The UK’s forgotten frontier?

When we think of devolution, it is not unusual for the Scottish independence referendum or the bloody struggle over Northern Ireland to spring to mind. Wales, by contrast, is often treated as an afterthought – nudged towards an Assembly when Scotland was getting one, and subsequently overshadowed in national debate by Edinburgh and Belfast.

Of course, historically there are reasons for this. Wales has shared a monarch with England for much longer than Scotland, and does not have Ireland’s long history of conflict. But that does not mean that it is any less culturally distinct. If an English person arrives in Wales, they will hear a different language, see a different landscape, and taste different local specialties.

In fact, Wales can plausibly claim a level of uniqueness greater than its counterparts. It may not print its own banknotes, but the Welsh language is both in living use in many communities and is actively promoted by the devolved government. And yet, Wales has never produced the same support for devolution seen in Scotland.

It might seem as if I’m straying from the point, or even arguing that Wales needs to up its game and demand more powers. In fact, I believe that we must not allow Wales to be pushed by default towards more devolution or, worse, a desire for independence.

As I alluded to above, the Welsh referendum of 1999 delivered the Assembly by only a razor-thin margin – much narrower than either the Scottish independence referendum or the Brexit vote. Since then, turnout at devolved elections in Wales has barely hit 50 per cent, much lower than in general elections.

Why then should we assume that half the population, who voted ‘No’ in 1999 and ignore the Assembly today, are happy with the current state of affairs? And why are these voters so underrepresented in Welsh politics, compared to the well-organised movements which have emerged from the losing campaigns of the Scottish and Brexit referendums?

There is clearly political space, and up to hundreds of thousands of potential voters, awaiting a party or campaign group who will give voice to this scepticism and, if not actively advocate for integration, at least subject the devolved settlement to critical scrutiny. If such a group could harness the energy of Wales’ devosceptics, in the manner of the SNP and ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, it could grow into a influential force in Welsh politics.

Westminster should recognise that Brexit has re-lit the fires under the question of independence, if not yet for the public then at least for sections of the Welsh establishment. Earlier this year, Plaid Cymru – the Welsh nationalists – chose a new leader, and this has sparked a fresh push for independence post-Brexit. Whilst full independence is a marginal interest at the moment, Welsh politicians are watching the negotiations carefully for opportunities to push their agendas, whether devolutionary or separatist.

Wales might have voted Leave – to the great surprise of politicians and commentators – but that doesn’t mean that a botched Brexit couldn’t undermine our Union, which has stood since the 1500s, if politicians in Westminster overlook our United Kingdom’s oldest and deepest partnership.

Experience teaches us that campaigns are much more successful if waged over the long-term. Compare the decades-long push for devolution to the last-minute scramble to save the Union in 2014. With both Plaid and Labour gearing up for a fresh campaign for “more powers”, based on Wales’ supposedly distinct needs and character, the British Government has a duty to act from its present position of strength and make its case to the Welsh people, utilising discontent with the Assembly and reaching voters before the nationalists (whether in Plaid or Labour) can take control of the narrative and entrench their own anti-Westminster agenda.

Now more than ever, at a time of political upheaval when unrest is increasingly a feature of day-today politics, we must recognise both the strength and precarity of Wales’ place within the Union. We must neither succumb to pessimism and scaremongering about independence, nor allow ourselves to grow complacent about the potential challenges posed by Welsh nationalism.

Brexit has revealed that Britain’s position in Wales is stronger than many assumed. We must grasp this opportunity to make our case with clarity and with confidence – and not let 500 years of history slip through our fingers.


Megan Williams is a former Conservative Welsh Assembly Candidate, and works in the House of Commons. She tweets @tory_meg