The Great Welsh Confidence Trick

Laura McAllister gives the 2015 Patrick Hannan Lecture from Hay Festival on why we in Wales should stand up and be counted.

To listen to Laura McAllister’s 2015 Hannan Lecture, please click here.

 Patrick was a colleague whom I greatly respected and admired. Not just for his encyclopaedic knowledge of politics and society, in Wales and beyond, or for his exemplary journalism. My real admiration for Patrick emanated from what was clearly an innate ambition, a natural and unswerving belief in the best, a commitment to the highest possible standards, a sense that second-best was not just unacceptable, but an embarrassment. It followed, therefore, that those sticking their heads above the parapet, those who took public office, must be damn good. That belief manifested itself in that famous, some might say, grumpy reluctance to tolerate hypocrisy, bluff, or corporate nonsense, from anyone with influence in this small nation of ours.

I suspect that many of you in this pavilion fall into that category. You hold power and authority in Wales. Even if you don’t define yourselves in that way, I’m pretty sure you too have influence or, at the very least, the potential to influence a different future for our country.

This evening, I would like you to come with me on a journey of my take on how we might make Wales a more confident, more self-assured, more successful country. The critical ingredient that features in the admittedly rough and ready, rather personal recipe that I offer here is more confident leadership. Not just better than we currently have, but brave, visionary, ambitious, exemplary leadership, based on aspiration, confidence and a little bit of positively channelled anger!

This will involve posing some rather tough and uncomfortable questions, all of which rest on a fundamental challenge: how up are we in Wales for being the best?


Now, I am relatively new to this leadership game but, having been an international sportswoman, I know what makes a good or bad leader, or a quality captain. It is rarely the most skilful player on the pitch, or the most technically superior athlete. Rather, it is the one – who, when the chips are down – can be utterly relied upon not to let you down, who has belief and integrity, who raises her game – literally and metaphorically- who leads from the front, someone in whom everyone has trust.

The title of my lecture is ‘The Great Welsh Confidence Trick’. The configuration of words has a special resonance and meaning. No one is truly confident all of the time, in every situation and under every pressure. But what I’ll be talking about this evening is not the kind of crisis/lack of confidence/nerves and apprehension that I have suffered ahead of delivering this hugely prestigious lecture. Instead, it is about harnessing those nerves, mixing them with some humility, and cultivating an inner confidence that serves one well in every situation, based on the principle of ‘I can do this’-a principle instilled in me by my late mum (the personification of what ‘aspirational working class’ really means) who believed everything was possible with hard work and determination.

Because confident leaders infuse organisations and teams with belief and ambition.

I confess that, despite my academic home being a Business School, I have never been terribly enamoured with the cult of leadership text books-neither the cheery, motivational self-help ones (who tell us: “in a hyper-kinetic world, inward-looking and self-obsessed leaders are a liability”, or urge us to do some “diagnostic exercises for the modern leader to discover her weaknesses and self-doubts!”), or even the heavier, theoretical, academic tomes, purporting to have de-codified what makes a good leader.

It’s not just a natural cynicism; like anything, there is no single template for good leadership and anyone trying to sell you one should be treated with a healthy suspicion.

I don’t know what you think, but I prefer learning on the job, picking up tips from the good leaders one meets along the way – and equally, some ‘not to’s’ from the many poor leaders one encounters! I have utilised to the maximum the generous support of my mentors, including Professor Terry Rees from Cardiff University, Sian Edwards, Menna Richards herself, and my good colleague and friend, Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth, who famously said to me during our work together on the Richard Commission: “It’s a shame you lot (we Welsh, that is) are so afraid of your own shadow. Think what you could achieve with such talent if you weren’t”!

I believe top quality leadership rests on some rather rudimentary and straightforward human qualities-namely, authenticity, bravery, passion and ambition.

Or putting it more crudely, a stubborn and dogged determination to test oneself against the best.

Personally, I liked being the sporting underdog-which was just as well playing football for Wales! I remember one of my Welsh team-mates telling me that it was good job we hadn’t drawn England in any recent qualifying groups, as: “I’d dread being humiliated by that lot”. I bristled, as I had genuinely never felt that. I enjoyed the challenge of pitting myself against the best and, with a strong sense of the perils of under-estimating, it offered even more of an incentive to prove people wrong.

Aside from my sporting career, my recent positions in public life, in Wales and in the UK, have convinced me of a few things that I wanted to share with you this evening-they are a mix of positive and less positive, provocative and truisms, as you will see!:

  • We-the Welsh-are a people lacking in self-confidence (slightly depressing!)

