St David, Silk and Scotland

I wrote this on St David’s Day 2014 after watching the BBC 1 Question Time TV programme the week before which was broadcast from Newport, South Wales. During this programme I felt some uneasiness towards the distinctly negative attitude of many of the audience towards issues such as immigration (stop it), NHS Wales (useless) and the Welsh Government (get rid of it). Distinctly negative to me, that is. What’s going on, I wondered; this didn’t seem like an audience of the Welsh people who, I’ve always thought, are more caring and sharing than the average Brit.

Which got me thinking about this nation that I have such fondness for, and sympathy with, and asking myself if ‘my’ Wales is an illusion? Before I go any further, I’ll deal with the first of many confusions; is Wales a country or a nation? I opt for the generally accepted view that a country is an independent, self-governing political entity. Examples of such entities that are not countries being, most notably, the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. According to the internationally accepted legal definition of the League of Nations in 1937, reaffirmed by the United Nations in 1945, a resident of a ‘country’ is subject to the independent exercise of legal jurisdiction. People in Wales cannot claim to have that. A ‘nation’, on the other hand, is generally taken to describe a group of people who share a common history, language or culture. You could say it’s debatable whether or not Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland fit that description today. But if they’re not countries, they must be nations. Unhelpfully, the constituent ‘nations’ of the UK are referred to as ‘countries’ on the UK government’s website.

Never mind for now; Wales has been my home for the last twenty one years; a third of my life and by that measure is my home ‘nation’. My parents were from Hampshire and Yorkshire, so were English (if Yorkshire folk accept themselves as English). I was born and spent a large part of my early years abroad so have no particular affiliation to England or, for that matter, no particular affinity to the idea of being British. I have a British or should I say ‘United Kingdom’ passport but I could have had, by virtue of birth, a Malaysian passport. Wales is home and it’s where my heart is.

Which is why I was a little upset by the Question Time audience. I like to think that Wales is different to the rest of Britain and particularly to its neighbour, England. I tell myself that, yes, this is Wales! Like most Welsh people, I get that special feeling of coming home when I pass the Croeso sign on the motorway. This is a different country, it is not England; it has its own distinct identity. It has its own language, too, which may not be too evident in spoken form but is clearly in evidence in place names, road signs, magazines and books. If anyone asks me where I’m from or what I am, my answer is Wales and Welsh. This is especially entertaining when answering anyone abroad or Americans who, if they have heard of Wales at all, know it as Wales, England.

That’s fine, but what exactly is ‘Wales’ and what does it mean to be ‘Welsh’? St David – Dewi Sant – is the patron saint of Wales. Dewi is reckoned to have died in the year 589 AD, but most of what is known about him for certain is an account of his life written by Rhigyfarch some five hundred years later towards the end of the 11th century. St David has been celebrated for centuries as the patron saint of Wales although the day of his birth only became a national festival during the18th century. Only recently have more organised, public events taken place on St Davids Day. Are these a sign of a growing national sentiment or a growing nostalgic sentimentality? When I arrived in Wales twenty odd years ago, St David’s Day was celebrated mainly by school kids dressing up in a faux ‘national’ costume for the girls or something like a miner’s costume or a Welsh rugby jersey for the boys. This is as near to a ‘national’ costume as you’ll get and signifies the uncertainty revolving around what is Wales and what it is to be Welsh.

The idea of a national costume developed in the early 19th century mainly thanks to Lady Llanover, the wife of an ironmaster in Gwent, who encouraged it at home and at eisteddfodau (another early 19th century idea). The idea was gratefully taken up by artists and photographers who produced thousands of prints and postcards for the rising tourist trade. You can still buy these in any reputable souvenir shop, not that you see anyone wearing the garb during normal working hours. Lady Llanover was not concerned with a costume for Welsh men so they do not have a national dress, hence the uncertainty for boys of what to wear on St Davids Day. Adding to the confusion, attempts have been made in recent years to revive a ‘traditional’ Welsh kilt and tartan which has never in fact existed.

