Welcome to Wales, ma'am

Nationalists who would not have been seen dead on the honours list will soon accept royal favours
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The Independent Culture
MIXED FEELINGS have been today's order for any whole-hog Welsh republican patriot, like me. On the one hand it has been a day of triumph, joy and celebration as we have welcomed at last, after so many centuries, the first symbolic expressions of Welsh autonomy. On the other - well, there were the Queen of England, the Duke of Edinburgh and the nominal Prince of Wales descending upon us in the royal train as if nothing much had changed.

Their presence in Wales on this great day has seemed (to people of my persuasion) partly just patronising, and partly a deliberate reminder that we have advanced only an inch or two along the multi-mile journey to independence. We are still no more than wards of Westminster. (Did not Tony Blair come too, to be close to his prefect, Alun Michael?)

Most Welsh people are not hostile to the Royal Family. Nearly everybody I know is quite fond of the Queen, and Prince Charles seems a human enough fellow, after all. We are rather sorry for them, I think. While we in Wales are enjoying one of our all-too-rare periods of national success and self-congratulation, the poor old Windsors have undeniably come down in the world since their last full-blown ceremonial visitation to what we zealots hate to hear called the principality.

That was in 1969, when young Charles was invested as titular Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle with a much mightier blast of pomp and sycophancy. Even then, young Welsh bravos publicly expressed their distaste for the occasion, but the general Welsh response was warm enough. People did not generally mind seeing helmeted royal cavalry clopping through the Caernarfon streets, and a nation that had lost confidence in itself and its future saw nothing incongruous in the descendants of Edward I living it up in the terrible fortress that he had built to keep their own ancestors in subjection.

Most of the Welsh were as royalist as the English; Westminster was seen as the eternal parliament of a United Kingdom; Plaid Cymru was no more than a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than Gwynfor Evans's hand. Times have changed. Of course, the statutory smiles were smiled in Cardiff, the proper speeches were made, the correct things were said, the carriages processed, the happy schoolchildren with balloons swarmed around the royal guests and the usual gifts were thrust upon them.

The day went well (though the crowds mostly consisted, at least on my TV screen, of happy schoolchildren with balloons). The royal party behaved, so far as I could see, with unassuming tact.

But when the Manic Street Preachers, idols of the Welsh young, declined to perform before Her Majesty at a celebratory concert, they were by no means as isolated as were the daring demonstrators at Caernarfon 30 years ago.

In the years since then the Welsh sense of national identity has marvellously revived. Pride in Welshness is far stronger now, the Welsh language flourishes and is not often resented, the struggling political infant that was Plaid Cymru in 1969 has masterfully established itself as the Party of Wales. Anybody who has lived in this country since the devolution referendum two years ago must have observed the immense change in the national spirit, and the unexpected sense of relief and excitement which surrounds the birth of our national Assembly.

We are on a roll in Wales now. Everything is happening. The Assembly is happening. A rejuvenated rugby team is happening. Our National Opera marches grandly on and Welsh actors and actresses are constantly in the showbiz pages - Wales is cool these days. A fine new arts centre is going up in Cardiff, there's a new stadium to succeed dear old Cardiff Arms Park, and a wonderful National Botanic Garden is arising in the Tywi Valley. The snide Welsh jokes are even fading from the English press, a sure sign of success. At the thanksgiving service at Llandaff Cathedral a genuine frisson clearly ran through the congregation when "God Save the Queen" was succeeded, infinitely grander, infinitely more heartfelt, by "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" ("Land of our Fathers") - a frisson of new pride and hope which, I am sure, ran through all the television sets of the nation, and certainly brought tears to my own eyes.

Not that I begrudged the Queen her anthem too. For the time being at least she is our sovereign, and I don't doubt that most Welsh people are happy with the arrangement. I am myself a separatist, looking towards an independent Welsh republic within a European confederation, but I don't doubt either that for a generation or two to come the most our people can expect is self-government within a British federation. The King of Britain will still be the King of Wales then, and will still be coming down to Cardiff, poor fellow, to do his duty at the opening of our Parliament.

But by then the monarch's duties in Wales will be purely ornamental. Now they are allegorical. As the unfortunate Mr Michael has put it, the Queen's presence in Cardiff "is recognition of the fact that we're part of the UK".

That, of course, is precisely why we hot patriots wish it need not have happened, but royal intervention in our affairs no longer fires quite the same saeva indignatio that it would have inspired a decade ago. We have been waiting a long, long time; we recognise that devolution is not just an event, but part of a process; we can afford, at this moment of grand success, to be magnanimous. I was happy to see that the schoolchildren in Cardiff had not been instructed to curtsy, but glad to see that they treated Queen, Philip, Charlie and all with welcoming courtesy.

For if we Welsh extremists have had mixed feelings, as we have watched the events at Cardiff Bay, one emotion we can now afford to indulge is noblesse oblige. We are the winners! The monarchy no longer represents an overwhelming and overbearing power across the border; its allegory now is altogether weaker and more conciliatory. There were no plumed cavalry in Cardiff, and the brouhaha was subdued. The Queen wore pink and left her crown at home, Charles bravely made his speech in Welsh and Philip looked like what he was, a benign old sailor, RN retd.

The most reactionary Tory, the feeblest Blairite, must recognise now that the Welsh people are no longer prepared to toe the British line: the state opening of our Assembly may be no more than a foot in the door, but it marks a moment of grand emancipation all the same.

So the gesture of the Manic Street Preachers will neither shock many people, as it would have a few years ago, nor particularly delight many. The monarchy has become a harmless irrelevance, with a certain quaint charm to it, and I foresee that Welsh nationalists who, only a year or two ago, would not have been seen dead with their names on an honours list will soon be accepting royal favours unabashed - almost unabashed, anyway. Even I have softened. Your Majestys, Highnesses, Mistresses of the Robes, etc, thanks for coming. See you again some time.