  • But that is not an inevitable condition of either our present or our future. We can change! (positive!)

  • But the conditions for change are challenge, shake up, diversification and renewal (no-one is claiming that will be easy!)

  • But, the dividends will be immense. Wales could become the small, smart , successful nation. The “Wales that we want” as the Government here puts it. (positive!).

Confidence is a trick, after all. The only people who suffer no crises of confidence are the very people who should.

I rolled up at the LSE in the late 1980s, fresh from Bridgend, and what I still regard as a truly fantastic education at Bryntirion Comprehensive School. At LSE, I found myself one of only two non-private school educated undergraduates in my BSc Government group. I shivered in terror at their plummy accents, and the seemingly indigenous confidence and assuredness of my fellow freshers. I remember wondering at the fact that they all had their careers so neatly mapped out (almost all wanted to be MPs!), that they could toss in their views on virtually anything in tutorials with professors whose books we had all read, without hearing their south Wales accent played back to them in stereo…

Until… it slowly dawned on me that what my fellow undergrads were demonstrating was mostly a trick-a rather flimsy confidence trick, born out of privilege and a sense of entitlement. I’m not being classist here, rather I mean they felt entitled to be in every milieux in which they found themselves. I can’t speak for you, but I still spend quite a few occasions wondering whether a posh bouncer-equivalent will march up and say “oi, out, what do you think you are doing here, pleb”!.

Looking back at my days at LSE, I can now see the entitlement of my fellow students as based on where they had come from, not where they were going.

Now, cultivating the ability not to be easily impressed proves rather handy, I think.

Yes, it’s a journey but I’m perversely proud to say that, since those days at LSE, it does take rather a lot to impress me.

How did that happen? Do you know, I don’t think I could possibly better the test so wonderfully articulated by the extremely clever and funny comedian and musician, Tim Minchin…

Have any of you seen the “You Tube” clip of Tim Minchin accepting his honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia in Perth? I paraphrase and adapt here, but it is all about making decisions about people based on how they treat the waiters serving us in bars and restaurants, the bus conductors, the cleaners: as Minchin says “I don’t care if you are the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful, so there!”

Some of my confident colleagues failed the Minchin test and, in their failure, my own confidence grew. The trick, I realised, was to appreciate that I did have confidence, just a different kind. I knew what was right and wrong; I knew that we were all equal, not the same but equal; I knew how to work hard and to behave with dignity and respect.

And this is important. When I represent Wales in meetings in London-whatever the  organisation, sector or subject- a few things have become increasingly obvious to me. First, that, those wielding power at British level have limited respect for we Welsh-either that or they keep it well-hidden!

Secondly, the leaders I’ve encountered are actually themselves rather less talented than they would have you believe. Those at the top of their professional game in UK circles are undoubtedly more confident, afforded more respect, and rewarded more handsomely. But dig below the surface-and this applies to politics, education, sport and the media, the sectors I know best-many of the leaders that I encounter are no better in talent, more conformist in their outlook and behaviour, and often more timid in their ambition than our very best leaders. It follows therefore, then when it comes to hard measurables like salary, many of these people are over-paid, especially when juxtaposed with comparable professional salaries here. When an Executive Search company tells me that they have the perfect candidate but that our salaries are “insufficiently competitive” here and that these ‘talented’ candidates won’t come for that amount – as if one can simplistically conflate talent with remuneration!- despite the hugely unique and exciting opportunities on offer, I tell them their candidates must lack ambition and drive, and are not what we are after anyway.

Now, that’s either foolish or brave, I hear you say. Of course, there is some risk attached but it is based on what I have seen in sport and other sectors in Wales, that real potential does exist. I would rather develop and grow our own than be held over the barrel by someone who sees salary alone as the marker for career success.

Many of you will have heard the announcement made last Friday by the Independent Remuneration Board which determines Assembly Members’ pay, pensions, and support. Unsurprisingly, nobody was really interested in our plans for more effective group support to ensure that all AMs, beyond the existing four parties represented in Cardiff Bay, are supported to scrutinise Government, or in changes to pensions to make AMs’ contributions greater and taxpayers’ reduced by around 30%, or extending the new Policy and Research Fund. Completely understandably, all attention focused on the recommended £64,000 salary for politicians. Now none of us on the Board expected us to win any plaudits for our work, and certainly not any popularity contests!

But the lengthy and forensic research we undertook convinced the Board, ably led by our chair Sandy Blair, that from 2016, our AMs will be doing an altogether different job and the new salary needs to reflect this. They will be serving the people of Wales in a new Parliament, one with borrowing and tax setting powers, with its powers framed by a reserved model similar to Scotland’s, and the right to determine its own size, elections and name.

