Last weekend, as the leaves of September took on their first amber and golden hues, the air was crisp as blushing apples and ripening pears clung to the trees in North Wales.
In Llangollen, horse-drawn canal boats still plod a canal path — as they have done for 160 years — pulling barges. Now it’s a scattering of visitors, back then loads of slate to roof cities across the British Empire. A Victorian-vintage steam train still makes regular journeys up and down a nearby valley, chuffing up steam on coal that was once mined from under nearby hills.
How soon longer things can be normal in Llangollen, or indeed across much of Wales, no one knows. In the local college grounds, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper cars and vans inched around in a sombre autumnal procession, following the careful and detained instructions from the National Health Service staff providing coronavirus testing. There was no shortage of takers.
As of Tuesday night, two-thirds of the four million people who call Wales home are living under new localised restrictions to try and stop the second wave of the pandemic. It’s a similar story on Merseyside, in Lancashire, around Manchester and in the northeast, in the densely populated areas surrounding Newcastle.
Patchwork of regulations
Right now, there are a patchwork of regulations in force in various council districts. The rules are so complex that on Tuesday, a Conservative cabinet minister couldn’t remember what the rules were when she appeared on a live broadcast interview. If that wasn’t bad enough, just two hours later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also misstated the local regulations in force in the northeast — and had to issue an apology shortly after on social media.
But in Wales, where the Welsh assembly in Cardiff deals with health restrictions for the principality, things are bad. Even Cardiff is under tough new restrictions, so too Swansea, Caerphilly, the Rhonda Valley, portions of North Wales, and so too students in isolation at university in Aberystwyth — a town where 20,000 rely on the work and studies it provides.
In Davies Butchers on Castle Street in Llangollen, Gwyn Davies has been behind the counter for decades. Four years ago, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, visited the shop.
“He comes to Wales four times a year,” Davies says. “He came to the ship and it was a security nightmare,” adding that six long-standing customers had to be nominated and vetted for the princely visit. And no, Charles didn’t buy any sausages or Welsh lamb. It was a photo-op, and there’s a picture of the occasion when the prince visited the butcher hanging on a white ceramic-tiled wall. Then, Davies was all dressed up for the royal visit. Now, he’s far more concerned with staying open, keeping customers apart, making sure all meets the new rules in place there. For now.
Rules are changing at barely a moment’s notice — and it’s small wonder that Davies or indeed anyone else can keep up with them.
In Llangollen and as in the rest of Wales, all warnings and public health notices are carried in both English and Welsh languages. The rugby-loving Celtic nation has its own distinct culture, its own assembly, its own health, education and environmental laws and is flexing its muscles at a time when there is growing doubt about the leadership and directions coming from London.
Undermined by nationalists
The last time Welsh voters elected their assembly, Plaid Cymru — the Welsh independence party — became the official opposition in Cardiff. Although the party was founded in 1925, for many years it was seen as a fringe movement. Not now. Plaid Cymru’s social democratic and green policies sit well in a region blessed with natural beauty. Traditional support for the Labour party is being undermined by the nationalists and in last December’s general election, Plaid Cymru won four seats, Labour 22 and the Conservatives 14.
But that was before the pandemic — and politics now is different as is everything else.
During this past week, Plaid Cymru have laid out a road map for Welsh independence. Only independence, the party says, can bring meaningful change to the Welsh economy — stifled and ignored by Johnson in London.
The party wants to see an initial exploratory referendum setting out possible paths to sovereignty, followed by a second binary “in or out” vote some time later.
But the prospect of full Welsh independence is indeed a long way off. Johnson knows all too well that Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalist Party is chomping at the bit for a second referendum, is far more likely to go its own way sooner. So too Northern Ireland where the Good Friday Accord that brought peace to the province contains a provision for a poll on Irish reunification.
But what is interesting is the timing of Plaid Cymru laying out its road map. With coronavirus still growing and two-third of the populace under tougher living restrictions across Wales, the leadership of the party believes that the timing is right to begin such a debate in earnest. That certainly indicates that not all is right within the four parts of the United Kingdom that Johnson leads — in name only at least.
Support for independence
“Something is happening in Wales,” Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said earlier this week. “Support for independence is at the highest it has ever been. Our nation is on the march and people are waking up to the idea that independence is possible.”
While Wales did vote in support of Brexit, Plaid Cymru believes that an independent Wales should return to the EU fold.
As things stand now, elections for the Welsh assembly are due next year. By then, the UK will be out of the European Union, it might or might not have a deal on a future relationship with the EU, and coronavirus might or might not be a thing of the past.
If there’s one thing these past six months have taught us all, everything can quickly change — and Plaid Cymru is betting on that.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe