A Wale of a Problem: The Welsh National Assembly. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

When the British Parliament created a Welsh Assembly in 1999, the goal seemed simple enough: to allow some self-rule in Wales in hopes of stopping the violence associated with the Welsh independence movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

The move was the first significant modern step in the centuries-old conflict between the Welsh and the English over control of Wales. The analysis of what a Welsh Assembly meant differed vastly between the English and the Welsh. In England, politicians hoped that allowing home rule in Wales and Scotland would help quell the flames of independence and allow for a more stable United Kingdom. Welsh nationals saw the move as the first step in securing their cultural history and language from the encroachment of the English. However, since the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, the clash over the political identity of Wales has created the potential for violence that the founding of the assembly was meant to stop.

The modern Welsh independence movement began in earnest in the 1950s when groups such as Y Gweriniaethwyr (Free Wales Army) started to form small armies. Between 1979 and 1984 over 100 violent attacks were attributed to the group Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defense of Wales). This led to the emergence of a political movement for Welsh autonomy. Welsh nationalism was not new to the independence movements of the postwar era; the political party Plaid Cymru had been a powerful force in Welsh politics since its formation in 1925. Its purpose had been to provide a challenge for the British parties active in Welsh politics but with movements for autonomy strengthening, the nature of Welsh nationalism fundamentally changed. No longer was Plaid Cymru simply content with challenging major British political parties; it became a party focused on protecting the cultural and national heritage of Wales.

The violence associated with Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru did not simply occur because of the general trend in the late 1970s toward agitating for independence by minority populations in Western Europe. Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru's actions were a result of what they felt was an infringement upon their rights by the English. With the decline of the economy of northern England in the l970s, many lower middle-class workers from the industrial towns began moving to Wales where property prices were lower and jobs were more abundant. The English, however, did not assimilate into the existing Welsh society and instead retained their desire for English nationality even though they were living in Wales. As a result, Welsh culture and Welsh, once considered the most resilient of Celtic languages, became endangered. In the period between 1975 and 1990 the percentage of the population of Wales that spoke fluent Welsh fell by almost 50 percent. The movement of the English into Wales came to be viewed as an act of English imperialis m by the Welsh nationalists. Their goal of preserving Welsh culture took on a new meaning; Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru felt that the migration of the English to Wales amounted to cultural warfare. While some extremist groups resorted to violence, Plaid Cymru consolidated its power and agenda, making the group a united political front that was able to challenge Labour, a major British political party, for the Welsh seats in Parliament.

The emergence of Plaid Cymru as a viable political party hinted at the division inherent in Welsh politics by the mid-1980s. Plaid Cymru began sending members to the British Parliament, yet it was unable to gain a voting majority throughout the whole of Wales. The dislocation of the English working class in the 1970s had effectively pushed the population of Welsh speakers into the minority. …