I used to take my kids to the St Fagans Folk Museum and was always delighted by the picture of Welsh social history that it presented. But how genuine was the picture? On reflection, it was more picturesque than the dark and difficult reality of Welsh life through the ages. In my work I’ve been lucky enough to travel around and see most parts of Wales, and spend many lovely holidays in Wales. There is no doubt Wales has wonderful landscapes, glorious coastlines, nice places to visit and friendly people. All the ‘Visit Wales’ advertisements are true: “Our great mountain ranges, lush valleys and ancient castles were some of the reasons why Wales was voted Rough Guides’ Best Place in the World to Visit 2014”. But there are not so lush valleys, still recovering from the collapse of coal mining and heavy industry in the 1980s, and those ancient castles are a reminder of the English King Edward I’s subjugation of Wales. As much as I want to believe in the rose-tinted view of Wales, it’s not the whole picture and it’s not the reality.

The confusion and uncertainty around Welsh identity has its roots in the past. It was only after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 4th century AD that a Welsh national identity emerged among the Celtic Britons. Even the name is a confusion. There is the ‘official’ English name Wales and the Welsh name Cymru, each having a different origin and meaning. ‘Wales’ comes from a Germanic word used to refer to all Celts across Europe. The Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons came to use the word Waelisc for the Celtic Britons in particular and Wēalas for their lands: Welsh and Wales. They were not restricted to the modern Wales and refer to other places that the Anglo-Saxons associated with the Celtic Britons, such as Cornwall. Across Europe it crops up in names such as Wallonia and Wallachia and people such as the Vlachs of Romania and Moldova, or the Walloons of Belgium: Walsch in Dutch. So the ‘official’ name Wales derives from English while the Welsh name ‘Cymru’ and its people ‘Cymry’ derives from the language of its original inhabitants: the ancient Brythonic word ‘combrogi’ for ‘fellow-countrymen’. But this didn’t originally apply only to Wales, either. Apparently the ‘Welsh’ and other Brythonic-speaking people of northern England and southern Scotland used ‘Cymry’ to describe themselves, which is where Cumbria comes from.

Any emergent Welsh identity was halted when Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s death in 1282 marked the completion of Edward I of England’s conquest of Wales. In the early 15th century Owain Glyndŵr restored some semblance of independence in what would become modern Wales. One hundred years later, after part-Welsh Henry VII became King of England, Wales was annexed and incorporated within the English legal system under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542. The intention was to create a single state and a single jurisdiction. Wales never really re-established itself as a nation until the late 19th century, with Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) established in 1886 to promote the objectives of the Liberal Party in Wales and campaign for Welsh ‘home rule’. Welsh Liberalism, the growth of socialism and the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru in the early 20th century continued to develop Welsh national identity.  

Ironically, Henry VII’s green and white banner with a red dragon became the national flag of Wales in 1959. This sets Wales apart from the other countries of the UK who adopted their various patron saints’ flags which, of course, are incorporated into the Union Flag or Union Jack. In 1999 Wales was granted its own devolved government, a National Assembly for Wales, but with limited powers. Even then it was not clear what this body and its executive was going to be called in every day language. I remember the early variants of Prime Minister or First Minister; Welsh Assembly, Welsh Assembly Government or Welsh Government; Assembly or Senedd? Your elected representative in the Senedd (Senate) is not a Senator or even a Seneddwr, but an Assembly Member. All of these uncertainties are not only signs of an evolving nation, but symptomatic of continuing confusion about what Wales is, its status, position and relationship with the UK, not to mention with the ever present Lloegr over the border. Lloegr being the modern Welsh word for England, although originally it referred only to a part of Britain south of a line extending from the Humber Estuary to the Severn Estuary, and excluding Devon and Cornwall.

The Scottish Independence debate is interesting as far as Wales is concerned. In all the discussions and blogs the argument revolves around Scotland and the UK but, more often, Scotland and England. Wales is never mentioned, let alone Northern Ireland. The Scots have at least managed to establish recognition that Scotland exists as a social and political entity. Geography helps but history has played a part. The Kingdom of England after 1284 included Wales until 1707 when a political union with the Kingdom of Scotland created the Kingdom of Great Britain which, in turn, was united with the Kingdom of Ireland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Some would argue that Scotland never lost its independence through the Act of Union. It certainly kept its own identity, legal system and church but Wales continued as an appendage to England. Wales, despite acquiring its emblems of nationhood in recent years – a flag, an anthem, a capital city, a government – still hasn’t been able to define itself as Scotland has. Geography plays a part; Wales’ border with England is larger (257km) than Scotland’s (117km) and adjoins a more densely populated part of England.  

