"Welsh devolution does not challenge the British state"

Political scientist Alan Sandry warns in Barcelona that Welsh political nationalism is not strong and visible enough · A possible future wave of "new small states" could give hope for Wales · Sandry, on the Catalan sovereingty process: "If people demand it, Catalonia will be a member state of Europe"

In the last election to the National Assembly for Wales, the only Welsh nationalist party (Plaid Cymru) secured a little less than 20% of the vote. This was quite lower than the party's historical peak in 1999, when it reached some 28% of the vote. A centre-left party, Plaid struggles for Welsh votes with three Britain-wide parties (Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats), which share the remaining electoral space.

But, are there reasons to think that this might change? Is Welsh nationalism in a position to make the final leap to become a mass political movement in Wales? In short, where does Welsh nationalism stand? Providing some clues to these questions was the goal of yesterday's speech by Alan Sandry, political scientist at the Institute of European Identities of Swansea University. Sandry spoke in a seminar on Welsh nationalism, organized by University Pompeu Fabra's Research Group on States, Nations and Sovereignties (GRENS) in Barcelona.

Sandry (picture, sitting on the left) defines two different spheres of nationalism in Wales: "There is a cultural aspect and a political aspect", he says, "and the cultural one is very strong, very visible". But what about the political one? "It is also visible, but you must look for it". To some extent, Sandry believes that Welsh political nationalism feels more comfortable in a certain invisibility, sometimes appearing, for example, simply as a "European, green-left regionalism". "Welsh political nationalism at this point of time is trying to find itself", he argues.

One might think that achieving autonomy should have strengthened Welsh nationalism. Sandry thinks differently: "Devolution has been a disaster for Welsh political nationalism, because devolution does not challenge the British state". Sandry recalls that, in order to have Welsh political nationalism as the hegemonic force in Wales, "people must see the [British] state as 'the other'. But this does not happen now in Wales, where the majority are happy within 'the other'".

Two possible future scenarios

Sandry envisions two possible future scenarios in the short-medium run. If Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders achieve independence, then a "transformational epoch" may come, leading to a "new wave of national politics" and the birth of "new small states". In this framework, Wales could achieve sovereignty and establish its own independent state from the United Kingdom.

The second scenario, however, contemplates that England is capable of preventing that Welsh nationalism "flourishes". Even if Scotland separates from the UK, and Northern Ireland gradually follows its own path, then Sandry fears a re-emergence of the "narrative of the existence of a subject called 'England and Wales'". Political scientist recalls that this subject is in fact already legally existing: England and Wales is a jurisdiction within the UK that follows a single legal system (the English Law). Whatever the outcome might be, "the emergence of a federal Britain is not likely", he says.

A role for the people

Aside from the role that Plaid Cymru might play, Sandry thinks that the role of the people is essential: " We need a revolutionary consciousness" in Wales so that Welsh political nationalism becomes hegemonic in society. This implies a level of awareness that is not reached only by the fact that 66% of Welsh people declare in censuses that Wales is their nation: it needs to be heard on the streets, he argues.

In this regard, Sandry sees the Catalan situation as being much more advanced: "That was reflected in September 11th", the day when some 1.6 million Catalans joined hands asking for independence. The political scientist also had time to make a forecast for Catalonia and its independence possibilities: "People will have a major say. If people demand it, Catalonia will be a member state of Europe".