Welsh Identity

Welsh Identity, Raymond Williams and the End of 2014

Ben Glover looks back on 2014 and argues that the past should not be a burden to the future in creating a new Welsh identity.

The great Welsh cultural commentator and critic Raymond Williams (also a novelist of some renown) observed an interesting phenomenon in society: that no matter where you stood in history, it is possible to perceive a golden age that had occurred fifty years prior. This romanticism of an age that was slipping from living memory manifested itself with striking regularity – an age when children showed respect to their elders, doors could be left open, ‘long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers’. And in this year, the centennial celebration of Dylan Thomas’ birth, this eagerness to invoke the past seems to have become a national pastime in Wales.

These nostalgic reminiscences are certainly not just confined to the remembrance of the nation’s favourite ‘drunkard’, but can be witnessed in many institutions. Sometimes subtly, many times not. It is only right that we take pride in our history, our shared experiences, our culture and heritage – it allows us the self-confidence to move forward into the future (no matter how shaky the first few steps might have been). However, the past should not act as a burden to the present (stifling creativity and defining what is possible) and certainly should not control the nation’s future.

This year has illustrated this apparent paradigm, between the old and the new, unlike many others in modern history. The Dylan centenary has allowed us to look back at Wales, where through the advantages of hindsight, we see a simpler and possibly a more romantic time. However, the Scottish independence debate, and subsequent referendum, has given us an opportunity to look forward, to question ourselves and assess our place in the United Kingdom. Both culturally and politically, 2014 has been a year of distinct challenges.

In the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum, I examined the possible repercussions of either result for Wales and concluded that:

There are huge implications for Wales, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum; the question of independence is a question that Wales may one day have to answer for itself. There will be opportunities and difficulties following either possible outcome of the independence vote, but before Wales can give its answer, we need to develop a more complex civic society, with institutions that reflects our society and our needs. Scotland has had for centuries the tools and mechanisms needed to declare independence – its own separate laws, education and banking systems – but Wales, in comparison, needs these institutions to grow and mature. Whatever Scotland decides, Wales will be a slightly different country on Friday morning.

However, the aftermath of the momentous vote was not marked by quiet reflection and thoughtful deliberation. Instead, just as the final result was emerging on a fresh autumnal morning, the Conservative-led Coalition Government decided to participate in a political scramble to assert the primacy of Westminster within UK politics. The new settlement debate that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had expected to follow on from referendum became a secondary concern as David Cameron became determined to answer the West Lothian question immediately:

I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.

This emphasis on ‘English votes for English laws’ so soon after the independence vote was a clear message to the Tory heartlands in England – gone were the ‘dog whistle’ statements of the referendum campaign, now David Cameron was attempting to appease his backbenchers whilst strengthening the Conservative Party’s grip on power in Westminster. However, the implications for Wales should also be clearly understood; Wales is at the bottom of the list of priorities for this government (Wales returned eight Conservative Members of Parliament in 2010, three in the previous general election and none in 2001).

In recent years it appears that Wales has struggled to be heard, or understood, on the national political landscape. Too often marginalised in Westminster by a system that rewards regions that threaten the cosy status quo, Wales has lacked the attention from politicians and the media; presented too often as a chapel-going, rugby-watching, Labour-voting, hymn-singing caricature. Though it is a stereotype that is often perpetuated by our own institutions – witness the welcome video that accompanied the NATO Summit held in Newport this past September:

The problem, as I identify it at least, is that Wales is politically too predictable. In Westminster, the Labour Party can comfortably rely on Wales returning at least twenty-five MPs regardless of focus or policy; the Conservatives only have to pay lip service to Wales since little is expected in return; whilst Plaid and the Liberal Democrats too often fight over the remaining scraps of electoral recognition. Lazy voters get lazy political parties.

Therefore it is curiously surprising, given the perceived ambivalence of the current parliamentary system towards Wales, that during the referendum debate opinion polls suggested that Wales showed little interest in its own independence. According to an ICM poll, after the Scottish independence vote, only 3% of people in Wales wanted full independent nation compared to 49% wanting more devolution and 12% indicating that they would abolish the Assembly all together. So it seems that Wales’ future remains firmly rooted in the United Kingdom.

