Do We Really Want to Be Welsh?

By Meredith, Christopher | New Statesman (1996), May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Do We Really Want to Be Welsh?

Meredith, Christopher, New Statesman (1996)

Christopher Meredith gave his kids a tenner to celebrate the "yes" vote. Perhaps it should have been a fiver

Explain these four numbers: 18; 9; 97; 6,721. That was a question in the pub quiz in my local, the Star in Talybont, not long ago. The good folks, hunched over their pints and answer-papers, scratched their heads. The funny thing is, although a fair few of us could say where Owain Glyndwr set up his 15th-century parliament, this one caught most of us out.

The answer is that on 18 September 1997, the Welsh people voted to establish the new Assembly by a majority of 6,721 votes.

Which leads me to think that tourist trails and our heritage industry, God help us, have been better at impressing themselves on the popular imagination than recent seismic events. Not so for everybody. Some jubilant referendum bibbers had T-shirts made with that magical skin-of-our-teeth majority printed on them. "Yes" campaigners with hangovers the size of the century got a bill from the Park Hotel in Cardiff for the damage their celebrations caused.

And me? I found referendum night, via television, vastly more fun than the last general election, and that is saying something. We all remember the Portillo Moment, and Rifkind's crazed rictus. But if you laid all the humiliated Tories end to end (something they've probably already done themselves in private), I'd still prefer to see that last referendum result coming in from Carmarthen to turn "No" into "Yes" at the very death. It was - and here comes the inevitable simile which I promise I won't repeat - like kicking the conversion to turn the game by one point during injury time.

No, it was more important than that. The historian Gwyn Williams said that Wales is a place the Welsh invent. If they want to. The morning after the referendum, I wandered around Brecon market in a blissful daze, accidentally bought a new guitar, then went home and gave my kids a tenner each before discovering I was broke. No, this isn't a game. History, like geology, comprises small accretions and erosions, huge pressures shifting in slow motion. Then occasionally there are moments of immediately apprehended change, like this one. On that 18 September, something definitely happened, an Event.

But what? That depends. At the very least the Welsh Office will in some measure be democratised. Its non-democratic nature didn't really matter in the sixties and seventies when the balance of power shifted between only marginally distinct Labour and Conservative governments. But when England voted in a far-right government in 1979 and dragged us and the Scots with it, things changed. Margaret Thatcher was the first prime minister to appoint a Welsh secretary who didn't represent a Welsh constituency - a proposition some of us had naively supposed unthinkable. At first it was Peter Walker, who schmoozed after investment and toddled through the carnage of early Thatcherism, cutting tapes and unveiling plaques, and avoiding awkward press interviews. Then we had David Hunt (who became a notable example of rhyming slang). Then the nadir of John Redwood. The last refused to sign the Welsh parts of bilingual documents and redrafted planning policy without taking any account of distinctive Welsh conditions, making it even more laissez-faire than the English and Scottish setup. The video clip in which he attempts to mouth the words of "Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" is hilarious and horrifying. One lip-reader claims he was reciting a passage from Milton Friedman in Vulcan. It was the best party political broadcast Plaid Cymru ever had.

Under Thatcher it became clear that the secretary of state for Wales was a kind of governor-general with rather a lot of power and no accountability to the people he governed.

At the very least, the assembly will make it harder for London to impose its viceroys in this way. There will have to be more open consideration of such matters as William Hague's securing of Korean investment in Newport just before the Korean economy crashed. …

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