As in Glyndŵr’s day, if we can win the Welsh Marches we can win Wales

Picture by grassrootsgroundswell (CC BY 2.0)

Ben Gwalchmai

When he echoed the words of Raymond Williams, ‘Who speaks for Wales?’ Michael Sheen may have spoken to you.

He definitely spoke, not just to me, but to my area.

When we talk about Wales, what’s the first place that comes to most people’s minds? Would it be the south, the valleys, and Cardiff? Perhaps it’s Y Fro Gymraeg?

When I talk about Wales, I mean Powys. But who speaks for Powys? More specifically, who speaks for the Welsh Marches?

In my part of Powys, Wales was lost. Specifically, Owain Glyndŵr lost the Battle of Shropshire just over the border from where I grew up and where I live. It was as a direct result of this, that his reign ended.

I wasn’t told this at school but, rather, found it out as a 20-something researching the brief history of Maldwyn.

When it’s World Cup season, here there are alternating St George Cross flags and Y Ddraig Goch flags in every other window.

For my part, I relish it – to me it always felt like the Marshes were a liminal space between Wales and England and showed just how steeped in history we are, how diverse we could be.

And yet, our politicians do nothing to enable this history nor encourage diversity.

Battle

Here in Maldwyn, if we want an operation we go to England by default; if we want to go to Bangor or Cardiff, we go through England.

Surveys have shown that although non-UK immigration is lowest in Powys, UKIP has some of its highest support in Wales.

Political engagement in Powys is so low that we hold the dubious record of 2017’s only unelected councillor seat. Yscir was the only ward in Wales with no one standing for election

“For the Welsh Marches, see England.”

Though this may not paint a pretty picture, I don’t mean to denigrate – I love my part of Wales and feel a deep connection that can only be described by the Welsh word “cynefin”.

There is still a great feeling of pride in our Welsh heritage, here. We have proud Welsh speakers, proud Welsh lineages, and happy new-Welsh folk here.

With the low political engagement, the living history, and the subtleties of national identity, it’s entirely possible that – once again – this will be the final battlefield.

Unless the east is won, independence will not come in this lifetime.

So it is that I am setting out to do something about it on a local level. As one of the founding members of Labour for an Independent Wales, I hope to work within my party to increase discussion of independence.

As a Maldwyn man, I am setting up YesWelshpool to win the debate in the east.

I cannot do this alone so will be calling on other YesCymru groups to visit, to give lectures, and to come to our public spaces and use megaphones.

I think that of all the regions of Wales, the east will be the hardest but the final battle to be won.

With this, I not only hope to discuss independence but to reinvigorate political engagement in the county that gave us The Rebecca Riots and Robert Owen.

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26 Comments

  1. Count me in. I live in Shropshire but work in Welshpool, and went to school there. A high proportion of the people in my workplace live in the local area but were born outside Wales (a higher proportion than you’d expect were born outside the UK, but still in the ’empire’).The main cultural feeling one imbibes from the area is parochial – there’s no particular affiliation with Cardiff, Wrexham or Aberystwyth, but there isn’t with Birmingham or Manchester either: ‘going into town’ means Shrewsbury, which doesn’t really feel much like England, and people consider themselves Montgomeryshire first and foremost. The local paper is the mid-Wales edition of the Shropshire Star. Elections are decided on local issues, with the area switching back and forth between the Conservatives (who currently have it) and the Lib Dems.

    It’s not natural territory for either Labour or Plaid Cymru, but there’s enough of an awareness of being in Wales that a non-partisan movement could well gain some traction.

    • Diolch, Eos! If you’re not on Twitter, you can get in touch with me via email at my blog or at my main bengwalchmai.com website. There’s also the email for the group yesWelshpool [AT] gmail [DOT] com

      Absolutely agreed on the Montgomeryshire/Marches-first feeling here – in the first draft of this, I had “If the Marches could be their own country, they would.”

      I’ve had a surprising take-up from local people already with 3 [now 4 with you] people wanting to get involved so I’m going to bring our first meeting forward to December. Will look forward to working together!

  2. I was taught that the Rebecca riots originated in May 1839 at Efail-Wen.

    • Heya Muddy,

      As far as I know, there were two major Rebecca uprisings: one in Efail-Wen and one in Rhayader. My wording could have been better there, really – I could have said “…the county that gave us one of the Rebecca uprisings and Robert Owen” but that doesn’t quite have the same snap :’) It’s also felt keenly in Rhayader because the British Army were sent in, only to be rebuffed from the whole town [for a night, at least].