For me, the choice is stark and simple, we either continue to underpay our politicians, thus confirming their status as the poor cousins of MPs and MSPs, or we use what is, after all, a recognised and objective job evaluation to create conditions (and that is all they are) for the political parties to recruit better calibre candidates and the voters to have the AMs they say they want.

Quite simply, it’s time to start valuing and respecting ourselves a bit more.

Many will rightly ask: will the political parties rise to the challenge – and the challenge couldn’t have been made much more explicit. Clearly, I can’t answer that, but I would urge the electors and tax-payers of Wales to demand answers if they do not.

Because, returning to my lecture theme, no one can tell me that we do not have the same, if not better talent here in Wales. I see a cadre of younger talent that is itching for an opportunity to show us what they can do.


We are products of our past, of course. But the argument that our industrial heritage, the current dominance of the public sector, and the lack of a natural entrepreneurial bent fetter us to a low wage, unskilled economy looks tired and increasingly inaccurate these days. As Patrick Hannan himself said: “The persistence of myth in the face of incontrovertible evidence” is a classic Welsh illusion.

Now, it strikes me that sport might be able to offer some lessons here. The thing I like best about working in sport is the confidence factor. In many respects, sport and its athletes operate on a simple formula, predicated on a rather quaint, old-fashioned meritocracy. Running fastest, scoring most goals or tries, throwing furthest does not depend on education, place or background. The world champions and world beaters from Wales abound: Aled Sion Davies is from Bridgend, Geraint Thomas, Gareth Bale and Sam Warburton, from Whitchurch in Cardiff (the same school in fact), Jade Jones is from Rhyl, Joe Calzhage is from Newbridge, Jamie Donaldson is from Pontypridd, Becky James is from Abergavenny, and Leigh Halfpenny is from Gorseinon.

As well as proudly wearing the red of Wales, what all of these world stars share is an unswerving, inner belief that being a world-beater is not only possible if you’re Welsh, but that it actually helps. Their confidence comes from the fact that we are not world-beaters in sport by accident, but by design. We use our resources smartly and skilfully to identify sporting talent at the youngest age, to develop it and to provide the coaching, sports science and what is rather poshly called, performance lifestyle support, to ensure there is no leaky pipe-line in the production of the next generation of Welsh world champions.

We know that there’s plenty more to do, but the fact that Wales is known world-wide as a proud sporting nation that punches well above its weight tells you that we are on the right track. Sport is the Welsh feel-good factor: we all shared in our record haul of Olympic and Paralympic medals in 2012, we all celebrated when Wales topped the medal table, winning more medals per capita than any other nation-more than Australia, more than New Zealand, more than Canada and yes, more than England!- at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Team Wales came home with a record 36 medals (beating even our stretch target, which was itself unashamedly ambitious).

Less celebrated, but equally important for confidence in our systems: 18%, yes nearly a fifth, of the elite programme in Britain’s most successful sport, cycling, is Welsh. And that’s with under 5% of the population. The same percentage in disabled athletics, and nearly a third of Britain’s Para table tennis players come from Wales.

12% of Team GB’s record Paralympic medal haul was won by athletes from a Welsh town near you- all with under 5% of the population.

You are probably wondering how was this achieved? I’d like to think one of the answers to why this is the case is that we have dared to be different in our leadership of Welsh sport. We have also promoted and developed our own, and incidentally, asked them to toughen up and shout a bit louder. Our latest partnerships are less with local council leisure centres or sports governing bodies, and more with the National Trust for green space outdoor activities, the Women’s Institute for developing the next cadre of female sports coaches, and the Girl Guides to develop activities that appeal to traditionally less “sporty” girls.


The election of nineteen days ago saw 22,000 more people in Wales voting for a party that wants us to leave the EU and rigorously restrict immigration, than one which wishes us to leave the UK and open our borders to some new Welsh citizens.

We have a new UK Government that few of us (put our hands-up: none of us doing the BBC analysis during the  election campaign!) predicted. A government that was elected with slightly over a quarter of the popular vote here in Wales, and under 15% in Scotland (the lowest shares since 1945). England, meanwhile, saw 40% of its voters support the new governing party. So much for the United Kingdom…

At the risk of stating the blinking obvious, the future of the Union is the debate that will dominate the next Parliament, and the new Government’s in-tray, alongside, of course, the other thorny constitutional question of continued EU membership. I said after the Scottish Independence Referendum some eight months ago that the simple binary of nationalism and unionism that has quietly defined British and Welsh politics needs to be buried once and for all. The guise of the union in its centralised, unbalanced, arrogantly English-centric form is so anachronistic now as to almost look quaint.

