6.3.3 Nationalism under devolution
Plaid Cymru’s agreement in the 1990s with the Green Party confirmed the party’s ability to appeal to a constituency with a high proportion of incomers and non-Welsh speakers, not regarded as their natural supporters. It also signalled Plaid’s willingness to work with other political parties to achieve common goals. Both factors were instrumental in the party’s establishing itself as a ‘civic’ nationalist movement, and contributed to its finally achieving a degree of political power in a Welsh government under devolution.
The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales has had two major effects on the nationalist movement. In the area of political nationalism, Plaid Cymru moved from being a tiny minority at Westminster to the second largest party in the National Assembly in the first elections in 1999. This signified a substantially altered position for nationalism within Welsh political life. And indeed the subsequent decade was marked with the movement of all political parties in Wales toward more ‘nationalist’ positions, including even the Conservative Party in Wales, which came to support the extension of the powers of the National Assembly to include legislative powers. Furthermore, after the 2007 elections, all other parties engaged in negotiations with Plaid Cymru as a potential coalition partner in government, and a coalition was eventually agreed with the Labour Party which lasted until the Assembly elections in 2011. This set of events, legitimising the role of the ‘nationalists’, demonstrated that Plaid Cymru had finally achieved acceptance within the mainstream of Welsh politics.
In terms of Welsh national identity, the creation of a democratically elected representative body provided a historically new basis for Welsh identity. The National Assembly for Wales strengthened Welsh identity in a number of ways: it became an important focus for lobbying and protest, being more accessible than Westminster and (in spite of the limitations on its powers) more relevant to the concerns of Welsh people. It also encouraged the development of civil society in Wales, making explicit provisions – even setting up umbrella organisations – to establish channels of communication with Third Sector (i.e. non-profit, voluntary and non-governmental) organisations.
These considerations bring us back to the relationship of language and national identity with which we began. What effect has the establishment of the National Assembly had on the Welsh language as a marker of Welsh identity? In 2003 the Welsh Government published its detailed Welsh language policy, Iaith Pawb: A National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales. This was the strongest commitment ever by government to the Welsh language with the ultimate goal of creating ‘a truly bilingual nation ... where people can choose to live their lives through the medium of either Welsh or English and where the presence of the two languages is a visible and audible source of pride and strength to us all’ (Welsh Government, 2003, p. 11). However, the practical implications for the language remained disputed as serious reservations were expressed about the adequacy of provision for specific mechanisms and additional resources to enable implementation.