Skip to main content

Scottish and Welsh Nationalism

ISSUE:  Winter 1978

Americans have grown used to the perennial British economic crisis and have even grown bored with it; what comes as a surprise to even the best-informed in the United States is the possibility that the United Kingdom, as we now know it, may be in its death throes and may turn into a federal state or two or more separate ones. Irish nationalism and the Irish case against British misrule and indifference are well-known. The new brands of Celtic nationalism are less familiar and so less understood. This article tries to outline some of the main rhetorical postures of the nationalists and the causes for the growing disaffection between London and its so-called Celtic fringes. There are nationalist parties in Cornwall (an English county) and the Isle of Man, but these have made no real impact, even at a local level. The case is quite different in Scotland and Wales, where the national parties, although still commanding a minority of public support, constitute the leading political forces in both regions. At the moment, the three main British parties, Labour, Conservative, and Liberal, are reacting to the nationalist challenge with varying degrees of rage and bafflement. Because of the nationalist successes in parliamentary and local elections, the British Parliament finds itself spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing Scottish and Welsh problems and debating the Labour Government’s proposals for limited home rule (or devolution: the new anodyne word in favor).

At this stage, it would be rash to offer any prediction as to the form this limited home rule will take; despite the Labour government’s successful passage in November of a bill to give partial self-government to Scotland and Wales, many obstacles to devolution remain.

Outside the British Parliament and its horse-trading and growing unreality, there is a sharpening of the debate, especially between the Scots and the English. Scots-baiting is now fairly commonplace in English newspapers and journals, but the English people as a whole never begin to get the nationalist argument into perspective. This is partly indifference, partly the result of the inadequate teaching of British history in most English schools. It could well be that Scotland will emerge as an independent nation within the next generation without the majority of English people either grasping the reason for this development—or caring.

All that can be said at the moment is that buildings for the Scots and Welsh assemblies have been chosen in Edinburgh and Cardiff. It can also be said with some certainty that no British government will give the Scottish Assembly revenue-raising powers or any real control over Scottish oil. At the same time, in Wales, a majority of the population is afraid of devolution (for reasons which will be outlined later on). What can also be said with certainty is that this sudden focus on Scottish and Welsh separatism has greatly changed the political climate in both regions. Scotland, notably, is enjoying a new lease on life; whatever the cause, the people have been given a new vision of themselves.

The awakening of nationalism in the modern sense has been slow in both Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, with a population of more than five million, the nationalist vote in 1959 was just about 22,000. In the same year, Plaid Cymru (which means literally The Party of Wales) won 77,000 votes in a country half the size of Scotland. Since then the two nationalist parties’ fortunes have improved, but the SNP now commands about 30 per cent of the Scottish electorate’s support while Plaid Cymru is still able to obtain only 11 per cent of the Welsh vote. The parliamentary representation reflects the SNP’s greater power: it holds eleven out of 71 Scottish seats and ran second in 40 others. It is in the cards that at the next general election the SNP will emerge as the majority party in Scotland. Plaid Cymru holds three seats out of 36 but ran second in only a handful of Welsh constituencies and nowhere was a real threat to the sitting Labour member. This situation has recently been modified by the striking Plaid Cymru successes in local government elections, where the party took control of Merthyr Tydfil, the Jerusalem of Welsh socialism and Keir Hardie’s old stronghold, The victory at Merthyr also represents a major breakthrough for the nationalists in the anglicized industrial areas of Wales. Until then the Plaid’s support and its three parliamentary seats were in the rural, Welsh-speaking areas. In this respect, the SNP commands much more widespread support. The constituencies it holds range from the Western Isles to the industrial lowlands.

