On Thursday, for the first time ever, all the Welsh have the opportunity to elect their own Assembly and to embark upon the adventure of democratic self-government. That many of them may seem less than excited at this prospect is perhaps because, like most of the British peoples, they are punch-drunk after several decades of unremitting change, in which so many institutions that used to seem eternal have been proved all too ephemeral after all; but it does not detract from the fascinating historical meaning of the moment - more profoundly interesting really than the parallel election in Scotland, which has not been under English domination for so long, and has always retained some measure of autonomy anyway.
The Welsh have been absolutely subject to London for many centuries - formally since Henry VIII's Act of Union in 1536, but in effect since the death of Llywelyn the Last in 1282. It could be said that, besides the Channel Islands, Wales is England's oldest colony, and the very last to achieve any measure of self-government. Thursday's election is thus as historically significant for England as for Wales - you might say that it will mark the very end of the British Empire. Psychologically, too, it may be a bit of a shock for the already traumatised English, who have always thought of Wales as a part of England, and not a very prepossessing part at that.
How pleasant it will be if autonomy makes for a healthier relationship between the two peoples. Despite centuries of grievance, very few Welsh people are hostile to the Sais. They have interbred for so long that I doubt if many Welsh families are without their English relatives; for centuries they have come and gone (mostly gone) over the border in search of easier living; for a generation or two many of them were genuinely proud to belong to the British imperial comity, rich, strong and far- flung across the oceans. In our own half-century our English overlords, far from oppressing the Welsh identity, have leant over backwards to appease Welsh patriotism.
But it is that patriotism nevertheless, sustained down all the years by an unyielding core of historically-conscious Welshmen and women, this has led us to this week's denouement. Whatever accretions have been added to the inspiration, it is au fond a passion for the idea of Wales that has led us little by little into devolution. To the English, with an altogether more practical idea of nationhood, this often seems like the skimble-skamble stuff that Shakespeare's Hotspur laughed at in the Welsh, and it has led them to wonder (and, with them, many of their Welsh devotees, too) whether the whole devolutionary business in Wales is not some kind of unnecessary charade, stage-managed by sly nationalists and foisted on everyone else.
Well, I am a sly nationalist myself, although I hate the word's mean implications, and I believe devolution has altogether deeper, more benign and more honourable purposes than the English allow it - or, at least, the English media, which has generally watched and pictured the whole development with boorish and cynical contempt.
The only good purpose of patriotism, to my mind, is to make a people happy, and there is no point in independence for a nation if it only makes things worse - the nation-state as a concept is surely on its way out, and a good thing too. Experience has shown, however, that, for the most part, peoples are happier when they are allowed to govern their own affairs, however incompetently; no country of the generally efficient and humane old British empire, so far as I know, ever regretted exchanging the imperial governance for its own home-bred administration, even the most slipshod and corrupt. Pride of community, it turns out, is more conducive to public content than efficiency, logic or even fairness of rule.
And it is as a community that the Welsh will, we must all hope, find greater happiness in self-government. Wales is the right size for a modern nation, at a time when no nation can be altogether independent anyway - do the English really fool themselves that they are presently independent of the United States or can long be politically independent of Europe? The Welsh are few enough still to feel themselves members one of another. By the geographical nature of things Welsh patriotism has been always on the defensive, Welsh dragon against Union Jack, "Land of our Fathers" versus "God Save the Queen", but self-government can soon change its nature and make of it what the great patriot Saunders Lewis claimed for it long ago: ysbrid hael ac o gariad at wareiddiad a thraddodiad a phethau gorau dynoliaeth - "a generous spirit of love for civilisation and tradition and the best things of mankind".
How? Good question. Fundamentally, I hope, by giving all Welsh people a sense that they are lucky to be Welsh. Most of them are already proud to be Welsh, but they do not always think it a lucky condition. Nearly all of us have despaired of it, at one time or another - how much easier life might have been, economically, artistically, spiritually even, if we had been born into some other sphere of humanity! The one moment when almost all Welsh people feel themselves fortunate is when, preferably at the end of a marvellous tightrope contest, preferably (one has to say) against the English, some archetypally Welsh rugby hero weaves his way to a last-minute victorious try or makes our hearts soar with a masterful conversion in injury time.
If we can make all our national achievements feel to the mass of the populace as satisfying as that, then already we shall have added to the stock of communal and personal happiness. In rugby we can sense ourselves a family, rejoicing together at our successes, together mourning our failures, and it is this unity of enthusiasm that, I hope, devolution can extend to embrace the whole family of the Welsh. The nation has long been divided: between the Welsh-speaking minority and the rest, between incomers and old inhabitants, between the north and the south. Self-government can help smooth these divisions, for a start. Within a generation there will be no Welsh resident who does not understand at least some Welsh; Welsh national pride will, please God, make more English newcomers pleased to be Welsh themselves; already it is becoming unfashionable within Wales to give capital letters to north and south. So the revolution is beginning already - even the notion of autonomy, imperfectly understood, is having an inspiring or, at least, a challenging effect. Only give Wales time. After 700 years, there's no great hurry.
For you must grant us that there has been little precipitate about the Welsh patriotic movement, and little malignant either. It has been a steady and almost always peaceful progression towards this week's election, and its effects are not going to be abrupt. It will be years before we discover how our Assembly will work, or whether it will work at all. My own feeling is that three results are possible: Wales may, despite its new status, simply stumble on as before, a somewhat despised poor relation of England; it may, in a generation or two, develop into a more properly equal member of some kind of British federation; or it could (my own preference, of course) become a fully sovereign member of a European confederation, equal in rights and standing with all its peers.
Whichever comes about will come about amicably, if the English want it so. "There is much care and valour in this Welshman," Shakespeare's Henry V allowed of the often very irritating Fluellen, and it is true of today's Welshmen, too. May I suggest that the English, and not least the English press, take a tip from their own greatest genius? The strength and goodness of Wales are only waiting to be tapped. Why not be generous, try to think better of us and wish us luck at our grand moment of history? Keep your fingers crossed for us and you may find it will bring you luck, too.Reuse content