Simplicity will be the Mantra of the New Wales

Jan Morris imagines the country as it might be in a hundred years from now. 

 

Will Wales still be flying the Union Jack another 100 years from now? As a romantic realist patriot, as it were, I like to imagine what our country might be like at the beginning of the next century, say. Geographically, of course, it will still be a small peninsular country forming part of the British archipelago, but I imagine it with a population of five million, say, that has been obliged to find altogether new ways of maintaining its identity and its self-respect.

For a start, I assume that the country’s long slow progress towards self-governance will have taken it to a more or less permanent status. Conflicting ideas about national sovereignty will have been resolved by the emergence of a federal Britain, giving Wales and Scotland about the same degrees of self-governance as an American State – within, I myself hope, a wider confederal Europe.

The Gorsedd of the Nation of Wales, like the Scottish Parliament, will have complete command of its own domestic affairs, while contributing to federal decisions concerning defence, foreign diplomacy and the wider economics. This will lead inevitably to a loss of cash income from England, but fortunately for my imagination, climate change will have worked wonders for the Welsh tourist market, and the booming, up-market Welsh Riviera will ensure that international tourism remains the reliable basis of Wales’s own economy. Also the country’s resources of off-shore wind and tidal power will far exceed its own needs, while its higher education system will be geared overwhelmingly to scientific and technological accomplishment. As a modern, technically savvy little state, Wales will be well able to maintain its standard of living.

So I like to fancy that, by the end of our century, successive Welsh coalition governments will have made of Wales a new kind of place, less Welsh perhaps by present conceptions, but more Welsh by the standards of the future.

Wonderful, you may well say. How will it happen? It will still be a democracy, one need hardly say, but the political parties will have moderated their petty feuds of self-advantage. They will have shown the world that true democracy need not always be adversarial, but can be based upon genuine intellectual debate and compromise. At the same time, the vast old cumbersome bureaucracy will have been cut down to size on every level, and this means that great things can be achieved fast.

As a basis for all reform, the higher education system will have been drastically modernised. The old university set-up will have been partly restored, but with four constituent colleges, at Aberystwyth, Bangor, Swansea, and Cardiff. These are universities in an older sense of the word, with a full range of faculties but an emphasis on teaching rather than research. All other institutes of higher learning are technical colleges of one sort or another, strong on research and with specialities ranging from theology, music and visual art to the advanced technologies that are the chief preoccupation of Welsh learning. Wales is now known internationally for its small but highly sophisticated industries, scattered throughout the country, and for its universally cyber-literate population – a lean and canny sort of reputation, but enlivened as always, of course, by Welsh tastes for humour and irony, music and poetry.

And while a re-invigorated population has matured down the generations, so successive Welsh Governments have seen to it that the national framework is updated. The unfortunate false start at Cardiff Bay has long been abandoned. It’s now called New Tiger Bay, and all the buildings there are profitably devoted to finance, commerce, tourism, culture, entertainment and good food, with the former Assembly building converted into a national Stock Exchange-cum-casino.

Instead a new capital has arisen at Machynlleth, which is more or less in the middle of the country (and where, as it happens, the rebel Owain Glyndŵr established his own Welsh capital in the 15th Century). Far from being another Canberra or Brazilia, this is a modest, unassertive, highly technical group of low buildings, their Welshness displayed chiefly in their stone-and-slate construction and their urbane simplicity.

All the main organs of Government are concentrated here, plus foreign consulates and representatives of the Westminster Parliament. The Assembly has subsidiary centres in towns all over Wales, where Gorsedd members have their constituency offices. Machynlleth is also the headquarters of the Welsh Peace Force. Under the terms of the final devolution agreement Wales must still contribute to the UK’s defence, so this new kind of military organization has been instituted, to be both a police force, comprising all the traditional constabularies of Wales, and a professional military reserve. Besides all the skills of police work and detection, its highly paid members are trained in the techniques of defensive guerrilla warfare. Thus Wales will play its part in the defence of the British archipelago, if it is ever attacked, with a single paramilitary regiment intimately familiar with both the terrain and the inhabitants of the country.

Successive Governments of Wales have transformed the infrastructure of the State, too, in particular strengthening its unity – both physical and psychological. The old north-south divide is a thing of the past, since the one great structural achievement of the century has been the completion of true north-south communications. Ease and convenience of transport has been the main purpose of this immense project, rather than mere speed. The existing north-south highway, running down the spine of the country, has simply been improved to modern motorway standards, while the new north-south railway (the Trans-Cambrian) has wherever possible followed existing or disused tracks. Feeder lines, such as the former Cambrian Line down the northwest coast, have been retained and modestly modernised. The north-south highway and the Trans-Cambrian run side by side, wherever possible, to avoid unnecessary social disturbance – and since the trains will never exceed 100mph, there is no need for long straight stretches of rail track.