By the same score, the SNP idea of independence has thrown up in the air the idea that nationalism is about traditional understandings of sovereignty and territory.

Mmm, keep the pound, the Queen and Strictly, no need for passports or border controls, and stay within the supranational EU….what’s there not to like about Scottish independence?!

So, yes the tectonic plates have shifted, but you know, the future political configuration of relationships between the nations on these isles might well emerge stronger, not weaker, from the sound and fury east of our border, and north of theirs.

For me, the real risk comes from those who refuse to recognise the new political realities and cling on to an old idea of the Union where parliamentary sovereignty is supreme, the nations are subordinates, and England and Britain are synonymous.  The “nations and regions” is not some BBC ‘W1A’-style slogan, whereby lip-service might be guaranteed, and concessions granted. As long as we continue to see ‘federalism’ as “a fancy for foreigners” (as Deputy Presiding Officer, David Melding, memorably called it), the Union remains in serious peril.

Indeed, this extends beyond politics. UK organisations across every sector that fail to wake up to the new political realities will help ring the death knell of the Union louder and faster than Nicola Sturgeon ever will.


Gwyn Alf Williams famously asked: “when was Wales?”. In the recent General Election, one could be forgiven for asking: “where was Wales?”

Our invisibility is not entirely surprising when we consider that we are a nation which had no governmental identity or existence from the Tudor Acts of Union until the Welsh Office was established in 1965. Then, after over 30 years of administrative devolution, that mainly topped and tailed English policies and laws for a mostly compliant Wales, we gave, as Simon Jenkins rather generously referred to it: “The most nervous possible mandate for self-government”.

But it also owes much to the timidity of our political classes, and the absence of any consensus about what we Welsh really want for our country’s future.

As Jung said: “Wisdom accepts that all things have two sides.” The truth is that we have been overwhelmingly one-dimensional here in Wales for far too long.

Despite registering its two worst results for nearly a century in 2015 and 2010 , for almost all of the last century and the first decade and a half of this, Wales and Labour have been synonymous. Whatever your politics, too much of one thing is never healthy. The new pluralist politics has begun and it will gain momentum next year helped by the Assembly’s more proportional electoral system.

Now change is not going to be easy, neither for a party that has pretty much had it all its own way, nor for a rather prickly, thin-skinned people who sometimes give the impression that they view scrutiny and challenge as an affront, a sign of disconnect and a lack of togetherness: “You’re either with us or you’re against us”.

Yet, if we are to develop the improved confidence to lead better, we need to become a proper learning country, populated by citizens with an active appetite to be self-critical and to criticise others. We must develop a culture of challenge and reflection, one where it is easy and acceptable to have a go at each other, to stretch our ambition by constructive critiques, designed to assist, not to belittle. Back to sport, without regular competition at international level and top level rivalries, our athletes would not have the confidence to succeed.

The entanglement of the debate over the intrinsic value of devolution itself, versus the performance of the governments within the Assembly is deliberate of course, and has proved a fertile one for Labour’s political foes. At times, we quite fairly baulk at the criticisms of the NHS and education here from a UK media suddenly interested in Wales, fuelled by a heady cocktail of popular discontent and over-simplistic performance measurement. This is far from saying that we don’t need proper rigour in our self-analysis, but this is ‘analysis-lite’. And what we definitely don’t need is more self-flagellation about the state of Wales since devolution, as if we are somehow less capable of governing than any other people or nation.

All that will do is damage further an already fragile political confidence. The truth is that government performance is a curate’s egg. There have been successes, and plenty of failures.

There is no doubt in my mind that successive Welsh Governments have missed opportunities to shape a better future-to be different, not for the sake of it but because all of the evidence shows that there are different policy choices that could reap real dividends for Wales.

Let me give you two, related examples: I had the privilege recently of working alongside my good friend and colleague, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on the subject of PE and school sport. We made the radical recommendation to place PE and Physical Literacy at the very heart of the school experience, complementing and equal to reading and writing. It is no exaggeration to say that our Government – as it digests the recommendations of the Donaldson report setting out an ambitious and futuristic curriculum for Welsh schools- has within its grasp, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to invest in Wales’s future health and well-being by preparing every child for all aspects of modern life, intellectually and physically.

This is not simply a governmental responsibility, but every child’s right. And it is not just about policy-makers and teachers. This has to be a partnership between government, parents and schools.

