It was built, in all its Edwardian Baroque glory, as the civic headquarters for a place that was not yet a city, never mind a capital.
But the new fifth Cardiff Town Hall, its white facade of Portland stone designed to sparkle on even the greyest day, was a statement of intent when it opened in 1904.
Wales, it proclaimed, exists.
The building, its style somehow echoing that of the Beaux Arts capitols and assemblies of the new world, was the first structure in a whole civic centre complex called Cathays Park.
Here was a national museum, courts, university, war memorial, police HQ and, eventually, the stripped classicist home of the Welsh Office and then the Welsh Government.
This, explains Richard Wyn Jones, with a wave of his arm, was also where the original home rulers of the early 20th century wanted to put their parliament.
Wyn Jones is director of the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University, his office just off Cathays Park. He reckons this is the place you have to understand if you want to get what is happening in Wales as the political realities of Brexit play out in the UK nations.
Wales, like Scotland, is reassessing its relationship with the British state. But it is doing so from a very different place. The country, as Cathays Park shows, has been nation-building, while Scotland has been state-building.
“In Scotland ‘Union’ was predicated on the survival of a plethora of Scottish institutions,” says Wyn Jones. “Wales, by contrast, was annexed into England. Welsh law was abolished; Welsh administrative units were abolished and replaced by English ones; and so on. What this has meant is that, since the national revival in Wales in the mid nineteenth century, Welsh nationalism has focused on creating national institutions – you can actually see this manifested physically in the civic centre of Cardiff where you have the national museum, what was once the national (federal) university, and so on. It’s been about assembling the basic institutional building blocks of a nation.
Last month as Scotland elected a parliament with a majority for full independence – and the holding of a second referendum – Wales again put its trust in Labour, which took half of the 60 seats in the Senedd, the national parliament across the city in Cardiff Bay.
The pro-independence Plaid Cymru took just a fifth of the vote. On paper, at least, this looked like a victory for pro-UK parties. But Welsh nationalism, it turns out, is stealthy. Labour, increasingly, is, as much as Plaid, the party of Wales and Welsh national aspirations, And not just in the soft nationalist way of the old Scottish unionists and devolutionists.
Wyn Jones and colleagues have dug in to the results of last month’s big vote. Their Welsh Election Survey (WES), gold standard public research, reveals hidden fault-lines. Welsh Labour – after a full century of winning elections arguably the most successful political party in its land – does very well among people who feel Welsh while Plaid does well among those who speak Welsh. Supporters of both parties have a lot in common. Increasingly that includes support for greater autonomy, if not independence, them certainly home rule.
The WES shows something like 40% of independence supporters voted Labour. That makes up a huge proportion of the third or so of voters who, according to polls, back a Welsh state
This is new. Welsh politics has not quite crystalised in for two tribes for and against independence. So much so that a vocabulary has still to be developed to express this difference. There is not, for example, a Welsh language word for unionism, an idea that really only makes sense in a Scottish or Irish context.
Wales became part of England, legally, in 1536, generations after military conquest, with a document that has now come to be called the Act of Union but was essentially just the striking off of Welsh law and administration. But there was no real union. (Even the concept of a legal jurisdiction of England and Wales is just decades old).
Language, simply, has not caught up with politics. “The debate about independence in Wales is of very, very recent origin and I’ve been genuinely surprised by how quickly it’s taken off and how normalised it has become in terms of the political debate,” says Wyn Jones. “It’s become pretty standard for my Labour supporting students, for example, to be pro-indy – or to support such radical constitutional change in the UK that it’s akin to indy. But it’s still so recent, that we don’t really know what it means for the politics of the country.
“Plaid clearly view it as their big opportunity to break out beyond their base while Welsh Labour are very aware of what they would regard as the mistakes of Scottish Labour, and don’t want to end up being pally with the Tories as part of some big Unionist love-in and thereby push the very large number of Labour-voting indy-supporters towards Plaid.
“It’s really too soon to say where this is headed. I think the only thing that is certain is that the actions of the UK government in undermining devolution is an enormous boost to the independence cause.”
The Tories are eager to put a Union Jack on Wales, re-asserting their role as one of the country’s two government. The party, which gained seats as populist British nationalists lost theirs, has a demographic bulwark against independence. In the last census, 16% of people declared themselves “British-only” and 12% said they were “English only”. By contrast, only eight per cent of Scottish residents described themselves as “British only”.
Wyn Jones believes continued Tory dominance at Westminster – and potential challenges to devolution – will force ruling Welsh Labour to make hard decisions.
He says: “The party’s dominance hides what is a major structural challenge. Its ambition for Wales is what the FM calls ‘home rule’, that is a radical restructuring of the UK including the end of traditional notions of parliamentary sovereignty.
“But even if it could persuade British Labour that this was a good idea, it’s clear that Labour looks a long, long way from power in London. So it can’t deliver. Meanwhile, the Tory Government that we actually have in London is undermining devolution, and while the Welsh Government complains bitterly about this, there’s actually nothing it can do about it. So where does Welsh Labour go? That’s the big question for the next few years.”
Wales as the smallest of the UK nations can feel as it its agency is limited. Its fate might be determined by events elsewhere, such as in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Welsh Labour leader and first minister, the popular Mark Drakeford, was this month asked what would happen to Wales if Scotland left the UK. The “geometry” of Britain would change, he told The Spectator. “Wales would have to think through the relationship that she would want to have with the component parts that remain,” he added.
The designers of Cathays Park, a century or so on, have made their point. As Britain flickers as a concept nobody can doubt this: Wales exists.