The final devolution of power has, of course, strengthened the cohesion of the nation, together with the distribution of the new, small, high-tech industries throughout the country. For example, thanks to the world-class research facilities of Glamorgan Institute of Technology (formerly the University of South Wales) the Rhondda of old tradition has become the Welsh equivalent of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile modest Government subsidies have enabled many of the familiar old craft-and-pottery shops to expand into thriving employers in every corner of the country.

And perhaps most importantly of all, in this movement towards united self-confidence, has been the establishment at last, after many false starts, of a national newspaper, Y Byd / The World. This makes no attempt to rival the London media. It is entirely bi-lingual, in both its print and its on-line versions, and it aims to combine the authority of serious journalism with the irreverent brilliance of a tabloid, while being at the same time the Welsh paper of record. Y Byd is published in Aberystwyth, but has print editions in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham. It is supported partly by Government grants but chiefly by the Welsh National Lottery, which is of course known and implicitly trusted throughout the world.

Such are the main physical achievements of the new Wales, but much more important are the principles underlying them. Like the American Republic, whose chief intellectual progenitor was the Welsh-descended Thomas Jefferson, the Nation of Wales is founded upon a written Constitution. However, while the American republic was born to a claim – the claim that mankind had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – the Nation of Wales is born to a philosophy.

Simplicity is its watchword, enshrined trilingually on the national Great Seal in the phrase ‘Symlrwydd a Charedigrwydd, Simplicitas et Benignitas, Simplicity and Kindness’. It is the principle to which, in theory anyway, every policy of the nation must a priori aspire. It would be an impossible, almost risible political aspiration today, but the repeated economic crises of our own times will have made it less unlikely by the end of the century. Every nation of the western world will be poorer by then, permanent retrenchment will be the norm, extravagance will be out of fashion, ostentation of every kind will seem distasteful, and every citizen will willy-nilly have adjusted to lower standards of living.

In Wales this will have been easier to achieve than in England, because the Welsh standard of living has never been particularly high anyway. But it has been helped by deliberate Government policies to weaken the corrosive power of materialism. Twenty-second century Wales is a secular State, but luckily there has been a resurgence of spiritual values among the people. This was sparked in the first place by the rise of evangelical Christianity, imported from America and fostered by the lively black communities of Wales, and by the growing influence of Islam. However, it became a truly national revival, a national instinct almost, when there came into being a coalition of churches, chapels, mosques, agnostic organizations and atheistic cults under the banners of the all-embracing, omni-faith philosophy of Simplicity.

For simplicity is the mantra of the new Welsh society as it is of the new Welsh Nation – simplicity in all spheres. The frenzied acquisition of possessions of every kind has come to seem at once vulgar and farcical. Big cars are an aberration of the past, multitudinous expensive toys no longer litter the floors of Welsh houses, kitchen gadgetry is generally confined to essentials – in every home a stove, a refrigerator and a washing-machine, but few other automatic devices. Such austerity would have been impossible to achieve in our own time, but by the end of the century the principle of simplicity as a basis of society is at once habitual, sensible and cool.

Will it ever happen like that? Will Wales ever be at once modern, generally moral, and cool? Will the United Kingdom ever be a true Federation, and for that matter will it ever be, as I myself would like, a genuine, paid-up, full member of a properly federal Europe? Shall we ever be, you and I, Euro-Welsh citizens? Probably not, but I am perfectly prepared to bet that within a few generations our descendants will be citizens of a truly self-governing Welsh nation – self-governing, that is, in all respects concerning their own affairs at home.

My own feeling is that the major Nation-States of Europe, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Britain, may well disappear as entities, fragmented or absorbed, but the small minority nations are likely to be more resilient. They are tighter, tauter organisms, and many of them have been have been fighting such long rearguard actions in defence of their identities that survival has become, so to speak, a matter of habit. Besides, as nations they threaten nobody. It is centuries since the Catalans fought the Spaniards, the Scots invaded England, or for that matter Owain Glyndŵr flew his flag over Machynlleth.

And I can imagine, too, that the small countries, like Wales, might become the trend-setters of the future, overtaking the old behemoth Powers as the places where lives can better be lived, ideas more easily pursued, even perhaps where fortunes can more conveniently be made. Young entrepreneurs and inventors from anywhere might prefer the welcoming social, political and intellectual environment of a small country like Wales.

Y Byd might well become a successor to The Guardian, as a place where young, original, outrageous journalists everywhere might want to express themselves. Perhaps Wales might become one of the world’s tax havens. Perhaps the Welsh National Opera House (formerly the Millennium Centre) might rival the Met or La Scala as an operatic Mecca!

And anyway, if all this is unachievable nonsense, of one thing I am perfectly sure: that just as there will always be realists to see Wales for what it really is, so there will always be dreamers, like me, to see it as it might be.

 

Jan Morris is a historian and writer. Among her many volumes is The Matter of Wales – Epic Views of a Small Country, first published in 1984, with a new edition in 1999.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

Jan Morris