A Parliament by Any Other Name: History, Translation, and the War on Welsh Democracy

In the summer of 1404, Owain Glyndŵr, having attended a ceremony at which he was crowned Prince of Wales four years before, and having subsequently established his rule across most of the country by force of arms, convened a parliament in Machynlleth, in which he outlined his vision for Wales as a united and independent state. The parliament echoed the parliaments convened by his predecessors, Llywelyn the Great and Hywel the Good, were attended by four delegates from every commote they ruled,1 and were described, not by the modern word, senedd, but by the word cynulliad, for which the best English translation is assembly — the names which were chosen for the legislature formed in Cardiff in 1999.

At his coronation Owain had become, in Welsh, Tywysog Cymru, a word whose English translation applies to the heir to a throne, and a title which is carried by the eldest son of the reigning monarch of England today. Yet in the laws of Hywel Dda, the word for the heir to a throne is edling, while the words tywysog (translated prince), and brenin (translated king), are used more or less interchangeably.2 Those who insist on calling Wales’s parliament the Assembly do so because they foolishly imagine an assembly is less than a parliament, just as those who claim incorrectly that Wales had only princes do so because they think a prince was less than a king.3 And English historians, writing about Owain Glyndŵr, apply to a well-documented historical ruler whose correspondence is held in the National Archives of France, to a military and political strategist who liberated Wales from vastly superior forces and made it a partner of Brittany, France and Spain,4 the curiously derealising title, ‘folk hero.’

Among those who use such language are the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, who were founded before the Assembly became the Welsh Parliament or Senedd in May 2020, and who fought to use their obsolete name when their ousted leader refused to cede his control of it as the party’s registrar.5 Perhaps they do so because to speak of abolishing Welsh democracy would sound closer to fascism than they care to sound, perhaps because they take pride in their pettishness and pomposity, and perhaps because they are ignorant of the history of Owain Glyndŵr’s reign, of Welsh history, language and culture in general.6 I was going to explain to them the history of the word cynulliad, the memories of a rich political heritage which it carries to educated Welsh people7 and the hope of independence which it offers today, perhaps introducing them to the phrase, rhoi’r ffidil yn y to (to put the fiddle in the attic): to give something up because one has realised that one is no good at it.8 It indicates their attitude to debate, including the rational and well-informed debate which is the foundation of liberal democracy, and will one day be the foundation of the Republic of Wales,9 that they had already blocked me from commenting on their Facebook wall.

  1. The parliament of Llywelyn the Great, held in Aberdyfi in 1216, in the presence of ‘an assembly of magnates,’ established his rôle as ruler in the South of Wales, by resolving its territorial disputes (p. 649). Editions of the Laws of Hywel Dda attribute their origin to an assembly comprising six delegated from every cantref he ruled, which sat for six weeks during Lent at the hunting lodge of Hywel Dda, Y Tŷ Gwyn ar Daf, to codify the traditional laws of Wales (p. 339). See J. E. Lloyd, A History of Wales. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1911, pp. 649, 339, and Owain Glyndŵr. 1931. Cockatrice Books: 2020. p. 94. 

  2. J. E. Lloyd, A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1911. p. 309. 

  3. Neil Kinnock, who campaigned against devolution in 1997, dismissed the kings of Wales as ‘rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes’ according to Gwynfor Evans in The Fight for Welsh Freedom (Talybont: Lolfa, 2000. p. 7). Even if we ignore the Catholic church which gave these princes authority, the treaties by which they were bound, or the legal codes which gave them legitimacy, or if there were any other way by which they might have been ennobled, it is unclear what such claims could signify. Ernest Gellner, in his seminal book, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983), describes the evolution of the modern Central European nation from minor peculiarities of Slavic language and custom, and without any history of self-rule. And it does not appear that their political history was a factor when the rights of Quebec and Kosovo to self-determination were debated by the International Court of Justice. Historically and culturally, they were ‘peoples,’ and that was enough. 

  4. J. E. Lloyd, Owain Glyndŵr. 1931. Cockatrice Books: 2020. pp. 122-123, 131 ff. 

  5. ‘Rival Abolish the Welsh Assembly parties set up in bid to register party name.’ Nation Cymru, 23rd November 2020. The pomposity reminds of an incident in the Republic of Ireland follwing the banking crisis of 2008, when a Member of the Dail, Michael Ring, called for the Republic to ‘apologise’ for the state of its economy, and surrender itself to the Queen. See ‘TD wants Queen to reign in Ireland.’ BBC News, 29th October 2010. 

  6. Predictably, their 2021 manifesto policies listed by Wikipedia include the abolition of the Welsh National Curriculum and its replacement with the curriculum used in England, the abolition of the Welsh national language as a core subject in Welsh schools, the abolition of targets for increased Welsh-medium education, and the abolition of legal requirements to provide bilingual services – though curiously, not the abolition of the Welsh Office or the Secretary of State for Wales which was the British state’s acknowledgement of Welsh nationhood in the face of rising civil disobedience, and under which Welsh-language protections were introduced in the first place. Such policies seem more in keeping with the aspirations of the English far right than with those of Welsh people concerning their language and identity. Research conducted by the Welsh government found that its language policies enjoy overwhelming support (‘Wales proud of the Welsh language and wants more support for it, poll shows.’ Nation Cymru, 20th June 2018), while an informal study of social media posts found that the majority of anti-Welsh language activists were native to or resident in England (‘Over 80% of anti welsh language comments are from English people[.] 36% live in Wales.’ Barn Cymro, 12th July 2017). 

  7. Gildas, writing in the 6th century, describes an ‘assembly’ of clerics and laity which challenges King Vortigern over his close ties with the invading Anglo-Saxons (J. A. Giles (trans.), Early Welsh Histories. 1841. Cockatrice Books, 2020. pp. 80-81), an image that might be uncomfortable to supporters of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party today. For Gildas, the fall of the British kingdoms was a consequence of their impious rejection of Roman rule, while Lloyd, drawing on Gildas, describes the early Welsh kingdoms as prosperous, well-organised partners of European civilisation, staying aloof from the barbaric and uncivilised Saxons (A History of Wales. p. 124 ff.). 

  8. ‘Abolish the Assembly five month crowdfunder only raises £360 towards election effort.’ Nation Cymru, 16th February 2021. ‘10 candidates dropped out says Abolish leader as MS reveals he will not stand for party.’ Nation Cymru, 6th April 2021. ‘Interviewer goes viral after stumping anti-Senedd leader with two simple questions.’ Nation Cymru, 25th April 2021. ‘Abolish leader vows to return to ‘terrify’ other parties – after bombing in Senedd elections.’ Nation Cymru, 10th May 2021. 

  9. ‘10% increase in support for Welsh independence in a year, YouGov poll finds.’ Nation Cymru, 19th November 2020. Steven Morris, ‘Westminster warned as poll shows record backing for Welsh independence: Survey for ITV News Tonight reported “dramatic uplift” with 40% backing independence and most support amongst young people.’ The Guardian, 4th March 2021. 

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