Tepid vote for Wales Blair plan: Nationalism in song, religion, language and apathy.

September 22, 1997

ONE-FOURTH of the people of Wales want their own assembly to govern education, culture, housing and economic development. One-fourth are opposed. One-half don't care enough to vote either way. On this basis, Wales will be given an assembly, or Senedd, by Britain's Labor government. Last Thursday's referendum -- 50.3 percent in favor, a huge swing from the massive rejection of 1979 -- was the go-ahead.

The Senedd will be the first attempt at a Welsh parliament in six centuries, and the earlier one was pathetic. Harold of England ended hopes of a Welsh nation-state in 1063, three years before William of Normandy did him in. Later rebellions flared out in quarrels between north and south Welsh, which have not ended. King Edward I raised his newborn son aloft in 1284, and pronounced him Prince of Wales, ending realistic pretensions to autonomy forever.

The Welsh -- one-tenth of whom may support the Welsh Nationalist Party -- have nothing like the passionate grievance the Irish felt on attaining independence in 1921. They lack the national history the Scots enjoy, which helped fuel a robust vote for a Scottish assembly. What the Welsh do have is a more vigorous cultural nationalism than either. It is expressed in low-church Methodism, choral music, poetry and the Welsh language which one-fifth of the three million people in Wales speak.

Nonetheless, most of the people in Wales do not speak or want their children to learn it. Many of those are descended from English who moved in to work the mills in the last century. Most are in the industrial south, while most Welsh-speakers are in the mountainous north. The Senedd will become a battle-ground between shires for the block grants that London will entrust to it, and the principal arena for the wars of cultural identity.

Prime Minister Tony Blair means to return self-government to the Celtic Fringe of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But the identities are not parallel, the heritages are not similar and no template can suggest institutions for all three. The Wales Senedd, condemned to life, will either create greater national identity or end up voting itself out of existence. Either way would have no bearing on Scotland or Northern Ireland. England and Wales are fastened together like England and nowhere else.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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