An identity defined by devolution

Nick Webb looks at how the identity of Wales’ towns and cities has been sculpted by devolution

Next month the NATO summit comes to Newport. Admittedly part of the programme will take place in Cardiff, but Celtic Manor is the primary base. When NATO revealed their logo, Newport was unimpressed. The South Wales Argus does a great job of arguing the city’s corner and it was no surprise to find that newspaper at the forefront of the complainants. Yes, the logo features a cartoon version of the Transporter Bridge, but the name Newport is nowhere to be seen. The Argus highlighted the fact that previous host cities had their name clearly stated on the logo. Why then was the summit in Newport described only as “NATO Summit Wales”?

To some it was simply an affront to Newport; that the city was callously overlooked. This is a possibility but I think the reasoning lies deeper in the way the people of Wales have defined themselves in recent years. This, in turn, is closely linked to the particular form of devolution we have.

Before I joined a party, my first involvement in politics was as a very small part of the “Just Say No” to devolution campaign. I handed out leaflets in Cardiff Bay and wore a cap with the slogan emblazoned on it. I lost. I’ve actually never voted in a devolution referendum. In 1997 I was a month too young and in 2011 I was living outside Wales. However, interesting as the evolution of instruments of state has been during the first 15 years of devolution, I remain a sceptic. A pragmatic one who understands the reality of the situation, but nonetheless unenthusiastic about the form of devolution we have in Wales.

I stress “the form of devolution”. I am very keen on the principle of devolving powers closer to the people. I’m not seeking to revisit the debates of the past; the Assembly and Welsh Government are now well established. But let me go back to the debate of ’97 for a moment to address the nuances of different forms of devolution.

What unites us all as Welsh is a cultural awareness. It is why we are brought together by sport, music, language (whether we speak Welsh or not) and arts. The pride felt when Wales scores a try in the Six Nations is the same in Caldicot as it is in Amlwch. Politics is by no means devoid of cultural identity but its focus should be more on the pragmatic issues of economic growth and the well-being of citizens. When it comes to such issues a Wales-wide approach does not offer a logical or convincing solution.

At this point I would like to bring in the theory of the city region. Put aside the specific geography of the two currently in operation in Wales. Such boundaries are always going to be a matter of subjective debate. Think instead about the theoretical area within which people commute for work or study; where they tend to socialise; or when needed, in which they seek medical treatment or can call upon the emergency services. City regions have existed as long as cities have; they are not a political construct but a pragmatic response to societal needs and desires. Furthermore, there is no reason why the criteria I have just described for cities should not also be applicable for rural areas, although these would be less likely to have a clear single centre point.

In England there is beginning to be a political consensus towards devolution of powers to city regions. What has happened thus far is a trickle in comparison to the way powers have moved from Westminster to the Senedd but there are positive signs that this will increase. Wales, though, has been behind the curve. Enterprise Zones were introduced late in Wales, in a more centrally prescribed form and with a lack of detail as to how they should operate. There is no “New Homes Bonus” and no “City Deals” of the kind seen in England, which have brought not just finance but packages tailored to each city which include enhanced powers.

One could make the case that, in England, it is logical to devolve powers to account for the different needs of a population of 50 million while Wales, serving 3 million, is a different matter. There is some sense to this, but thinking back to those city region criteria, the ties that bind Cardiff and Wrexham or Newport and Bangor are not pragmatic, they are emotional and cultural. As such, devolution to regions is sensible.

The announcement by the Welsh Government of city regions for Swansea Bay and Cardiff Capital Region may be the first sign that an administration which has been inclined to see devolution as a process which stops at Cardiff Bay may be willing to allow some more power at a local level. It is very early days and it concerns me that the parameters of what a City Region board can do and how they can gain finance remain sketchy at best. Nonetheless, let us give this idea the benefit of the doubt for the moment, as it does offer the closest political recognition yet of the real geographic areas in which we live, work and socialise.

The absence of the name Newport from the NATO logo is disappointing, but it comes from an implicit perception of belonging to Wales rather than the cities and towns within it. I am not arguing that we should abandon our pride in the nation, but rather that we should not be surprised if a form of devolution which centralises power in a Wales-wide body leads people to a default assumption that our primary identity to the outside World is our nationality. In a globalised World in which cities often transcend the nation state this may require further consideration. The brands of our cities and towns could be stronger. If they had been maybe Barack Obama would have been visiting Newport in Wales rather than a part of Wales called Newport.

Nick Webb is co-Chairman of Newport Civic Society

16 thoughts on “An identity defined by devolution

  1. This is an intriguing article with an unusually fresh approach to the issue of identity in Wales. I think that Nick is right (or should that be I agree with Nick) when he says that we are more inclined to identify with Wales than with our cities. The question has to be why. In many ways, Welshness is something that represents an aspiration whereas our daily lives lived out in cities, towns and the country are already understood. I remember my father’s strong assertion of his Welsh identity, coming as he did, not from a rural chapel or the valleys, but from a council estate in Ely. I can’t remember his talking much about his being a Cardiffian though he had many stories about his life and work in his home city. That said, if you were to ask what Welshness meant for him, I’m not sure he could give you a coherent answer.

