When was Wales first elevated to any significance in British politics?
After recent events it has played on my mind. Even after the rising status of our first minister, and the remarkable surge of support for YesCymru, we seem a bit distant from the real power in Britain – sidelined, irrelevant, a mere extension of our English neighbours.
Have we always been? Before many of you scream to the heavens, “YES!”, let me share my thoughts.
My answer is firmly interwoven with the rise of the Liberal party. Alongside measures such as the 1881 Sunday Closing Act, the first piece of parliamentary legislation to deal with our nation specifically since the Act of Union, Liberal campaigns on land reform, church disestablishment and education gave us the vital organs of statehood and brought the party unrivalled success (in 1906, for example, every Welsh constituency MP took the Liberal whip).
We saw David Lloyd George become the first member of the werin bobl to become Prime Minister. Welfare legislation, social reform and increased democratisation categorised his time at the Treasury and Downing Street. From 1880, we saw the rebirth of the nation of Wales, as Kenneth O. Morgan so aptly put it.
I know that some will be unhappy with this suggestion. Although many nationalists admit that Wales’ role in Britain was given further attention from the second half of the nineteenth century, they are perhaps unready to concede that this was a major reason why the Welsh never embraced independence like other European nations.
The nationalism of David Lloyd George and T.E. Ellis was short-lived through Cymru Fydd. Many other Welsh MPs who conformed to the British Liberal world view were dubbed ‘donkeys’ by Emrys ap Iwan. I still think my argument stands; Wales was, at the very least, recognised and recognisable as a distinct nation for the first time in centuries.
Fast forward almost a century since Lloyd George’s premiership collapsed, Wales’ influence in British affairs has ebbed and flowed. Many look to the shocking treatment of residents at Capel Celyn as an example of the failure of democracy.
Others, however, point to how Jim Griffiths’ appointment as Secretary of State only a few years later reflected greater Welsh representation at the top of UK politics. Margaret Thatcher was then inadvertently the greatest driver for those who campaigned for devolution. Devolved Wales has produced a strange reality: whilst also being cast further into political obscurity across the UK, we have been unable to make drastic changes with the limited powers the Senedd had for its few terms.
COVID has shaken the political dynamics more than any of these events and processes. The UK government, which has been led by ideologues and ‘misfits’ for the last 12 months, are trying for a reset after aggravating devolved governments and Tory MPs. Nationalism is on the rise across every nation of these Isles.
So, a fresh start for a government focused entirely on saving the union doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. The first opportunity came this week with the Chancellor’s spending review. What could go wrong?
For Wales, it seems almost everything. Let’s start with everyone’s favourite: transport. For a government that is obsessed with phrases such as ‘levelling-up’, they sure are selective with who it applies to.
After all the spending review revealed that Wales was only getting 36.6 per cent of its population share of transport spending across the rest of the UK, largely because HS2 is classified as an ‘England and Wales’ project. Remember, that’s despite the entirety of it being in England. Really.
Meanwhile, Scotland benefitted from 91.7 per cent of its population share of spending across the UK, despite the ambition that HS2 trains will be available from Edinburgh to London. In the words of Professor Richard Wyn Jones, we are getting absolutely screwed.
But that’s not at all. Step forward, Welsh farming. The Farmer’s Union of Wales says it expected our agricultural and rural development budget to be in the region of £337 million, but now claims that the 2021-2022 budget will now be £242 million. A conspicuous cut of nearly 30 per cent.
The Conservatives, of course, disagree. But these Welsh farmers are made of hard stuff – they’re not backing down on their claims that this is a “Brexit betrayal”, and they say that the devolved administrations are on their side, not the UK government’s.
And then we had the Chancellor failing to confirm to Ceredigion’s MP that Wales’ share of the Shared Prosperity Fund will be decided according to need. Will it bring additional investment? Does our share diminish over time? We just don’t know.
And that’s not even to mention how even after all the fallout from the spending review, in the same House of Commons chamber a British cabinet minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, saw an opportunity call for the undoing of the “foolish tinkering” that resulted in devolution in the first place. Shocked? No. Nothing can surprise me when it comes to this government anymore.
I’m not writing this as a nationalist or unionist, but as a Welshman. We should all feel the same – that is, unless you are blinded by ideology or party politics – if you see your nation being pushed around with no agency to enact change. On critical areas of funding, as well as the democracy that has given us a chance to make our own decisions during the pandemic, the UK government is looking to take it away.
As if the week couldn’t get any worse, we then had to endure eight minutes of the Old Enemy grinding down the boys in red at Parc Y Scarlets. A better performance than usual – with some new exciting players making a start – but by the final quarter we looked tired and without a plan. As always the passion was there. We kept fighting back against a thunderous force. But it wasn’t enough to defeat a side too big and powerful for us.
A tragic metaphor for the nation-at-large. This week has confirmed my worst fear: that we are treated like a second-class nation on so many levels. Perhaps I was naïve to have thought otherwise. What a sad state of affairs.