The present success of the nationalists, limited perhaps in the number of seats captured but great in the amount of pressure they have been able to bring to bear on thinking in Westminster, still has a fictional quality about it, The Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties have been in existence for about 50 years but were discounted for many years as crank organizations, too visionary by half for everyday people. The parties’ first solid victories in the late 1960’s were dismissed as protest votes. The view was that once Britain emerged from her economic doldrums and regained a sense of national purpose the nationalist vote would melt away, and the two-party system could be resumed. At the same time, the Labour Government of the time showed itself aware of the potential threat to its traditional support and set up an inquiry into the way government worked in Scotland and Wales, and the present proposals for the assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff are the fruits of this inquiry. The Labour Party, which has only won a majority of seats in England twice (in 1945 and 1966), needs its strong Scottish and Welsh support if it is not to be in opposition for most of the time. The Tories, although unpopular in Scotland and Wales, are the party of union, and it is significant that the first serious anti-devolution movement was launched by a Scottish Tory M. P. But they will have to work against the tide to persuade the Scots that they are best served by the status quo. According to opinion polls, only about one person in five in Scotland thinks things should remain as they are. Equally, less than 20 per cent want an independent Scotland, In between, the broad mass of the people want change, and they want it soon. In Wales, the voters are more equally divided, with as many as 50 per cent opposed to changes and only 10 per cent for an independent state, In one way, the opinion polls are misleading since they do not reflect the simple fact that everything leading to the present proposals for devolution has been achieved by what has, naturally, been called a vocal minority. The British people, unlike the Americans, are not given to discussing the forms and developments of their constitution and for this reason are, on the whole, badly informed and indifferent about these issues. Besides, the setting up of the assemblies would modify a situation that has been in existence for hundreds of years. It also comes at a time when the United Kingdom is being made aware that the real source of power may well be the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where more and more decisions affecting British day-to-day life are now being taken. On the human level, the idea of the modification or Balkanization of the United Kingdom takes some getting used to. Wales and England have been united since 1536; Scotland joined up with England and Wales in 1707. In the centuries since those dates, Welshmen and Scotsmen have held the highest posts in the realm and, one would have thought, almost indissoluble ties have been formed among the three nations. It is the existence of these ties—forged by shared dangers and excitements, and by the intermarriage of interests—that the nationalists find hardest to counter-balance and that fire the anti-devolutionists.


Yet, even with this weight of shared national experience, in creating the British Empire, in fighting in two world wars, the more one examines the situation in Scotland and Wales, the greater wonder it is that ordinary Scotsmen and Welshmen took so long to think in nationalist patterns. That both countries have had to contend with generations of neglect by the central government and to suffer from a contemptuous attitude from the English are now commonplace gambits in the discussion of devolution. Scots and Welsh people were disenchanted with rule from London years ago but found that nationalist aspirations took second place to other political aims. For years, both countries hoped that their economic underdevelopment would be cured as part of larger political realignments , or reforms. This was particularly true of Labour voters, who have always been touched by some vision of working class solidarity that transcended frontiers. A Scottish Labour M. P. (Mr, James Sillars, who has since founded an independent Scottish Labour Party), was at one time outraged that the SNP should, as he put it, have asked Scottish working people to accept that they had more in common with a Scottish marquis than with the miners of Northern England.

Another factor in the nationalists’ poor showing over many years was what is now known as their credibility gap. In their early days, both home rule parties were dominated by academics, ministers of religion, and writers; there was too much Blutsgefühl uplift for the ordinary man, too much talk of national identity and culture and too little about bread and butter issues. The SNP has now lost this image—one commentator recently called the party “urbane”—but Plaid Cymru still sometimes gives the impression of harping too much about the Welsh psyche and consciousness, although since taking its place in Parliament the movement has made great efforts to sell itself to plain folk. Both parties have made enormous strides in organization over the past ten years; even now, however, when the nationalists in Wales are enjoying their best years, there is often a ramshackle and improvised air about the Plaid’s interventions at the local level and a curious inability to strike for the kill.

