Two things struck me as I got off the train in Cardiff after a 7-hour trip from Barcelona: one expected and one less so. The first was that it was rainy and very windy. The kind of absurdly bad weather that almost makes you laugh and which umbrellas have no defense against. The second surprising thing was that there were dragons everywhere. I mentioned to my host that there are dragons everywhere in Catalonia too, except on the end of a spear, and she said, “Ours still have attitude.”
We got to the newly renovated “Yr Hen Lyfrgell” (Old Library) on Saint Mary Street just as the inaugural conference of Yes Cymru was beginning. The room was packed with more than a hundred people and the other two speakers, Shona McAlpine from the Scottish National Party and John Dixon formerly of the Welsh national party, Plaid Cymru, were already at the table.
Iestyn ap Rhobert, who would eventually be named the group’s president, welcomed the crowd partly in Welsh, partly in English. A lot of what he said sounded very familiar: they don’t understand us or appreciate us, and they take advantage of us. We don’t want to create a new country just to keep doing the same old same old, we want to create a new country to ensure there’s more social justice and a better society.
Shona McAlpine described how Scotland’s Yes campaign had thoroughly invigorated public debate with people participating, debating, canvassing, in short, not waiting around for politicians to solve things, but rather rolling up their sleeves and tackling the problems directly. People felt empowered. She also underscored the importance of social media in a world where all but one of the newspapers published in Scotland was against them. “Create your own online news service,” she suggested (https://t.co/ezJ2XRCSKy).
John Dixon, the former leader of the pro-independence Plaid Cymru party in Wales, began his remarks by quoting a Welsh saying, “Old age doesn’t come by itself” to explain that he’s been fighting this fight a long time. One could sense a note of frsutration and impatience with his former party. “We need to stop depending on a narrow electoral movement for Welsh independence,” he said. “We are a nation and we don’t have to prove that we are, or become one.” Decles en altre doc
But it was when Dixon said “We have the right to be independent and the right to not be independent” that he most reminded me of Catalonia’s right to decide movement. Like the Catalans, the Welsh want to be able to address the issue of independence openly and clearly, and then vote (https://t.co/bLEtW06VnS).
As Dixon spoke in Welsh, some people in the crowd listened to a simultaneous translation through headphones, and I wondered about the percentage of people in the audience who were not Welsh speaking, but who were clearly interested in Welsh independence.
There was a break in the presentations as three musicians got up to sing. They first read the words of the second verse of a Scottish Rose and then decided to sing their own version instead. Their voices were clear and beautiful and the crowd listened intently.
I spoke next, explaining how the Catalan independence movement had not come from the politicians, but rather from determined individuals, who each in their own way had laid the foundation for the massive demonstrations that had pushed their political leaders to move forward towards separation with Spain. One of the key elements, I told them, was the belief that independence was possible.
Siôn T. Jobbins, the author of a new book on the Welsh national anthem told the crowd, “They don’t understand us. We have different and specific needs. We need different things and we can give different things to the world.” These were not just selfish complaints, it was frustration about being unable to contribute because they were being shushed.
The final speaker was Iestyn ap Rhobert, who explained how Westminister had appropriated even Welsh water, 4 billion euros of it a year that goes away and doesn’t come back. It sounded very familiar. He said, “We wrote our own laws a thousand years ago! We have to ask loads of questions. We have to put them on the spot. We have to make them squirm.”
I could feel a sense of urgency. “Over the years, I’ve done everything that I could for my country, Wales.”
The general meeting of the new group took place next was fascinating. It went on almost entirely in English, and consisted of nominating and then immediately electing all of the members of the board. There was general excitement and a clear desire to move forward. They talked about many of the same issues that the Catalans and I’m sure other groups have faced: should they focus their efforts in one geographical area, should they have different job or interest-based focus groups? I’m sure there will be many more questions as they progress. What was very clear was that they were new, but full of energy. There was no shortage of volunteers and indeed they decided to increase the number of people on the board to accommodate everyone who wished to take part.
One last footnote. The next morning, my host Dilys Davies explained to me that there was a whole community of Welsh speakers in Patagonia, in Argentina. They had emigrated there in 1850, hoping to protect their culture from an ever encroaching Britain and to find new land. On a visit there last year, Davies told me they found schools, restaurants and road signs in Welsh. One morning at a café, she struggled to get out the words in Spanish to ask for a coffee and stood in amazement as the man muttered to his wife, “I can’t understand a word she’s saying,” in Welsh. When she gasped, “I speak Welsh too!” he said sternly, “Well, why didn’t you ask for the coffee in Welsh then!” as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
Perhaps the most normal thing in the world is to want to speak your own language, to preserve your own culture, to decide how you would like to be governed. These things are truly universal.