    I think the underlying driving force at work is to put a nation which has recently acquired a democratic legislature on the global stage since it is on this basis that we will now be trading. In 2018, we are due to get a National Treasury which will further underpin this new role. Even Cardiff’s city region has been christened the Cardiff Capital Region. Capital of where? Yes you guessed it.

    As to what unites us, well that’s quite a complex issue. Nick suggests it’s cultural awareness. We can all shout for the national team though not everyone likes sport. We can all take pride in Bryn Terfel’s musical prowess but only a minority go to the opera. We can all feel goodwill to the language which unfortunately doesn’t help in communicating if you can’t speak it. For cultural awareness then, read a general feeling of goodwill towards all things labelled Welsh.

    The real unity however is none of things but rather the fact that we are all governed by the one democratic institution based in Cardiff Bay. This does not of itself lead to cultural unity, in fact one would hope for the reverse, namely cultural diversity. And it is significant that when the Assembly was established, that great national institution the University of Wales all but vanished overnight. What unites us therefore is that we can all vote for those who govern us in this Western European peninsula. What kind of Wales emerges from that process still remains to be seen.

  2. This is one of the best articles on this website in a while, especially in the way it invites us to look at devolution in a broader sense. Why stop devolution at the all-Wales level? Why not devolve further to sub-regions, to cities, to communities, to households and individuals? Many of us who are currently suspicious of devolution might take a different view it was part of a wider process of decentralisation. The whole debate needs to get beyond the clash of petty nationalisms.

    Rhobat, with respect, you are being a little disingenuous when you try to push the Assembly as a unifying force. Although very few – albeit still a substantial body of opinion – favour outright abolition that is more a reflection of the general acceptance of reality Nick mentions in his article. The Assembly is not popular. Look at the turnout figure at the last referendum. There is no evidence to suggest that the Assembly has been accompanied by a greater sense of Welsh identity – and some evidence to suggest that national identity in general is in decline. Incidentally, Cardiff has always used its Capital status in marketing itself. Remember ‘Europe’s Youngest Capital’ in the early 90s?

    As a footnote it should not be forgotten that whether it is the Newport Summit or NATO Summit Wales, the only reason it is here is because it is the UK.

  3. @ JWR

    Because in order to devolve effectively, you have to establish a strong centre and Wales has yet to achieve that.

    As to the Assembly, you unfortunately miss the point. The Assembly is not a unifying force but rather a unifying fact. Whether you support its development or seek its abolishment, you do so from the fact that it exists. And its existence is now irreversible.

    With regards the decline in national identity, where is your evidence? The census figures clearly show an increase in self-identification with being Welsh; a case of selecting facts to suit a theory rather than devising a theory to suit the facts, methinks.

    Your point about the summit taking place because we are in the UK is simply a truism. The point about Wales being promoted above Newport as the location is significant because of the real political power that now resides in Cardiff Bay.

  4. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’ : politics can’t just be organised around building up a few city regions to be economically successful, we need a national vision and national standards with redistribution to pay for this shared life. We need a national development policy which delivers for the whole of Wales. City regions will be part of that but national action will be required here as they are in every other European country. Subsidiarity is the key, with power devolved to the most appropriate level, UN, EU, UK, Wales, county or city. Rather than imagine Welsh devolution to have gotten in the way of Welsh regions , I don’t think we have gone far enough in gaining economic tools, such as tax powers, for Wales, which can help kickstart, city regions.

  5. Nick Webb is being willfully naive. There is nothing necessarily permanent about Welsh culture. A distinctive language culture in Wales was preserved into the 20th century only because of an institutional difference from England- in religion. It was non-conformist chapels that ensured the population was literate in Welsh and able to sing in tune. With the decay of religion, The Welsh language has gone into a steep decline as has the Welsh choral tradition. The singing in Twickenham is now better than at the Millennium stadium. If a distinctive Welsh culture is to be preserved in the post religious period, it requires an institutional backing. No Assembly now, nothing distinctive about Wales in fifty years time. That may not matter but if you don’t want that outcome you have to support political devolution. The present shower of a Welsh government makes that hard and the disastrous closed culture of the Labour Party makes it harder but keep the faith. There is no other choice.

  6. If R. Tredwyn thinks that the Welsh choral tradition is in decline I suggest he attends next year’s Eisteddfod. The Welsh choral tradition is booming with a swathe of young talent shaking up the hitherto dusty environment.

  7. Rhobat, there is, of course, no denying that the Assembly exists, but you are yourself in denial if you assume it is ‘irreversible.’ Whether we continue our drift towards independence or recover our self-confidence as a United Kingdom, no one expects the Assembly to remain as it is.

    Either way, its existence had no bearing on the selection of Newport for the NATO summit. The existence of the golf course was a far more significant factor.