Nationalist spokesmen have been heard to blame this apathy in the past on what might be called “the branch factory mentality.” So little industry in Scotland and Wales is locally owned, and the Scots and Welsh have shown real reluctance to invest in their local enterprises. Is this because they have—or had—lost faith in themselves or is it because after centuries of rule from London they had lost the ability to think for themselves? In any case, both countries have suffered from a lack of job opportunities, and for generations their brightest people, the natural pacesetters, were obliged to emigrate. Both countries have suffered enormous losses by emigration. Scotland’s net loss over the past 30 years has been estimated at over a million; Wales’s is proportionately as great.

In the 1970’s both countries have the same basic problems: obsolete heavy industries, mostly state-owned; unemployment that persistently runs at a higher level than in England; and rural depopulation, especially in the Scottish highlands. Scotland has difficulties of its own, such as a legacy of bad housing that caused a Scottish official to describe Glasgow as the slum capital of Europe. It also suffers from a higher sickness rate than England and Wales, while its social services are at a lower level. The British government is aware of these problems, and it is worth recalling that public expenditure in Scotland is today higher per capita than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Now that the nationalist tide is flowing and some form of devolution is in sight, the Scots will find it easier to rethink their constitutional relationship with England because the 1707 Act of Union left so many Scottish institutions intact.

Scotland was allowed to keep her own laws, her system of education, and her own Calvinist Church. Scottish banks issue their own banknotes. Scotland had been a sovereign state for hundreds of years before union, with a history that was totally unlike England’s. For her, therefore, independence would be a return to an earlier state. Wales has no comparable historical framework to rebuild on or legal and educational infrastructure to refurbish. Although Wales had brief periods when it was united under a Welsh ruler, it was, for decades before the Act of Union, a hotchpotch of Crown lands and lordships suffering from a confusion of legal systems. In most respects, the Welsh were still emerging from tribalism. Its border with England, established by the act of union, was an administrative one and, at the time it was drawn up, ignored both ethnic and linguistic considerations, so that Welsh-speaking areas were taken into what is now England and English-speaking enclaves remained in Wales. This, of course, posed no problems at the time since the Act of Union deprived the Welsh language of legal status. This was the first of a number of moves to make Wales in every sense a part of England, and it led to the anglicization of the gentry, which in turn was to deprive Welsh Wales of its natural cultural leadership.

The flight or movement of the Welsh gentry to London in the wake of the victorious Henry Tudor and after 1536 symbolizes what was to happen in both Scotland and Wales after the Acts of Union. For both countries, the early years of union provided outlets for the ambitious. The bright young men who arrived in London to make their fortunes or their careers tended, so great were the metropolitan attractions, to forget their native places and look down on the native cultures. The effect of this was subtly undermining so that by the 20th century both Scotland and Wales suffered from a very real inferiority complex in relation to England, The native languages and cultures suffered so that today less than a hundred thousand speak Gaelic and only about half a million speak Welsh. The flight from these old languages was associated with “getting on”; the acquisition of good, standard English was tied up with success.

Of course, for the most of the 19th century, this was true, and Scots and Welsh people all enjoyed the benefits and excitements of belonging to the metropolitan country of the largest empire in the world. The Scots, especially, found outlets for their energy in the Empire as administrators and traders, and there are parts of Canada and New Zealand that are still today Scottish in culture and sympathies.

During the period when union worked, when the United Kingdom was delivering the goods, the English were top dogs, and no one denied this. English became a world language (it was already the vehicle of a rich and brilliant culture), and the English were themselves fairly relaxed about accepting Scots and Welsh as honorary Englishmen. Thus came about the British-equals-English equation that riled the minority peoples.


All the peoples in the British Isles, including the Irish, were involved in the expansion and development of the British Empire, but its winding down has affected England the most, probably because England was the senior partner and because London was nothing if it was not an imperial city. Whatever happened (and too many studies have been written on the subject to make it worth going into detail), the British ruling class lost a clear view of its priorities—even, according to Solzhenitsyn in a recent statement, its common sense—and this faltering of purpose has helped to loosen the internal bonds. The Welsh nationalist leader, Gwynfor Evans, believes the loss of empire was crucial for the Celtic nationalists. He told an interviewer in 1968: “As long as there was a British Empire, people saw some sense in being British. Now, there’s no point. Welsh people now think in terms of Wales, Scots of Scotland. Britishness is losing its meaning.” About the same time, a leading SNP official said he saw the movement for home rule as a continuation of the dissolution of empire. Nationalists saw African states, with no industry worth talking about and a built-in payments deficit, granted full independence and marveled that Scotland and Wales had been fobbed off with the notion that because of their supposed economic weakness they could not stand on their own feet. The term, “internal colonialism,” began to be used to describe the situation of Scotland and Wales.

