The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

2.3 Wales

In 1282, Edward I conquered Wales and the Statute of Rhuddlan (or Statute of Wales, 1284) established English rule. Rather than involve the assimilation of the Welsh by the English the conquest saw ‘a colonial system … established in those parts of Llywelyn's Principality which were by 1284 in the hands of the king’ (Davies, 1991, p. 166). In 1400, Owain Glyndwr led the most outstanding and successful rising in Wales against the new order and the tyranny of the English border barons, which almost led to the re-establishment of Welsh rule. Glyndwr sought to create an independent Wales that would have its own independent church and educational structure through the establishment of a system of Welsh universities. However, the accession of the Welsh Tudor dynasty to the English throne, following Henry Tudor's victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, encouraged Welsh assimilation on the basis of equality with England. Wales was territorially structured according to the English model of the shires. Leading Welsh families held their land from the king, others became lease-holders and tenants after the English pattern, and the feudal aristocracy was received at the English court. But a deep breach, fostered by economic inequality, opened between landlord and tenant, one which remained unhealed for centuries.

The Act of Union of 1536 was in response to Henry VIII's wish to incorporate Wales within his realm. It meant the complete administrative assimilation of Wales into the English system. Welsh customary law was abolished and English was established as the sole language of legal proceedings. In 1543 the Court of Great Session was constituted, a system of courts modelled on the practice already used in the three counties which, since 1284, had formed the municipality of North Wales. The Court of Great Session remained the system of higher courts of Wales until 1830, when, against considerable opposition, it was abolished.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Illustration of Owain Glyndwr, by permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales

The Catholic tradition died slowly in Wales under Elizabeth I and James I; Puritanism was strongly resisted and Oliver Cromwell had to employ oppressive measures to impose it. In the eighteenth century, Wales turned rapidly from the established church to embrace dissent with strong Calvinist leanings. In 1735, the church gathered large numbers of followers from the Church of England. This also helped contribute to the rise of an incipient Welsh nationalism, particularly as the desire to protect Welsh native culture from progressive Anglicisation rose in the eighteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution transformed Wales, threatening the traditional ways of rural life, leading to protests such as the Rebecca Riots in 1843. Industrialisation also prompted the radical exploitation of the mineral wealth of Wales, particularly coal, which additionally transformed the life of Welsh people. Chronic poverty and increasing unemployment intensified in Wales before and after the First World War, continuing almost unchecked until the Second World War as the Great Depression hit hard. After 1945, as the Labour government drew substantial support from its electoral socialist stronghold of South Wales, nationalisation prompted a full-scale programme of industrial development. Yet, while the Scottish Office had been established in 1885, the Welsh Office was only set up in 1964. Here, while the Welsh celebrated their national identity, particularly in cultural terms, the political integration of Wales within the English-dominated UK meant than ‘Welshness’ was not as distinctive a national force as was ‘Scottishness’ north of the border.


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