If we’re honest, Wales’ identity has been threatened over centuries by a history of defeat, annexation and exploitation. Its identity changed with immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wales’ modern day population has grown from immigrants and incomers who came to service the industrialisation of Wales over the last 250 years. The Welsh population grew from 0.6 million in 1801 to 2.0 million in 1901, while the population of Scotland increased from 1.6 million to 4.5 million. During the 20th century, from 1901 to 2001, the Welsh population increased by 44 per cent whereas the Scottish population grew by only 13 per cent. By contrast Northern Ireland’s population has remained almost constant over 200 years.

The reason for the increase was the increase in industrial employment, bringing in large numbers of non-Welsh people. In 1811, the majority of Welsh inhabitants were dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. But by 1851, two thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture, Wales being the world’s second industrial nation after England. Unfortunately the industries that attracted these people were concerned with commodities – coal, copper, iron, steel – rather than consumer goods and many parts of Wales are still struggling with their demise in the late 20th century.

What of the future? I happen to believe that Wales, like Scotland, would be better off as an independent country in Europe. Failing that, I’d be happy with a greater degree of autonomy within the UK, going back to the Cymru Fydd idea of ‘home rule’. But that would first require wholesale restructuring of the UK’s constitution and governance which I can’t see the London-centric, Anglocentric government in Whitehall achieving very soon. It can’t even achieve abolition of the unelected House of Lords and don’t mention the Barnett formula. People in Wales will no doubt resist the idea, along the lines of ‘we can’t afford to’, ‘we’d be worse off, ‘we can’t support ourselves’ and so on. The recent BBC Cymru Wales St David’s Day poll found that more than a third of people would like to see the Welsh Assembly gain more powers, but only 5% want to see an independent Wales (although, curiously, that rose to 7% in the event of an independent Scotland).

This lack of self-confidence, prompted by centuries of dependency, needs to be shrugged off if Wales is going to progress as a nation. The point of independence is that it gets rid of dependency. Without going into all the economic and political ramifications, consider that in terms of population Wales is equivalent to successful sovereign states like Lithuania, Slovenia or Latvia and a lot bigger than states like Estonia, Cyprus or Luxemburg. In terms of GDP/capita, Wales at around $26,000 is on a par with the Czech Republic or Portugal and a lot higher than some Baltic states or even Russia. Not to mention Iceland which has a population the same as Cardiff’s and a GDP/capita higher than the UK’s.

I raise the question of Scottish independence because, if Scotland leaves the UK, where does that leave Wales? As things stand, whatever the response to the Silk Commission, it will leave Wales as an even smaller part of what’s left and overshadowed even more by its neighbour. The argument for Scottish independence, broadly, is that Scotland can do even better if it is not tied down by the so-called ‘UK partnership of equals’

Unionists like to think that the UK is a partnership of equals. Wales has a population of just over 3 million and a total land area of 20,800 sq.km. England has a population of over 53,000,000 and a land area of 130,400 sq.km. Nothing equal there. Even with greater devolution the notion cannot be supported. But we could become a truly equal partner through independence: addressing the Union’s democratic deficiencies and making sure that we vote for the governments we want in Wales. We would have the powers we need to meet Wales’ economic and social aspirations. Then we could play a part in a renewed, stronger, more positive partnership within the British Isles. 

Which brings me back to the Question Time audience in Newport last week. The fears and negativity which they exhibited didn’t seem very ‘Welsh’ to me; they seemed ‘English’ with their concerns about being flooded by immigrants (forget climate change), foreigners and complete distrust of government or institutions like the NHS. The Wales that I believe exists is better than that, and should be able to see the world differently. My worry is that, even if Wales is given greater ‘powers’, it will not give the very thing that gives any nation its real power – its national identity.     

St David died at the end of the sixth century and became recognised as the national patron saint a few hundred years later, during the Welsh resistance to the Normans. The tenth century poem ‘Armes Prydain’ prophesied that the Welsh people will unite and join an alliance of fellow-Celts to repel the Anglo-Saxons under the banner of Saint David: A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant (And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi). Maybe the time has come to join that alliance, but maybe we’ve got the wrong flag?

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