Another political commentator, John Mackintosh, a Labour M. P. for a Scottish constituency, and a leading devolutionist, said the Scots had been proud to be British for two and a half centuries but recently the pride in being British had declined. “There has been disappointment over the performance of successive governments and a desire to escape from the gloom and depression that affects so many people. Of course, people in England feel the same, but they have no alternative nationality, no opt-out they can turn to. There is one way out for an Englishman and that is to emigrate,”

Put this way (nationalism—deserting the sinking ship) there might be something distasteful about the nationalist upsurge, more than a suggestion of faithless opportunism. And it is true that nationalist spokesmen, especially in Scotland, have been at pains to deny the Scottish imperial connection, but this is a part of the rewriting of history that has followed the lessening of English psychic pressure on Scotland and Wales, which has its good as well as its absurd side. In Wales, for instance, new history books for schools have been commissioned. They are aimed at putting Welsh history into a British and European context and not as a byway of British development. In this new examination of the past, inconvenient facts, suppressed by historians anxious to promote bland versions of Our Island Story or The Happy British Family, were suddenly given a new prominence; and the development of British institutions that had seemed a steady progress towards light, reason, and unity (if not homogeneity), has been turned into a series of opportunist, upper-class escapades with profit for the few, the betrayal of the ordinary people, and the undermining of the native cultures by a mixture of economic blight and official disfavor. Thus it is heavily stressed that neither the Scottish nor the Welsh peoples were consulted about union with England and that they had been betrayed by the politically significant element in the two countries. It is conveniently forgotten that no alternative to union was offered the Welsh in 1536 and that union with England was seen as a way out of Scotland’s economic difficulties by the men who signed the agreement in 1707.

The loosening up of natural allegiance to the center has been somewhat counterbalanced by nationalist cultivation of friendship with minority groups in other European countries. Local literary magazines carry articles on the Basques and Catalans in Spain, on the Bretons in France (who send representatives to the Celtic Congress), and scholars and sociologists study the operations of the media in bi- or multi-lingual societies with a view to helping to create similar facilities in Wales or Gaelic-speaking Scotland.

In day-to-day political debate, the grievances formerly aired by an unrepresentative and embarrassing minority have become popular catch phrases, In Wales, where the matter of national identity is more complex than in Scotland because of greater integration, there has been a tendency to use the equivalent of a watered-down black rhetoric. Not only has the London government oppressed Wales—and the first anti-Welsh statute dates from 1282—but it has tried to get the Welsh to deny their own Welshness. This return to the rock-bed of national feeling has had its ugly side, notably in the intolerance shown to Scots or Welsh figures who doubt the value of devolution or home rule or even in the resurgence of the local cultures. The one-time deputy leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Roy Jenkins, who was born in Wales, finds himself described as a “rootless expatriate” because until recently he made his career in London, just 100 miles down the South Wales motorway. Nationalist apologists say this kind of verbal excess makes up for generations of obsequiousness, of going along with the English out of fear of hurting their feelings.