Without a unifying idea for the political concept of ‘Wales’, it seems we are doomed to fumbling around in the dark, searching for a vision that best articulates us in the present and gives direction in the future. The past gives us a sense of warmth and security, but rarely does it challenge us. The critically acclaimed historian, author and travel writer Jan Morris wrote a series of essays that Wales Arts Review published earlier this year that perfectly articulated this hiraeth for the past:

The old struggle is still being fought, though, politically and instinctively, and of course I respond to it. Misty kings and princes of the old Wales still haunt the country for me, and actually they are still generally and vividly remembered. The greatest of all the Welsh champions, the medieval rebel patriot Owain Glyndŵr, can almost said to be alive to this day, since his death remains a tantalizing conundrum, still debated, and as everyone knows, his followers still armed and wakeful in a cave somewhere, awaiting the call to patriotic action.

The idea of Owain Glyndŵr standing vigilant over Wales, waiting to help his nation in their most desperate struggles, is quaint – but I am seriously concerned whether Glyndŵr vigilance does extend quite as far as the Senedd debating chamber when homelessness provisions for Blaenau Gwent or the M4 relief road around Newport are being discussed. Leaders of a nation, mythical or otherwise, should be slightly more proactive than he has been for the past six hundred years. The bureaucratic nuances of a democratically elected assembly are just as vital to the smooth running of a country as besieging castles.

However, this contention about the absence of leaders in Welsh politics (Westminster or Senedd) is a valid one. Considering that many people still have difficultly in identifying which issues are devolved from Westminster to the Assembly, and even more have trouble in naming their local Assembly Member, it is of little surprise that the percentage turnout in Assembly elections is the lowest among the regionally devolved bodies. The politicians we elect are failing to inspire the voters with a vision of a better tomorrow and in turn the electorate is responding with apathy towards the political system. When did our elected officials become managers of the country rather than leaders? (Oh right, 1997 and all that.) Raymond Williams once wrote ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’; perhaps our politicians are working on the assumption that ‘to be truly radical is to make the moment bearable, and tomorrow slightly better than if the other party wins.’

Conceivably it is also possible to understand the apathetic attitude of the Welsh public towards their politicians by reviewing how the media portrays the Welsh Assembly. Locally the Senedd is adequately served by the traditional media outlets – BBC Wales, ITV, the Western Mail and the plethora of local newspaper report the machinations of our national devolved body with a varying, though acceptable, standard. Through scanning the social media feeds of these news outlets in 2014 it is possible to gauge which stories resonate with the public and unsurprisingly it is those articles that feed into the public’s preconceived perception of the Assembly. Despite important discussions (such as the vital, yet unromantic ‘Environment and Sustainability Committee’s Report on the Inquiry into Energy Policy and Planning in Wales’) the news story that invoked the most public passion, was not the publication of the Silk Report or its implications, but a proposal to increase the Assembly Member’s basic salary by 18%. Also Presiding Officer Rosemary Butler chastising Welsh Liberal Democrat Eluned Parrott for poor posture received a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter.

However useful (and often very funny) it is to use social media to interpret public perception of the Senedd’s performance, it does not begin to explain the apathy felt across huge swathes of the population. It appears that the attitude of the London based media organisation towards the Welsh Government defines the public’s perspective in Wales more than the locally-based news outlets. This is understandable to a certain extent; more people in Wales get their news from the Daily Mail than from the Western Mail. Yet the issue arises when the London-based media groups follow on from the narrative set by a political party with a particular agenda against the Assembly. For instance, the Conservative attacks on NHS Wales’ performance have been persistently supported by certain newspapers creating a narrative that the Welsh Labour Party is mismanaging one of our most precious public services – though the outcomes of both NHS England and NHS Wales are broadly similar, the published indicators of performance differ in significant areas, thus making a simple comparison of the two services difficult.

This is not to say that NHS Wales is exceeding public expectations, to the contrary it faces numerous issues that can severely impact upon lives of the people it serves, but neither is it the basket case of an institution that David Cameron would have us believe. To reiterate a point made previously: Wales is an easy target for a Conservative Prime Minister with a general election to fight and a point to prove to his electorate in England.

The public services that have been devolved to Wales since 1999 are in many cases significantly distinct from their English counterparts. They have evolved, over fifteen years, to meet the differing needs of the people they serve and a direct comparison between the two is at best misleading and at worst deceitful. However, it is responsibility of the Welsh Government to educate the people of this nation about their work and outline their vision for a new Wales. A Wales that is proud of its heritage, passionate about its culture, but a Wales that is not burdened by the shackles of history and stereotype. Again, it is to Raymond Williams, in Towards 2000, that I defer for how I believe we must face the challenges of 2015 and beyond:

It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can now learn to make and share.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis Welsh Identity 

Welsh Identity