If the Catalan cause has reached the Westminster parliament, it is largely thanks to Hywel Williams. Member of the Welsh pro-independence party Plaid Cymru and a staunch supporter of minority languages, Williams (born in Pwllheli, Wales, 1953) first became involved with Catalonia in the 1980s. During the 2017 referendum process, he came to Catalonia to give his support, and that same year he became the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Catalonia in the UK Parliament. From this group, formed by MPs of all political colours, he has brought the situation of Catalonia into the House of Commons on several occasions. Interviewed by ElNacional.cat, he asserts the right of Catalonia to be independent, although he believes that the situation is far from resolved. He sees similarities with the case of Wales - which, he is confident, will one day achieve independence.
This past year we have heard more often about the Welsh independence movement. Has support for an independent Wales grown?
If you look at it from the question of the European Union, it is clear that Brexit is still giving a strong impetus to independence. In one of the latest polls, 38% were in favour of an independent Wales within the EU. Although the 'leave' option won in Wales, the remain vote was really strong [47.5%], especially in the areas where most Welsh is spoken.
As well, in the last election to the Senedd [Welsh Parliament] the level of support for independence was visible: my party and the Greens, also pro-independence, obtained more than 20% of the vote. Talking to a Scottish colleague, he told me that this was their situation before the referendum, now six years ago. The 2014 referendum campaign itself brought them to 40%.
So your goal is to follow in the footsteps of Scotland and hold a referendum?
It's not the priority right now, but if people start thinking about it... Right now, we have Covid, economic deprivation, low wages, the climate... there's everything, but part of the answer to these problems is independence, in order to address them properly.
We don't thinking of reaching independence next week, it will be a long process, but today I feel more confident that we will achieve something like independence. The form will not be the classic one of the nineteenth century, with armies and battles on the border; it will be more like the Swedish, Norwegian model.
Basically, that's because we think we can do a lot of things much better. There is a saying, which my Catalan friends must know very well: "No country is well governed by its neighbours." Wales is much more leftist and green. If you compare it to the UK as a whole, you can see the difference; politics are driven by London, not Wales... so if we are independent, we can set our own priorities.
The position of the Boris Johnson government, however, is not very supportive to allowing the nations of the United Kingdom to decide on these issues, is it?
True, the British government has become more unionist. In the last three years they have pursued a policy of "all four nations as one". And they are going to announce new unionist policies, such as the centralization of the railways based on London. So if you want to travel from north Wales to south Wales, you will have to pass through England. This is unrealistic.
And what has changed so that in 2014 a referendum was allowed in Scotland and now there is this new paradigm?
Much of this reaction has come in response to the success of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which again won the last election. This has meant that the dynamics in politics have shifted from the left-right axis to the unionist-nationalist axis to some extent.
Madrid decided to silence the question and put the politicians in jail. Here, on the other hand, I don't think people like me in Wales or Scotland are in danger of being imprisoned
In Wales, for example, we are negotiating with the Greens to create a left-wing alliance in some constituencies. And now this opens a new scenario for the Labour Party: are you going to ally with us - or with the unionist right?
And the Conservatives, the British government, do you think they could go as far as to prevent the second referendum that Scotland is demanding?
Politically they couldn't block it, but legally they can. And Boris Johnson has already 'no' repeatedly. But in the past they said in the case of Northern Ireland, for example, that if there was a clear demand for unification with the South, they would allow a referendum. So is there one principle in one place and another that is completely different in the other place?
But do you think that they could reach the extreme of what took place in Catalonia, during the referendum on October 1st, 2017, and what has happened since?
I was in Catalonia for the referendum, I saw the Civil Guard break into a polling station, beating people... Madrid decided to silence the question and put the politicians in jail. Here, on the other hand, I don't think people like me in Wales or Scotland are in danger of being imprisoned. The political culture is different. If the demand for a referendum in Scotland was clearly strong and lasting, in the end they would not be able to refuse it. And all the polls show that at least half want to vote about Scottish independence. In addition, in the elections, the support for the SNP was clear. So the evidence for a referendum is very strong indeed.