So far it has been possible to deal with Scottish and Welsh nationalism as a form of common cause by the underdog, misruled outer provinces revolting against the indifferent center and stressing as far as possible those aspects of the fight for national identity that are common to both countries. But the internal situation in the two countries is really very different, and there are marked contrasts between the Scots and the Welsh as peoples. There are also issues that are particular to Scotland alone and to Wales alone, and of these the most important are Scottish oil and the Welsh language. Scottish oil first. It was commonly thought at one time that the choice for a Scottish or Welsh nationalist was between the material benefits of integration with England and the spiritual satisfaction of being independent and poverty-stricken. The nationalists denied that Scotland and Wales were subsidized by England and could prove, by the use of official statistics, that they contributed more to the central government than they got back in either grants or services.(In this kind of situation both sides can make statistics do almost what they like). The discovery of oil in the North Sea, within the sea area that would fall to an independent Scotland, has reversed the argument so far as Scotland is concerned. So great are the British government’s hopes of revenues from the North Sea oil that in the past few years they have borrowed vast sums of money from international bodies to finance current expenditure with the oil boom as a form of intangible collateral. In all the devolution discussions, there has been no suggestion on the part of the British government that Scotland should have any control over this oil money nor has it even been suggested that she should benefit directly from it. At present, according to public opinion polls, less than a third of all Scots want to keep all the oil revenues for themselves, but the SNP makes great play with the fact that Scotland is being “robbed” of her rightful dues.”It’s her oil,” a nationalist poster says, showing an old woman shivering in a cold house. The oil money may not be as great as people hoped; the oil itself may dry up more quickly than forecast; but at the moment North Sea oil is the greatest prize at stake in the home rule stakes, and English ministers have reacted violently to nationalist claims for all or a share of the oil revenues.”Scottish madness” and “parochial greed” are two of the phrases used; and in order to destroy this powerful support for an independent Scotland, some ministers have even tried to undersell the oil deposits on which their own government has based their fantastically heavy borrowings. The Scots, of course, have not been slow to see that there is a certain poetic justice in the situation. After generations of telling Scotland it needed England to survive, England now finds Scotland (and her future territorial waters) to be essential for her well-being. Some of the Scottish comment on this is bitter in the extreme, but a nationalist M. P. has denied that he had said that an independent Scotland would send food parcels to the poverty-stricken English.

This oil boom nationalism—fed by the example of Norway across the North Sea—is unacceptable to many Scotsmen. This opposition was expressed by a defeated Labour candidate, Brian Wilson, who wrote in The Guardian of his campaign experiences in Ross and Cromarty: “When I introduced myself as the Labour candidate, the lady of the house responded, “We’re all SNP” Why, I asked, were they all SNP? “Because we’re treated like second-class citizens up here,” she replied tartly . . .and she further believed that if it were only “Scotland’s oil” she would be transformed into a first-class citizen. It is on this level of debate that nationalism flourished . . .it is an appeal to the lowest commori denominator of greed and grievance.” That was a defeated candidate’s point of view.

If oil has converted the SNP from a party of bekilted Lallans and Gaelic-cultivating romantics into hard-headed accountants, no such transformation has taken place within Plaid Cymru. Although the party stresses the economic issues, insisting on Welsh economic viability, insisting on the injustice of English authorities abstracting Welsh water supplies while the local people have to pay as much as 40 per cent more for it, the heart of the party is not in market place calculations but in the realms of the spirit. There, the soul of man (a Welshman) kindles, or should kindle, at the thought of belonging to one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, with a language that can unlock a world of poetry and mythology going back to Roman times, certainly to well before the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in their “kyuls” from what is now Schleswig-Holstein. The average Welshman is not fired by statistics or even by promises of wealth, but the fate of the language, which is seen as central to Welsh identity, rouses quite prosaic people to heights of eloquence. Some of the speeches made by defendants in the trials of Welsh Language Society agitators can only be described as delivered in a state of exaltation. The Welsh language still permits this; it has been untouched by copywriters’ plastic ecstasy or by the ironies and cynical undertones that make it quite difficult to be sincere and eloquent in modern English without sounding absurd.

A typical example of what he himself calls a “Welsh extremist” is Dr. Bobi Jones, a poet and leading figure in the Welsh Academy. He would like to see Welsh restored as the first language of the whole of Wales but wants this to come about by conviction not force. He would like to see oil revenues (from some possible future oil strikes in the seas off the Welsh coast) contribute to the prosperity of Wales, but he is happy that oil money has not tainted Welsh nationalism.

