over primary legislation. In the devolution referendums in September 1997, the Scots voted by a two-thirds majority for its new parliament. In Wales, with only half the electors voting, the assembly was endorsed by a mere 0.3 per cent majority.

The differences between the two are as old as the Scots and the Welsh themselves. Modern Scotland is the product of an Act of Union passed less than 300 years ago. Modern Wales is the product of an act of conquest, imposed on a fragmented people by Edward I over 400 years earlier. In the thirteenth century, when Prince Llywelyn’s last bid for Welsh statehood was crushed by the English, the kingdom of Scotland under Alexander III was recognised as enjoying sovereignty. Alexander was to observe in 1278, ‘No-one has a right to homage for my kingdom save for God alone.’ There was a territorial Scotland. For all its evident cultural identity, there was not, and never had been, a clearly defined territorial Wales. Its very boundaries were unclear. Where was Wales? When was Wales? A Bishop of St David’s was fiercely condemned by late nineteenth-century Liberals when he referred to Wales as ‘a geographical expression’, like pre-unification Italy. But he was not so very wrong in so describing the outward forms of one of Karl Marx’s classic ‘unhistoric nations’. Wales was assimilated to the English state thereafter, culminating in the peaceful passage of the Act of Union under Henry VIII in 1536-43. The Edwardian conquest not only meant picturesque castles. It also created patterns of English or Anglo-Norman settlement, confirmed with remarkable precision in the polling of the various Welsh counties on September 18th, 1997. The one great rebel was Owain Glyn Dwr in the early fifteenth century. But he never had the resonance in later Welsh consciousness enjoyed by William Wallace or Robert Bruce in Scotland. Owain Glyn Dwr never provided an epic Welsh ‘Braveheart’.

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