Are we on the brink of a new Century in Wales?

Learning about a new politics in our country

Conscious, perhaps, that it needs to compensate for the Plaid and SNP leaders not being allowed to take part in the UK leader debates starting this week, the BBC is taking special notice of Wales today. As I write Plaid’s leader and Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones and the SNP First Minister Alex Salmond are taking part in a Radio 4 phone-in programme.

Earlier today Radio 4’s Today programme featured Sarah Montague visiting Wales, with reports on the key marginal Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, and an upbeat discussion with Peter Stead, Agenda columnist and cultural historian, David Lea-Wilson, the go-ahead owner of Halen Môn, the Anglesey sea salt company based in Brynsiencyn, and Professor Laura McAllister, Chair of the Sports Council for Wales and also Chair of IWA Women.

All three agreed that the experience of devolution over the past decade had had a major impact in boosting the self-confidence of Welsh people in taking more responsibility for their own affairs. I sensed Sarah Montague struggling to find a dissenting voice in the discussion. It was left to Laura McAllister to point out that, although opinion polls are registering majorities in favour of more powers for the Assembly, it will prove a tough call for the political class to persuade them of this in any forthcoming referendum.

However, by far the most interesting point was made by Peter Stead. Developing the argument he began in his post on this site earlier this week, he declared that 2010 was marking the end of the 20th Century in Wales. He felt that Wales was only now embarking on the 21st Century. We were starting with a clean political slate, he said, sensing new possibilities and leaving old political shibboleths behind.

Devolution had presented Wales with an enormous opportunity of putting Wales’s century of decline into realm of the history books. For decades we had been demobilised by a continual story of the inevitable decline of coal mining and steel making, creating a sense of hopelessness and a dependency culture that was inimical to creativity and cultural élan. Now, however, after a decade of devolution there was a sense of the possibility of new departures.

Peter spoke of the responsibility of the cultural and creative people in Wales to kick-start this mood. Politicians, too, had a role. The main thing was that all should focus on the need for wealth creation as the main spur for Wales’s future prospects. In particular, education initiatives had a major role to play in bringing this about. “We have to learn a new politics in Wales,” he told me later. “It would be an enormous mistake to go back to the old politics pre-devolution. We need to recognise that we are in a new era where new things are possible. The public sector will, of course, remain important, in providing our essential infrastructure, but we will need to find new ways of giving the private sector greater rein in Welsh life.”

Thinking about what Peter has to say, and his ideas are always invigorating, it occurs to me that if he is right we may be unique in Wales in experiencing such a long 20th Century. After all, the key historical work about world 20th Century history, published in 1994 by Eric Hobsbawm, was entitled Age of Extremes, with the subtitle The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. In this account the 20th Century came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and its aftermath, the unifying of eastern and western Europe and the coming to terms with Francis Fukuyama’s so-called ‘end of history’. In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama speculated that, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

So far as Wales is concerned Fukuyama was wide of the mark. When he was writing, in the years leading up to 1992, Welsh liberal democracy did not exist. It only started in 1999 with the coming of the National Assembly, and arguably is still a work in progress. On this reading Peter Stead may be right. 2010 maybe seen as marking a moment of transition, into a new era in Welsh life when for the first time in our history as a nation we will taste the fruits of our own political civilisation. You read about it here first. Enjoy.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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