      • Can we not call it the abomination of Rhayader….Rhaeadr is a Welsh word meaning waterfall…..it was used by locals until the state helped anglicise it in the 1800s.
        Rhaeadr Gwy is the full name

  3. When it comes to independence, to problem with winning eastern Wales is quite simple: English inmigration. In the 2011 census, 44.7% of Powys’ population were born in England, and less than half in Wales (although with regards to the English-born population it could be surmised that a not unsubstantial percentage of those were born in English hospitals to Welsh parents). Same is true of Flintshire – 44.3% born in England. Conwy was at 39.7%; Denbighshire at 36.3%; Monmouthshire 33.5% although Wrexham was substantially lower at 23.4% (the lowest %age of English-born in North Wales). And I think it’s fair to say, the English in Wales are probably the least likely group open to the idea of Welsh independence no matter how well the arguments are presented.

    • I was born in England, moved to Wales, I support Plaid Cymru, would like to see an independent Wales. Free from Tory England!

      • Good on you. Tell me honestly Ernest. Do you think that people such as yourself (who moved from England to Wales) are in the majority or minority on the issue of Welsh Independence. Also, do you think that most people who move from England to Wales are Labour or Tory supporters. You’ve already suggested that most voters in England are Tory since you refer to the country as ‘Tory England’.

    • Jason, I think you are going down the wrong route of identity politics , when we should discuss ideas of ground-up empowerment for communities

      • This is something I didn’t have room to touch on in my article: one of the main issues I see independence facing is exactly that – how to convince English people living in Wales of the need for independence? Fortunately, Ernest has answered it in one for us: Wales votes Labour, gets Tory – in an independent Wales, our vote would truly count. No matter our born-nationiality.

        It’s also important to remember what Prof Patrick MacGuinness said on Sunday Supplement recently, many “new-Welsh” [people who move here and identify with the culture, land, and people] want a fairer Wales, too.

        • “It’s also important to remember what Prof Patrick MacGuinness said on Sunday Supplement recently, many “new-Welsh” [people who move here and identify with the culture, land, and people] want a fairer Wales, too.”

          Again. Are these people who identify with the culture, land, and people in the majority or are they in the minority. From my experience they are the latter. And if the situation is as I believe it to be then the following sentence’s sentiment is redundant; they will not wish for a different type of politics in Wales.

          “Fortunately, Ernest has answered it in one for us: Wales votes Labour, gets Tory – in an independent Wales, our vote would truly count. No matter our born-nationiality.”

          Furthermore, seeing Wales having a Labour government for all eternity isn’t quite what I would like an independent Wales to be.

          I think there’s some cuckoo-land politics going on here sorry to say.

          • I refer to new-Welsh identity only to offer the vote the chance of seeing. It’s quite a subtle situation in the Marches where we have so much apathy toward politics that opening up that debate & invigorating political debate with an open, discursive, and inclusive approach is necessary [whether or not they begin to think _independence_, per se, is the way forward] to inspire a different kind of politics in Wales.

            I also don’t want to see a Labour government for perpetuity in an Independent – it’s an unhealthy democrat & democracy that does. [Yes, even though I’m a Labour member :)]

            No cuckoo-land, it’s a long slog and this is just the beginning. Hope all that clarifies.

    • Red Dragon Jim

      This makes sense. It’s demographic. In many of these counties it is quite hard to have your children born in Wales.

  4. Daniel Cavanagh

    diolch am yr erthygl, ben. mae’n syniad gwych. pob lwc!

  5. Our nation is currently divided into three regions by its current rail network which was designed as three separate systems linked at Shrewsbury to serve the England.

    Wales needs to be able to build a new national railway system to serve and link together all parts of our nation, so that anyone can travel by train on our nationally owned network between any two stations in Wales without leaving Wales.

    To do this we, in Wales, will need full control of our own country’s infrastructure and economy.

  6. You have a mantel on the 9th and 10th and in Powys. It’s called Cilmeri.

  7. I agree with your sentiments Ben, but in reality the rural East of Wales does not need to be won to win Welsh independence, as has a very low number of voters compared to the southern valleys and flintshire/Wrexham.

    I do however want people in Powys to be pro-community self rule in a connected world….as Welsh nationalism is quite a step for that region, as its fully integrated into Western England (hospitals etc)

    One point, you said seeing many English flags with Welsh flags made you feel the marches feel special. ( I have nothing wrong with people doing what they wish, flying any flag) – However the marches has a long history of brutal fuedalism folowed by colonialism and now elitism … many houses are owned by the upper middle classes who have little soldiarity with the workers of Newtown etc. Look at the local election results for this.