This statement is, by implication, critical of the SNP and underestimates the considerable idealism that nurtured the Scottish party through the many years when its message went largely unheeded. In fact, one of the earliest Scottish nationalists, the novelist Compton Mackenzie, expressed many years ago the ideal, now become much more commonplace, that “small is beautiful.” He said that “Nationalism is the demand by the soul of man to afford him leisure for the contemplation of his own destiny, to restore to him a richer personal life, and by narrowing his background to enable him to recover a measure of trust in his significance in time and space.” And, on the same level, he added, “No special case for the practical expression of Scottish nationalism can be presented adequately until it is grasped that the movement in Scotland is part of the impulse everywhere perceptible to obstruct the contrary tendency, which would substitute for the diversified individual, standardized groups.”

Let us assume, then, for the sake of the argument, that the assemblies are established in Edinburgh and Cardiff and the Scots and the Welsh are as free from London interference as it is possible to be in an age of mass communications and easy travel, what sort 6f countries would they be to live in? Would they be as parochial and inbred as some of the opponents of home rule fear? Economically, autonomy is a thing of the past. Both countries would be members of the European community and would have to abide by its decisions. Culturally, they will remain for the foreseeable future under the dominance, if not the spell, of England. At the moment, culturally, the situation in both countries for the broad mass of the people was well described by the Scots poet Edwin Muir. He thought that because the Scottish tradition had been broken up and debased “a Scottish writer who wishes to achieve some approximation to completeness has no choice but to absorb the English tradition.” He believed that in Scotland a writer will find “neither an organic community to round off his conceptions, nor a major literary tradition to support him, nor even a faith among the people themselves that a Scottish literature is possible or desirable, nor any opportunity finally, of making a living by his work.”

Muir’s diagnosis would, it might have been thought, make him a nationalist. On the contrary, he saw no point in the efforts of a group of writers, the most notable Hugh MacDiarmid, to revive the native Scots dialect, Lallans, and was baffled by what he thought of as a kind of provincialism.

There are anglicized Welshmen who would agree with Muir. They are not only perfectly happy (like half their countrymen) with the way things are at present but are afraid that a Wales with any degree of control over its own destiny would be a Wales in which Welsh speakers would have an advantage over the non-Welsh speakers, who are now four-fifths of the population. These anglicized Welshmen are, in some way, threatened by their ancestors’ tongue and by the activities of the Welsh Language Society, which has been agitating for some years for the restoration of Welsh to its rightful place in the life of the country. The society’s often rowdy campaign—demonstrations in the House of Commons, attacks on television installations—has been successful. In the last few years, the Welsh language has been given an equal footing with English, thus reversing 400 years of official disdain; Welsh is now taught in most schools in Wales, and there are even a small number of primary and secondary schools where Welsh is used as a medium of instruction; there are many more radio and television programs in Welsh and—the most noticeable feature to the casual visitor to Wales—the old Welsh names of places have been restored after generations of anglicized spelling. Signs on roads and on public buildings are now officially bilingual.

Gaelic is not such an important or divisive an issue in Scotland as Welsh is in Wales, and for this reason any divisions that take place within an independent Scotland will be freer to follow more or less class interest lines, unless there is some breakthrough out of the class-division politics that has bedeviled life in Britain for many years. In Wales, the language issue is likely to be the key one for some time ahead, for much wants more, and in any case, a culture must go on expanding and taking in more and more areas of national experience or it stultifies.

These, then, are the confused themes running behind the Scots and Welsh dissatisfaction with the present administrative situation in the United Kingdom. Like all issues involving ethnic identity or political nationalism, it is riven with paradoxes and contradictions, which will only partly be resolved by independent or quasi-federal status. No one in the United Kingdom should be surprised by the irrational patterns of nationalism, for in this field gut reaction, not cerebral considerations, dominates in the end.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading