The political history of the United Kingdom

Thomas Glyn Watkin reflects on the history of Wales as a nation, the uniqueness of the current devolution settlement, and the promising future that the Welsh hold in their grasp. Watkin observes how the Welsh have the ability to absorb the new, while retaining values from the past. Continuing, he argues that the Welsh have an uncompromising national identity where determination is evident throughout the past and into the present, despite fragmented government and differing legal systems.

Concluding, Watkin puts forth his belief that there is no doubt that Wales will continue to progress whilst embracing its traditions and heritage, and therefore become a nation with an integral role in the larger world. Watkin is essentially arguing that the legal history of Wales helps to explain the present situation, and the future. In the Middle Ages, the Welsh were known as a distinctive nation: “The Welsh were, indeed, for all their differences, a very distinctive people.

“1 However, as time passed, their national identity was in jeopardy. The Welsh Laws in the Middle Ages helped to distinguish and unify the Welsh: “The laws remained a focus of unity. “2 Welsh law making became redundant for a long period; however, on the creation of the National Assembly in 1997, Ron Davies declared a new dawn had broken for Wales. 3 Also a focus of unity; the Welsh language had experienced adversity from England and other nations. This adversity was eliminated with the implementation of the Welsh Language Act in 1993.

Through examining the constitutional history of Wales, the national identity of the Welsh, the preservation of values such as the Welsh language, and the future of Wales, I will evaluate the statement made by Watkin. This will then illustrate the extent to which the legal and constitutional history of Wales helps us to make sense of the complex devolution settlement that exists today. The political history of the United Kingdom is central to understanding the current devolution settlement in Wales. The United Kingdom has 3 devolved nations; Wales, Scotland and Ireland; each of which have their own unique devolution settlement.

In the present day, Scotland is superior to Wales in terms of constitutional powers. This difference stems from two historically distinctive dates; 1282 and 1340. 1282 marked the end of the Welsh War of Edward, where Wales lost the war for independence: “After Llewellyns death, Welsh resistance was effectively over. This time, Edward ended the independence of the Princes of Gwynedd, which became the core of the lands of the English Princes of Wales. “4 Aside from the brief Welsh rebellion under Owain Glyndwr (1400-1415), Wales did not recover the independence it once had.

1536 brought an act “establishing an administrative system on English Lines”5 and 1543 saw the establishment of the Courts of the Great Sessions “to apply the common law of England. “6 Acts applying specifically to Wales were rare following the union with England. 7 Contrasting with Scotland; the date of 1314 saw the defeat of Edward II, saving Scotland from the incorporation with England that Wales had suffered. In 1601, when the crowns were united; Scotland retained its autonomy. Scotland kept their legal independence under the Act of Union 1707, enabling a unique legal identity which Wales did not have.

These dates are the first pointers that illustrate why Wales, in the present day, has such a distinctive devolution settlement. The situation in present day Wales would be vastly different had the war for independence been a success; demonstrating the impact the past has on the future. In later Victorian Britain, Wales was not a unique nation, it was almost forgotten: “Wales was no more than a geographical expression. “8 Morgan concurs: “Wales, it seemed, existed on a lower stratum from England, Scotland, or even Ireland. It belonged to prehistory. It was still cast in the druidic mould, where Borrow claimed to have discovered it.

“9 However, in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Wales began to regain its distinguished identity; it progressed into a unique nation. The period houses vast changes in Wales, Morgan describes: “The pattern of change in Wales in the hundred years from the general election of 1880 to that of 1979 was bewildering and confusing. “10 Wales saw an upsurge in patriotism, reacquired heritage, and political and economic advancement. I will briefly discuss the significant dates in this period which illustrate the progression of the Welsh nation and its road to devolution.

Distinctive institutions were established during 1907; such as the National Library, the National Museum of Wales, and the Welsh Education Department. 1925 saw the creation of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, with its intentions of self governance for Wales and preservation of Welsh Culture. The importance of the Welsh language was addressed; Urdd Gobaith Cymru was founded in 1922 with the aim of encouraging Welsh-speaking among the young, and in 1935 the first Welsh radio show was broadcast. In 1942, the Welsh Courts Act permitted limited use of the Welsh language in courts, and the Ministry for Welsh Affairs was created in 1951.

Cardiff was officially selected as the capital of Wales in 1955; a big milestone as Wales was now on equal footing with other small nations throughout Europe, and coupled with the Commonwealth Games in 1958 which were hosted in Cardiff, Wales was certainly being promoted as a single entity with a unique identity. The Welsh Office and a Secretary of State for Wales were implemented in 1964 because of Labour recommendations. The first devolution referendum was held in 1979; however it was unsuccessful because only one in four voted in favour of a Welsh assembly.

Following the reign of the Conservative Government, 1997 finally gave way to a narrowly successful referendum. The Government of Wales Act which was introduced in 1998 states: “An Act to establish and make provision about the National Assembly for Wales and the offices of Auditor General for Wales and Welsh Administration Ombudsman; to reform certain Welsh public bodies and abolish certain other Welsh public bodies; and for connected purposes. “11 Wales therefore had the ability to make secondary legislation in 1999 with the establishment of the National Assembly.

The next few years saw the Richard Commission and the ‘Better Governance for Wales’ White Paper. In 2006, the Government of Wales Act was introduced, where the National Assembly was reformed and extra powers were accessible: “The lack of power to make laws in the 1998 Government of Wales Act gave way in the 2006 Act to a system of lawmaking that has hinged primarily on gaining lawmaking powers for the Assembly through ‘legislative competence orders’. “12 This brings us to March 2011, where a devolution referendum was a success, meaning that laws can now be made by Wales on all of the 20 subject areas.