    A ‘strong centre’ is not necessary for further devolution or decentralisation – indeed, in some respects, the opposite might be true. All that is required in the political will, and the policies of the Assembly since 1999 have favoured more centralisation rather than less. The proposed reform of local government is the latest example.

    No great theory was advanced in the previous comment, just some observations. We have debated national identity elsewhere, but if you want just one piece of evidence go to an International. True, the crowds will cheer the rugby as loudly as ever, but listen to the singing – or the lack of it. You get about two lines of ‘Hymns and Arias’ and ‘Delilah,’ and that is it. The English make more noise with a similar two lines of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’

    The actual hymns and arias that distinguished Wales are now unknown by the majority of Welsh people. As R Tredwyn points out, a distinct Welsh culture declined with the chapels. He is, however, wrong about the solution: the renaissance of the Welsh language we saw in the last two decades of the last century seems to be grinding to a halt under the Assembly.

    As has been argued elsewhere, the emergence of political nationalism seems to be a reaction to the decline of cultural nationalism. We never felt the need for Assemblies when we knew we were Welsh.

  8. @ JWR

    I’m quite aware that the disestablishment of the Assembly is theoretically possible by an Act of Parliament but in reality it is not going to happen. I did not argue that the Assembly will remain as it is, but that its existence is now both a political and historical fact. This is the social framework that we all now have in common whatever our views about it.

    What is being discussed here is the relationship between cultural identity and political structures. The idea that the chapel defined Welshness is a very limited view of Welsh culture. I’m aware that there are those who belong to that culture who believe it to be true but the evidence suggests otherwise. Even at its height only a minority were religious attenders, the majority of the population turned to sport and the music hall in their leisure time with the development of the industrial revolution. These traditions persist today at the same time as religion has seen a marked decline.

    As to your point about the decline of cultural nationalism, it is the emergence of political nationalism that has rendered cultural nationalism somewhat redundant, not the other way round. The difficulty that cultural nationalism had was that it was unable to effect social change that either protected or advanced people’s best interests. Gradually people simply lost faith in it.

  9. Rhobat, if we are to talk about a separate Welsh identity, we need to see something that is both (a) generally valued throughout Wales and (b) distinctly Welsh. The chapels certainly provided that, even for those who were not chapel-goers. The problem is that since their decline nothing has taken their place in this regard.

    Cultural nationalism, by definition, had no political agenda, so it is not a case of political nationalism taking over where cultural nationalism left off but of political nationalism desperately trying to fill the hole left by cultural nationalism – and failing completely.

    Can you think of anything in Wales today that is both generally valued throughout Wales and yet distinctively Welsh? The question is asked with genuine regret.

  10. Why do we need to talk about a separate Welsh identity? Cultural identity is far more complex than that.

    Cultural nationalism’s political agenda was to say I’m different from you as a way of distinguishing the values of those governing from the values of the governed. Unfortunately it leads to the “I know I’m Welsh because I’m different from the English” school of thought. Of course, once we start governing ourselves, that distinction disappears.

  11. Rhobat, your first paragraph is correct – cultural identity is very complex – but is somewhat contradicted by your second, in which you seem to take a very narrow class-based view of cultural nationalism. On reflection, you must agree it is far more complicated than a real or imagined ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’

    Meanwhile the question posed in the previous comment remains unanswered: what is it that unites the Welsh and makes us distinct from other people?

  12. The significance of the chapels was surely their rôle in literacy, debate and education generally, which of course flowed over into politics via oratory. I’m surprised therefore that no one has considered the rôle of the education system in Wales in forming, or not forming, a separate Welsh identity.

  13. I am well rebuked; the Welsh choral tradition is not in decline. But it has ceased to be a mass phenomenon. The Arms Park crowd used to know the words to all the old Welsh hymns and to sing them all through and they used to sing in parts – because they went to chapel. Now they sing roughly in unison and know two lines of Bread of Heaven.

  14. There is no contradiction. We were discussing cultural nationalism and its political significance. I made no reference to class. Wales was for a long time governed from Westminster largely but not exclusively by the English through the medium of British culture. There were many people who did not feel a part of this Britishism and sought to express their identity in opposition to it. They had no intention however of challenging its political authority. There are other points to be made but perhaps if we deal with them one at a time, we may achieve some clarity.

  15. @ Alisdair MaolChriosd

    There is no doubt that the chapels’ cultural influence was hugely significant in our history and is still to be found today. The difficulty is that there are those who wrongly believe that this culture defines Wales when the vast majority of the population does not belong to it.

    There is also the question of what happened to that culture of Cymreictod when the chapels went into decline and, as you say, it moved into the Welsh language education system. For some, the purpose of the system is not just to replicate the language but the culture as well, despite the fact that it enjoys minority support even among Welsh speakers. They either cannot or do not wish to conceive of a language that contains more than one culture which, in reality, Wales does. In short, the culture of Cymreictod as passed down has been a mixed blessing for Wales.

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