Wales: Nation and Tea-Room

Nation and Tea-Room
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Taken together, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England form a nameless sovereign state generally referred to the United Kingdom (UK). For a time in the past, three of these countries, Scotland, England and Wales, were collectively known as Great Britain (GB), a name still in use in certain contexts, that of the world of sport, for example. But is Wales more than just a constituent part of a bigger entity?

Diarmuid Johnson.

Wales' history, since 1536, the year Henry VIII annexed its lands to those of the English crown, may be described, as in the case in other countries, as a cycle of self-definition influenced on the one hand by its own past, and on the other by its co-existence with neighbouring powers.

An analysis of recent centuries in Wales reveals the struggle between, on the one hand, forces working to assimilate a people into the sphere of English hegemony, and on the other, forces of resistance to this assimilation.

This process, half a millenium old, has been ponctuated by other cycles of events. Chief among these were, doutbless, the emergence of a proletariat-capitalist dichotomy that continues to influence the political life of the country, and later, during two world wars, the urgency to counter possible invasion.

Today, assimilation and resistance continue, albeit in the modern context of a post-imperial Britain, a globalised market place, and an ever more united Europe. Within this world, local and global, Wales dresses itself in the clothes of nation, province, principality, national park, and tea-room to suit the occasion.

What then are the defining characteristics of contemporary Wales? It is a country comparable in size, in a European context, to the Greek Peleponese, the Armorican peninsula, the island of Sardinia, the countries Estonia, The Netherlands, or Albania, for example.

The population of Wales today is 2.8 million, and the most populated area in modern times - a fact attributable to its recent industrial past and maritime heritage - is the south coast from the Bristol Channel west through Newport, Cardiff, Bridgend and Port Talbot to Swansea.

In modern Wales, two languages are spoken. One, English, is a variety of British English, the other, Welsh, a descendant of the Celtic language Brythonic that was widely spoken in Britain before the Roman invasion.

Of the 2.8 million people who live in Wales, 580,000 now claim to have a knowledge of the Welsh language, though not all of these are likely to be fluent speakers. This figure represents a recent increase in the speakers of Welsh: during the 1980s speakers of the language numbered around 500,000. To put this in its historical context, the number of people speaking Welsh in post-medieval and pre-modern times was about 400,000, while during the industrial 19th century this leaped to as many as two million.

Since 1999, when the people voted for devolution, Wales' political status is comparable, though not identical, to that of the German Länder, or the Spanish regions. A budget is available for the running of the country's schools and hospitals, for the maintenance of its infrastructure and the institutionalisation of its culture, but it has no power to legislate, does not collect its own taxes, and does not make decisions on matters of national security.

Read a little more about Wales, its geography and literature, in Transcript 4.

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