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As Scots weigh independence, Wales takes note

Lee Myers | Getty Images | Getty Images

Twm Morys was boiling carrots for his children when he momentarily stopped to recite a 15th-century battle chant in Welsh. Beating out the guttural consonants with a stave on his kitchen floor until they rang in every last corner of his farmhouse, Mr. Morys, a well-known poet, said it was time to put "fire in the belly" of his people.

He is not the only one. In the ancient mountains towering above this coastal town in northern Wales, where eight in 10 people speak the native Celtic tongue, and many carry names their fellow Britons would not dare pronounce, Welsh nationalists have their eyes firmly set on independence — Scottish independence.

Less than a month before Scotland holds a referendum on whether to leave Britain, Wales is watching with a mix of envy, excitement and trepidation.

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"If Scotland votes yes, the genie is out of the bottle," said Leanne Wood, leader of Wales's nationalist party Palid Cymru. Only one in 10 Welsh voters supports independence, compared with about four in 10 in Scotland, but Ms. Wood thinks that could change. "The tectonic plates of the United Kingdom are shifting," she said.

Tremors from the Scottish debate can already be felt across Britain. Whatever happens on Sept. 18, growing demands for more regional autonomy will reshape the country. In Northern Ireland, nationalists spy an opportunity to revive dreams of a united Ireland. Cornwall recently won minority status for its Celtic inhabitants. Even the long-neglected north of England has turned up the volume, questioning an ever greater concentration of wealth in London and the southeast.

But in Wales, perhaps more than anywhere else, nationalists have made the Scottish independence bid their own in the hope that it will stir passions at home — if not for full independence, at least for more self-government.

Ms. Wood, who was once expelled from a legislative debate for referring to Queen Elizabeth II as "Mrs. Windsor," has been to Scotland twice in support of the Yes campaign and plans to go again. The Welsh Hollywood actor Rhys Ifans has joined the #goforitScotland campaign. And Adam Price, an entrepreneur and prominent pro-independence thinker, has been campaigning in Scotland from a caravan, Welsh-style. "Caravaning for independence," he calls it.

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Others, like Mr. Morys, will gather in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the week before the referendum for a series of performances to "whip up some Welsh enthusiasm," stave in hand.

Wales and Scotland have much in common — not least an unfailing loyalty to any sporting side that plays against England, their once mighty and still dominant neighbor.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher, the conservative prime minister, shut their heavy industries, Scottish and Welsh voters have cast their ballot to the left of the English. There is, said Peter Florence, director of Wales's Hay literary festival, a shared sense of not being represented in Westminster.

But Wales is smaller and poorer than Scotland. It has no oil to make up for the subsidies from London currently sustaining its public services. "We're a hundred years too late," Mr. Florence lamented, referring to the Welsh coal riches that once fired Britain's industrial revolution. If he were Scottish, he would vote for independence, he said. "But we simply cannot afford it."

Gerald Holtham, one of Wales's most prominent economists, has done the math: Total government spending for Wales is 30 billion pounds a year, or about $50 billion, and tax receipts come to 17 billion pounds. "We're talking about a gap a quarter the size of the economy," he said.

Nationalists retort that Wales can escape poverty only if it takes charge of its own destiny. "No nation has ever ruled another well," said Mr. Price, a former lawmaker who set up a technology company in Wales. "We are poor because we are not independent, rather than the other way round."

But even he conceded that the time for Welsh independence has not come. First, he said, "We have to learn to be a nation again."

Read More Chief executives: Scottish independence is bad for business

Unlike Scotland, whose Parliament voted to join England three centuries ago, Wales was conquered in 1282. The Scots kept their own legal system, schools, universities, church and, with it all, a strong civic identity distinct from England's. Welsh institutions were swallowed whole; the Welsh dragon, which flutters proudly and ubiquitously on the high street in Caernarfon, is nowhere to be seen in the Union Jack.

"We were England's first colony," said Eirian James, owner of Palas Print, a local bookstore with mainly Welsh-language fare. Every time she visits relatives in southern Wales, she has to take a train through England. To this day, most transport links run from west to east, toward England, rather than along Wales's north-south axis.

The Welsh tourism board proudly promotes the fact that there are more castles per square mile in Wales than anywhere else. For locals, those castles are another reminder of early occupation.

Caernarfon Castle, up the street from Palas Print, was built by Edward I of England who killed Llewellyn, the last native prince of Wales, and declared his own firstborn son the Prince of Wales. That tradition still grates with some Welsh people. When Prince Charles was invested in Caernarfon Castle in 1969, militants tried to blow up his train. The local poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen recorded both events in popular poems. He died this summer, and donations made in his memory are going to Scotland's Yes campaign.

Poetry may not be the political weapon of choice elsewhere, but in Wales, home to the Eisteddfod, a sort of cultural Olympiad whose history can be traced to 1176, national grievances often find their way into verse.

As Jerry Hunter, a professor at Bangor University, said, "Where else have you got thousands of people crowding into a pavilion watching the results of a poetry contest?"

When the Welsh-speaking village Capel Celyn was flooded in 1965 to create a water reservoir for Liverpool, England, despite unanimous opposition from Welsh lawmakers, it spawned songs and graffiti art and gave Plaid Cymru its first significant boost.

More from the New York Times:

Scottish Independence Is Inevitable
Scottish Independence Vote Could Set Off E.U. Exodus
Only a Few Will Decide on What Could Be a Big Shift for Britain

Stemming the decline in the Welsh language — just under one in five Welsh people speaks Cymraeg — is the greatest triumph of Welsh nationalism, but it is also a handicap: It has divided a country of three million between those, mainly in the rural north and west, who speak it, and those in the more urban south and east who don't, reducing Plaid Cymru in the eyes of many to a mere language-lobbying group.

Many still grumble about a Welsh-speaking cabal — the Taffia, after the Welsh River Taff — holding the best jobs, the most influence and a greater claim to Welshness. But hostility toward the language has been fading, and the Welsh appetite for more self-government has grown — with a little help from Scotland.

In a 1979 referendum, eight in 10 Welsh voters opposed any kind of autonomy from London.

But in 1997, after Scotland voted to have its own Parliament, the tiniest majority of Welsh voters followed suit and approved the creation of a more modest Welsh assembly. By 2011, two in three of those voters wanted to extend the assembly's lawmaking powers.

"That's a bigger swing in public opinion over 30 years than in Scotland," said Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University.

Read More Scottish independence: Is UK government 'blethering'?

Some bank on a Scottish yes vote to accelerate that process. Others say a narrow no vote would be a better result for the Welsh: Once mocked in Whitehall circles as Scotland's "smaller, uglier sister," Wales may have more leverage with a Scottish ally inside the union.

But Mr. Jones says Wales will end up more autonomous irrespective of what happens in Scotland.

"Independence may look unlikely right now," he said. "But who in 1979 would have dared imagine a devolved Wales looking on as Scotland prepares an independence referendum?"

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