Wales profile - Overview


Wales, a part of the United Kingdom, has retained its distinctive culture and has enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1999.

It includes a heavily industrialised south, a largely-Anglicised and prosperous farming east, and a Welsh-speaking, hill-farming North and West.

Wales' devolved government - home rule - is now acquiring more powers and its economy is refocusing on light industry, tourism and financial services, but a small population and poor transport infrastructure continue to make development uneven.

Welsh identity and the Welsh language have received a boost from an enlivened popular culture scene in the 1990s, and from the devolution of power from the central government in London to the Welsh National Assembly in Cardiff.

But Wales's rural hinterland is still experiencing an influx of mainly English professionals that some see as a threat to Welsh culture.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rugby is a national passion

Wales is a large peninsula in western Britain, divided from England by major rivers and mountain ranges.

It steadily fell under Norman then English rule in the Middle Ages, with the last native prince ousted in 1282. Despite the brief uprising by Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower) in 1400-1415, Wales was eventually annexed to England by the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535-1542, which abolished the Welsh legal system.

Wales re-emerges

The country remained a relative backwater in Britain until the 19th century, when the south and north-east were heavily industrialised and coal and steel exports provided the basis for a substantial manufacturing industry. At the same time Wales underwent a major Methodist revival, which entrenched the Welsh language through a voluntary religious schools system.

The rise of organised labour in the late 19th century made Wales an important centre for the trade union movement and the emerging Labour Party, which has dominated Welsh political life ever since.

The break-up of empires after the First World War saw a revival of national consciousness in Wales as elsewhere. And after the Second World War, this began to translate into institutional change, with Wales being officially defined as legally distinct from England in 1967.

In 1962 the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg) formed in response to fears that the language was entering a period of rapid decline through the spread of English-language media and rural depopulation. It organised high-profile civil disobedience campaigns to win the Welsh language legal status, thereby both mobilising and alienating sections of society.

Nationalism received a boost over the flooding of the Tryweryn valley in 1965, which drowned the village of Capel Celyn to create a reservoir for Liverpool in England.

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Image caption The sleepy town of Machynlleth, where Owain Glyndwr's short-lived Welsh parliament was based

The following year nationalist party Plaid Cymru won the Carmarthen seat at a by-election, and the inauguration of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales prompted a campaign of bomb attacks by the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Wales Defence Movement) on water pipes and government offices.

These presaged the Meibion Glyndwr (the Sons of Glendower) campaign to fire-bomb holiday homes in rural areas in the 1970s-1990s.

A referendum to set up a devolved assembly with limited powers for Wales in 1979 was heavily defeated in the highly polarised political atmosphere of the last days of the Callaghan Labour government.

The subsequent Conservative government closed down much of Wales's loss-making heavy industry and tried initially to renege on an electoral commitment to set up a Welsh-language television channel.

This perception that Conservative rule took too little account of Wales led to a broader consensus in favour of some measure of self-government, which led to the narrow vote in favour of a similar assembly in 1997. Analysts at the time attributed the victory to a first-time alliance between "Welsh Wales" (the Welsh-speaking north and west) and "Radical Wales" (the industrial south), against anti-devolution "English Wales" (the affluent rural east).

Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Assembly was not initially able to pass primary legislation, which has to go through Parliament in Westminster. A new Government of Wales Act of 2006 delegated power from Parliament to the Assembly, allowing it to pass "Measures" - specifically Welsh Laws - from May 2007.

It also provided for a referendum to grant the Assembly further powers. The referendum was held in March 2011, at which a large majority granted the Assembly law-making powers like those in Scotland.

Most of the powers of the Secretary of State for Wales were transferred to the Assembly in 1999, although the Secretary continues to ensure Welsh interests are borne in mind by the central government, represent the government within Wales, and oversees Welsh legislation through Parliament.

The provisions of the Wales Act of 2017 are set to give the Assembly the same powers as those enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, at which point the Assembly is expected to rename itself the Parliament of Wales (Welsh: Senedd Cymru).

Wales has 40 MPs out of the total of 650 in Parliament in Westminster.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mount Snowdon is Wales' highest peak, and the UK's highest outside Scotland

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