    Everything was caused by something before it.

    We need to convince people that empowerment and community ownership leads to wealth creation.

    • Oh, please don’t think I’m under any illusions as to the class-hierarchy evident in Powys. As someone who grew up poor, I know all too well those big houses [and landowners] you speak of. It’s the spirit, I’m talking about: an awareness of and a need to keep the rural in mind and in practice. Whether that’s rural towns like Welshpool, commuter villages, or the workers of Newtown, we need to have the debates we’re having online with the people that say “Nothing ever changes around here, it’s the countryside”.

      • And I forgot to add that you’re absolutely right when you say “We need to convince people that empowerment and community ownership leads to wealth creation.”

  8. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Powys has priceless element Welsh Nationalism can absorb, a Liberal contingency.

    Read ‘Between the Extremes’ (2017) by Nick Clegg. His inability to distinguish that nationalism exists upon a spectrum like sexuality does aside, apply his ideas to Welsh Nationalism and it will end Wales’ biggest problem:
    Labour’s 100 year monopoly upon our social-ideas and upon our concept of what progressive means.

    Some of Wales’ socialist Left is just as extreme and conformist as the neo-liberal Right of the Home Counties. To build ‘one’ nation, we need to pull those two extremist ends, both a part of Welsh society, towards one another so that we may include them both.

    Powys could lead the way in such a noble goal.

  9. Civic nationalism implies that any person who registers to vote at address where they live in Wales is a Welsh citizen. The best government of Wales is in their interest as any other citizen. Supporting independence for Wales is the only way to get government of the Welsh people by the Welsh people for the Welsh people.

  10. Da iawn Ben. Gwych clywed am sefydlu YES Trallwng/Welshpool!

    Edrych ymlaen at glywed mwy a phob lwc…..

    I think you are absolutely right about Powys “Paradwys Cymru”. Even though as another commenter mentioned, the absolute number of voters in the area would be dwarfed by those in the valley communities, there is a geographic and historic necessity to fully involve Powys in this debate. Powys is so poorly served by Wales at the moment, so a grassroots movement to engage people to insist on change is well over-due

    What you say about the split loyalties rings so true on a historic level with the house of Powys Fadog traditionally aligned with Tywysogion Gwynedd, with Powys Wenwynwyn maintaining a more detached stance, and often allying itself with the King of England.

    However, can this historical schizophrenia of Powys be overcome? Of course it can!

    For me, it’s linked in with ridding ourselves of this Cardiff-first mentality which so bedevils the political and cultural life of Wales.

    Counties such as Powys must be persuaded anew to get on board with Wales- it’s just not happening at the moment.

    Personally, I feel that one way of doing that would be push for devolving more power down from Cardiff, and setting up some aspects of the Welsh government in places like Powys. I’m even open to the idea, which was floated here a while back of pushing for some form of a “capital” acknowledgement for Powys, in somewhere like Llanelwedd or Llandrindod.

    Such a plan would win a lot of support, even from other parts of Wales. There’s definite political gain to be made from such an approach.

    Winning Powys over to the idea of Welsh Independence won’t happen by playing the same old tired game we’ve seen since devolution. Some radical new thinking must happen.

  11. All the best with the campaign on the eastern front :)) it’s going to be tough, but well worth the effort in moving our nation forward! Will be looking forward to see how things go for all of Yes Cymru in the near future:)

  12. The demographics and the trends for Powys are against you.
    Basically people who identify themselves as Welsh are moving out or dying off. Those moving in identify themselves as English or are English but choose to identify themselves as British. That’s what the 2011 census suggests anyway. By 2021 it’s quite possible that those two groups will account for over half the population of Powys.

    I think you’ve got a very difficult job in front of you but all the best anyway.

  13. Tame Frontiersman

    The Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee published a report in November 2017 entitled “City Deals and the Regional Economies of Wales”. This report divides Wales into 4 economic regions- “Cardiff City Region”, “Swansea Bay City Region”, “North Wales” and lastly the rest of Wales between the Valleys and the A55 corridor is lumped together as “Mid Wales”. Other than recommend a “Growth Deal” for “Mid Wales” there’s nothing in this report to encourage one to think that Powys’ centuries of being ignored and neglected are going to end anytime soon!

    I remember from the time of the devolution debate an Englishman whose home was just inside the Welsh border putting forward one of the most coherent and cogent arguments for civic nationalism I have heard.

    Perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm of Welsh nationalism –a “Plaid Pengwern” to fight for a new, sustainable model of 21st century rural economic development

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