While the Conservative MP for Shropshire, Daniel Kawczynski’s tweet demanding the abolition of Welsh democracy as a waste of money, was quickly deleted after a storm of responses and protests, and replaced by a subsequent demand to scrap the Senedd because it restricts the freedom of English people to travel to Wales during the Coronavirus lockdown, the screen-grab taken by Yes Scotland allows us to interrogate some of its misunderstandings and contradictions at leisure. First, one might wonder why a prominent Brexiteer, a former member of the European Research Group, and, one supposes, a champion of the rights of nations against foreign interference, should come down in favour (as Mr Kawczynski himself might put it) of a corrupt and undemocratic British superstate which degrades our statehood and devalues our economy, or in favour (again, as Mr Kawczynski might put it) of the English immigrants who break our laws, abuse our benefits, undermine our democracy, and exhaust our NHS. Second, one might wonder why a champion of democracy against the machinations of foreign élites would seek to overturn a devolution policy which has been ratified by two referendums, enjoyed a growing majority in each, and now has overwhelming public support which Brexiteers can only envy. But beyond that, Mr Kawczynski reveals an assumption that a single British parliament alone can create a single British people, living as equals under one single set of laws, and this is simply not the case.
In October 1402, during the height of Owain Glyndŵr’s revolt, the parliament of Henry V passed laws restricting the civil rights of the Welsh people. No Welshman not loyal to the king could bear arms or armour, no Welsh poet could earn a living from his work, no Welshman could fortify his home or gather freely with his neighbours, even for cultural purposes. No Welshman could be promoted to the upper clergy, except by the approval of the king, or to any position of civil responsibility, or sit on a jury where an Englishman was to be judged, and any Englishman who married into a Welsh family was to be regarded as a Welshman so far as his civil rights were concerned. In 1405, Owain Glyndŵr himself convened parliaments in Machynlleth and Harlech, attended, as the parliaments of Hywel the Good had been attended, by two representatives from every commote under his rule — the first time that Welshmen had been represented before their ruler since their conquest by England in 1282.
In February 1650, the parliament of England passed the Act for the Better Propogation and Preaching of the Gospel in Wales, whose purpose was to remedy the royalist and Anglican sympathies of the Welsh people. Among its provisions was the appointment of commissioners, including the writer and preacher, Morgan Llwyd, with the power to dismiss uncooperative Welsh clergy or schoolmasters and replace them with ‘godly and painful men,’ and to judge and punish any ‘misdemeanours, oppressions or injuries’ which were reported to them by members of the public. Since Wales is not referred to within the text itself, and the commissioners are instead empowered to operate within its seven counties, the act suggests Gwynfor Evans’ remark, that as often as England’s parliament refuses to acknowledge us as a separate entity, it is forced to deal with us as a special case.
That Wales is a ‘special case’ also underlies the appointment of a commission in 1847 to enquire into the state of education in Wales, and specifically to comment on the cultural effects of the Welsh language, which as William Williams, MP for Coventry, had warned in parliament, made the Welsh workforce seditious and unproductive, and which he advised should be replaced by English and deliberately rendered extinct. The result of their recommendations was the Education Act of 1848, passed by a single British parliament, yet applying specifically to Wales, and imposing a foreign language, English, not only as a subject of study, but as the medium of schooling on the monoglot Welsh-speaking people of Wales. Today the episode is studied in Welsh schools, and in both languages, as an example of the prejudices and assumptions of commissioners unable themselves to speak the language of the schools they were sent to inspect, while for historians such as John Davies and Gwynfor Evans it illustrates the principle expressed by Ernest Gellner and Albert Memmi, that a colonial power that seeks to appropriate a country’s natural resources will be forced to denigrate or destroy its national culture, while vilifying the moral character of its people also. The inspectors themselves can have been under no illusions as to the purpose of their report. Matthew Arnold the poet, among them, remarked that the British state would inevitably seek to efface all Welsh cultural distinctives, for the purpose of creating conformity among the peoples over whom it ruled.
In 1960, a single British parliament passed an English private member’s bill authorising the compulsory purchase and damming of the Tryweryn valley, including the village of Capel Celyn, while circumventing the need for local councils in Wales to give their consent, at the behest of Liverpool City Council. The act was passed despite enjoying the support of not one single Welsh MP, and despite a speech given by Gwynfor Evans at Liverpool Council, which councillors overwhelmed with noise by banging their desks at him. The flooding was followed by the bombing of English infrastructure in Wales by Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru and the Free Wales Army, by the election of Gwynfor Evans to parliament as Plaid Cymru’s first MP, and, as the British parliament struggled to contain the constitutional carnage it had caused, by acts of parliament founding the Welsh Office (1965) and the Secretary of State for Wales (1964) — a development of which even Mr Kawczynski might be dimly aware, since in 2012 he was appointed as Parliamentary Permanent Secretary to the Secretary of State for Wales. It was also followed by the Welsh Language Act of 1967, an effective reversal of the Education Act of 1848 since it allowed Welsh public bodies, including schools, to operate in the language that Parliament had denigrated and tried to destroy.
In 1998, Parliament passed the Government of Wales Act embodying a National Assembly for Wales without primary law-making powers, and the separate Government of Scotland Act embodying a Scottish Parliament with greater powers and a larger budget per head of population. The Assembly’s limited powers were increased by a further Government of Wales Act in 2006, and by the Wales Act of 2017, moving devolution to a ‘reserved powers’ model yet allowing parliament to overturn any and every act of Welsh legislation. Those who oppose the existence of the Assembly must logically be actuated by one of two beliefs: either that a single British parliament can effectively represent the needs of four quite bitterly divided British nations, a belief that owes more to hope than to history; or that three of the British nations should be governed under terms set by the fourth. But many who dismiss the Assembly as a ‘waste of money’ or as ‘red tape’ deride Welsh language and culture, deride Welsh nationhood itself as a waste of money, an inconvenience to England, also.