In Catalonia, on the other hand, the holding of the referendum brought Catalan pro-independence politicians to the Supreme Court. Did you also follow the trial?
Yes, I was in Madrid for a couple of days. Although I do not speak Spanish or Catalan and I did not really know what was happening, I thought it was symbolically important to be a witness. What surprised me most was that there were two Vox prosecutors. Unbelievable! The fact was, the state was prosecuting the Catalan politicians on behalf of their political opponents. I find that strange, to say the least. The fact that they were prosecuted at all is already a philosophical mistake. The situation should have been: "Did you want independence? Yes? That's okay then, that's politics.”
And now, how do you assess the current situation, after the granting of pardons?
The impression that some people have is that it is being resolved, but I think that in reality the situation is far from resolved. There are still 300 people with penalties who have to pay fines; for the leaders who have been released, it is conditional, Carles Puigdemont is still abroad...
In Spain, the fact was that the state was prosecuting the Catalan politicians on behalf of their political opponents
The relations, I know, are better now that the Socialists are in control, but I also know that it is still difficult, and the prospect of Catalan independence is still unrealised. And I’m not sure if the situation is moving forward or backward.
And how do you think it should be resolved?
I’m not qualified to say if it should be one way or another, but I see the arguments and I can see the similarities with those in Wales. That is why I am on the side of Catalan independence. It seems very clear to me given the history of Catalonia, its culture, its language, even its economic state. It is the right of Catalonia to be an independent country, to have the key to your own house.
You have long been one of the international voices for the Catalan cause, especially from Westminster, as president of the multi-party group on Catalonia
I have been committed to Catalonia since the 1980s, especially on the subject of language. After 2017 I was made chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) because the previous chairperson lost his seat. International support is important, it’s good to have it, and we’ve provided that from the APPG. I think we've raised the profile of Catalonia in the House of Commons, and also in the United Kingdom, especially in Wales. People here are more aware. Those who speak Welsh are more aware of Catalonia than people who don't, because of the language issue.
What is the situation of Welsh today?
The language issue has always been a major issue in Wales, and has also been a driver of independence. I came into politics in the 70s because of the language struggle. Things have changed since then. We now have a law that says Welsh is essentially equal to English, and while its application is poor in many areas, it is changing people's perception and growing.
In the area where I live, in Arfon, 75% of the population speaks Welsh, and the language is getting younger: 95% of children speak it. The idea that it is a language of old people is no longer correct and the Welsh government has set itself the goal of reaching one million speakers. [There are currently 883,300 speakers, almost 29% of the population of Wales]
Although the number of Catalan speakers is significantly higher, the trend in Catalonia is the opposite. How did you do it because, despite the globalization threat to smaller languages, Welsh has grown by almost 1% in the last year?
If you think about it, we are next to one of the most imperialist and aggressive countries in the world, and its language is the global language. We have been living next door for a very, very long time and we still have our own language. There’s a Chinese proverb that I think describes it: if you share a cage with a tiger, you learn to walk very softly.
The campaign for the language has been small but very popular, and promoting television in Welsh has been at the centre of our efforts. The S4C channel produces many programmes, and they're broadcast at peak times. We also have a very lively culture, from literature to rock. People think that in countries with minority languages, indigenous music is the most popular; with bagpipes, and men with big beards and big bellies... and in Wales there are young people in jeans and T-shirts, who play rock and roll but it's in Welsh.
I said in a conference once: "If there's trash to be hand, we want trash in Welsh please".
And from London, do they defend it?
Even the Conservatives say they are in favour of the Welsh language, although the actual actions they take are a different matter. To give an example: if you want to take your driving test, you can do it in Welsh and wait five or six weeks, or you can do it the next day in English.
Now, as far as I know, the political attitude towards the Catalan language is quite the opposite; it is divided and the Spanish parties are against it. In Wales, even the far-right party uses Welsh in its pamphlets, as if Vox were using Catalan [he laughs].
The British parties are not against Welsh, or so they say. But there is still a lot of work to be done.