First Minister Carwyn Jones stated: “Today an old nation came of age. “13 This statement exceptionally illustrates the progress Wales has made; how it has built itself back up to a distinct nationality which it once possessed. The current devolution settlement in Wales means that there is a divergence in law between Wales and England, and that Wales is developing into an individual legal jurisdiction: “By the end of the twentieth century, therefore, Wales had achieved a degree of devolved legislative, executive and administrative government.

“14 Williamson agrees: “We are now separate from the Government. We are a respected parliamentary and legislative body in our own right. “15 The past century has shown us that there is no reason why Wales cannot continue to thrive and develop as a national unit like it once was, and therefore I completely agree with Watkin in his statement: “In that, there is nothing new for Wales, and therefore no reason for doubting that Wales will continue to develop in a manner true to its rich legal heritage. “16

Now that the scene has been set with regards to the recent devolution history of Wales and the current situation in Wales, I can thoroughly discuss areas relevant to the statement made by Watkin. The main points of interest will be: The conception that Wales has always had a national identity despite fragmented government and different governing legal systems; the idea that Wales has an ability to absorb the new whilst retaining values from the past; and finally the belief that Wales will continue to progress in a manner true to its heritage.

This discussion will explain how the legal and constitutional history of Wales can explain the nature and distinctiveness of the current devolution settlement in contemporary Wales. The most appropriate method of describing the current devolution settlement is that it is a compromise between ideas. Throughout the centuries, Wales has been under the control of many leaders, each with greatly differing views on how the nation should be treated. When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd controlled Wales, he represented the idea of a self governing autonomous country.

He wanted Wales to be responsible for its own affairs to a very large extent, but he also recognised the need to have a sensible relationship with its larger, more economically powerful neighbours. Essentially, Llywelyn had the vision of Wales living and abiding by Welsh laws, and free from too much English interference. In comparison, Edward I took a different view. He saw Wales as part of his dominion. He did not want Wales to be a separate entity; he wanted Wales to become more assimilated into the English realm.

The difference in opinion can be described as a tension between nationalism and unionism, which incorporates the fight to retain the autonomy of Wales. At one end of the spectrum, Wales should be eradicated and at the other, Wales should have independence. At present, Wales represents a compromise of competing ideologies, in part because of the influence of the Labour Government in the 20th Century: “The Labour party is therefore most usefully characterised as a division between Welsh nationalism and British unionism, the latter being, of course, in itself a form of British nationalism.

“17 These examples clearly illustrate the pressures that the Welsh have been under in preserving their national identity. The current devolution settlement in Wales is unique. It highlights the fact that the Welsh have held their national identity remarkably well considering fragmented governments and different governing legal systems. The Welsh have always been known for their strong patriotism and national consciousness. Davies describes the Welsh in the Middle Ages: “Wales had an identity of its own and so did its people. Outsiders had no doubt about that. “18 The first Norman Bishop of St.

Davids, Benard, had the same opinion: “The Welsh are entirely different in nation, language, laws and habits, judgements and customs. “19 In recent times, the Welsh are viewed in the same way; Watkin comments on how the Welsh nation has held onto its national identity: “It has constantly managed to hold to the idea of a national identity. “20 Lord Morris agrees: “When we speak of a nation we speak of something alive, vigorous and vibrant. Scholars may write learnedly on the topic of what constitutes a nation. Suffice it to say that Welsh people feel that they are a nation.

“21 Yet despite this, why is it that Wales has only very recently gained devolved powers? If the Welsh have always had such a passionate identity, why has it taken so long for the theory of the Welsh identity to be put into practice? The answer lies in the will of the people. History very often illustrates that politics are about the will of the people and their demands. For example, in 1920, Northern Ireland had the determination to retain their autonomy. Because of this determination, the Government of Ireland Act22 was enacted; answering the will of the people.

Furthering this example, in 1985, the Anglo-Irish agreement23 was signed because of vast Irish protests. This demonstrates that where there is sufficient willpower; the government will respond. An interesting perspective is to look at Wales geographically. At present, South Wales is better connected to the Midlands in England, than it is to North Wales. If the whole of Wales has a unique, single, national identity, why are there not stronger routes between South and North Wales? The train journey from Cardiff to London is shorter than Cardiff to Holyhead, despite London being further away.

The fact that these routes have not established themselves through time demonstrates that there is not a need for them, and that there is a lack of willpower for Wales to become an independent nation. There has evidently been an absence of willpower in Wales. The reason why it has taken Wales so long to progress into a devolved nation is because of an absence of strength of feeling. This is best represented by studying Welsh poll results. In 1979, the first Devolution referendum was held. Only one in four voted in favour of a Welsh assembly; highlighting the lack of concern for Welsh independence.

In 1997 a successful referendum was held, however, the result was extremely close with 50. 3% agreeing to a Welsh Assembly, and 49. 7% disagreeing. Contrast this with the 1997 Scottish Devolution referendum, 74. 3% agreed to a Scottish Parliament while the remainder disagreed. Again this is clear evidence that there is a significant lack of Welsh patriotism, a lack of willpower to change Wales into an individual, unique nation. March 2011 brought a referendum on extending the law making powers of the National Assembly.

The results were still not overly enthusiastic for Welsh independence, but it was a promising sign with a successful 63.49% voting ‘yes’. The result does show that strength of feeling for Welsh identity is on the increase. The Economic and Research Council’s research programme on Devolution and Constitutional Change highlight some key points: “Public support for devolution has grown substantially in Wales since 1997″24 and “There has been a modest change in national identities with more Welsh people claiming a stronger sense of Welsh identity – and a weaker sense of British identity – since devolution. “25 If the trend continues, the Welsh will regain their strength of feeling and Wales can briskly progress into a unique, independent nation.