Leading Article: Wales's past can make a difference to Britain's future

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Wales is not a lesser Scotland. Its history, at crucial moments, has been remarkably like Scotland's - the early period of warring and competing tribal kingdoms; the unifying Christianity; the struggle to repel Edward I in his determination to unite the island; the uprising of Owain Glynd^wr, a little like a later version of William Wallace; the revival of romantic literary nationalism in the 19th century; the formation of a nationalist party in the 1920s ... and a devolutionary referendum defeated in 1979, before this year's attempt. One can see why, intoxicated by their decisive victory north of the Border, Scottish and English ministers went to Wales to urge the people there not to be left behind. Even so, this was impertinent. The Welsh debate should have been more distinctive than it has been, and the nature of devolution, if it happens, will be quite other than the project planned for Edinburgh.

We go back to history, because we must. The parallels with Scotland are interesting, and numerous, and intricate. Yet at decisive moments, the Welsh experience was very different. King Edward won in Wales as he never quite did in Scotland. Though Wales and England were formally fused by the Acts of Union in 1536 and 1543, most of the country had been effectively under English control since 1284. That meant that Wales lost out on the most crucial period of nation-building. Welsh law, for instance, was quite distinct from English law during the medieval period, and in some ways better too - it allowed wives more freedom and was less harsh on the poor. But, unlike Scotland which developed its own legal system for hundreds of years, Welsh law withered and died. With a longer English border, relative to its size, Wales was simply impossible to defend from steady English pressure. The Scots, from medieval times until the beginning of the 18th century, developed their own legal, educational, political and military infrastructure. The Welsh didn't.

Instead, the nature of Welsh resistance was spiritual and cultural, focused on the traditions of Welsh Christianity and the strength of the Welsh language. Wales developed a nationalism of the spirit, rather than political distinction.

That old Welsh history matters in 1997 for two reasons. First, it explains a lot about the lesser appetite for Welsh independence, and the weaker form of devolution offered. Second, it raises questions about what the proposed Welsh assembly is for. The project in front of the Welsh, should they choose to take the challenge, is not the rebuilding of a national political culture in quite the same way as the Scottish project. It is, rather, to foster and guard the linguistic and cultural specialness of Wales.

Why? Minor languages and small cultures are dying all around the modern world. They get less media attention than disappearing species, but the rate of attrition caused by globalisation is pretty severe. If the French are worried about the longer term, what chance have the Welsh got? And why should the great swaths of English-speaking southern Welsh, often from English or Scottish immigrant families themselves, care two hoots?

There is an absolute answer, which is simply that small cultures contain reserves of human knowledge and wisdom which the greater cultures crush at their peril. This is not a winner-takes-all Darwinian struggle; all humankind is diminished by the death of slowly-acquired knowledge. This may seem an abstract argument indeed for political change; yet most of us, in some way, respond to it. Few people would deny that most surviving cultures are worth preserving.

But a more rationalist answer is that in the global market, every corner of the world needs its specialisation, its point of difference to exploit and sell. Wales has a mix of traditions and skills which is not the same as those in Cornwall, or the Midlands, or Scotland. And a Welsh assembly would prove its utility by stressing, strengthening and marketing those differences to investors and customers outside. In short, if it worked, its effect would be like that of a Welsh cultural ministry and a Welsh development agency working together under democratic control. It would not feel like the wide-ranging parliamentary body planned for Scotland; but Wales doesn't need that or, perhaps, much want it. There is a lesson here for the English regions and Labour nationally, too. Devolution of power in our curious land is bound to be an asymmetric and ragged happening. Different regions will have different needs and should not be spatchcocked into a one-size-fits-all solution. We celebrate that raggedness. And we hope that, tomorrow, the people of Wales make Britain a little less uniform and a little less predictable.