Our 18-month old daughter can already kick and catch a ball, is learning to swim and knows how to hold a hockey stick. You’d expect that, you might say! But these are not just the skills for sport, but the tools for an active, healthy life. Because the truth is, we cannot wring our hands about chronic ill-health and obesity, and then not provide the next generation with the skills to make positive life choices as adults. The reality is that this is the first generation of children who can expect a lower life expectancy than their parents. Physically inactive individuals spend nearly 40% more days in hospital than active people. Tackling this disease is a public policy emergency. The good news is that we, in sport, have a prescription for the nation, signed by our sports clubs, our gyms and our Zumba teachers.

And we have the foundations. In Wales, we are leading the way in sports participation, bucking UK flat-lining trends, and seeing more people reap the benefits of regular physical activity and sport-a 50% increase in children’s participation, and a leap of 34% in adult rates. That’s some good news story that you might not have heard shouted from the tree-tops.


Much is made of Wales being a more naturally equal, less class-driven society than some. But I don’t necessarily buy that.

Let me set out what I regard as the ‘real’ meaning of equality and inclusion. Our small size means the people of Wales are our most valued resource. It follows that we must be stingy in the extreme, and precise and exact with our reach and the utilisation of all the talent that we have. Like sport, there can be no room in a small nation for exclusion or error, for drop-outs or obstacles in the development of our future leadership cadre.

Why is this so important? Well, our national talent pool is, in theory, exactly three million, six thousand, four hundred odd people strong, but, at present, it really draws from under half of that figure.

The under-utilisation of women, especially at leadership level, can be seen as weirdly extravagant at best, and a downright criminal waste at worst.

There have been plenty of brave words on gender equality and some degree of action. But we are in serious danger of plateauing on this agenda. I sense a lazy comfortableness creeping in, probably because we have made some demonstrable progress and there are a few more visible, high-profile women scattered around the place. Undeniably, some progress is better than none-and certainly better than going backward-but again it is a trick.

Let’s look at some pretty painful stats here:

  • Less than a quarter of our MPs and our elected local councillors are women.

  • There are just two female CEOs of the top 100 companies in Wales.

  • 98% of engineering trainees are male, physics is the 19th most popular ‘A’ level for girls, but the fourth for boys.

  • 45 years after the Equal Pay Act, there is a 17% pay gap between men and women, rising to 36% for part time workers.

Yet, no one is so foolish as to be overtly sexist (or racist) these days… are they? We all know the language of equality, and we broadly keep to the script.

But knowing and speaking is not the same as actually doing, is it?

The truth is that our senior echelons of power and influence are a closed shop to all but the most persistent women. Plus, persistent women whose faces and backgrounds fit. Dare to be different in style, speech or appearance, or, for that matter, slightly non-conformist in any way, and you are likely to be patronised, sidelined or overlooked (or all three).

So, why is this still the case?

I am going to posit some reasons that seem to me to explain this truism- incidentally, as a woman who does have a position, and at least a degree of influence in public life.

Number 1: men prefer men. Now this is not a gay liberation slogan, more a picture of the levels of unconscious bias that permeate critical choices and decisions- from the boardroom to the golf club, from the council chamber to the television studio.

I heard some interesting discussions at a recent leadership seminar on feminised and masculinised qualities- things like ‘intuitive, compassionate, collaborative, receptive’ (feminised) and ‘decisive, heroic, directive, linear’ (masculinised). Neither set is the preserve of women or men- all of them are to be found in both sexes. However, what I am alluding to is the value attached to these behaviours by certain important gate-keepers, and how this eases, or prevents, access and promotion by each sex.

All of this, in my opinion, contributes to there persisting a soft (ish) underbelly of some conscious, but mostly unconscious, bias towards males. It is striking that those males in leadership positions with strong emotional intelligence are regarded as an aberration! But it is true- if there were a Mensa equivalent for emotional IQ, some of my male colleagues would struggle to get near it. By and large, women professionals pick up more of the human signals, understand better the dynamics of decision-making, and generally!, are driven less by ego and more by collaboration.

Number 2: we are a small country and we don’t let go of power easily, ergo it can be very difficult to penetrate the right circles. Power is a little bit addictive, and the lure of status in a small public scene, with invitations to everything of import and profile can be all too seductive. This means some of us allow ourselves to detach from realities, and fail to properly look ahead to a time when things will be different and the invitations stop appearing in the Inbox.

Moreover, if our (mostly male) leaders can bear to cede influence, or hand over the reins of power to anyone, it is more than likely to someone in their own image. You can follow the pattern here…a sluggishness to embrace new ways of working and new understandings of what a leader might look like.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions to this rule-we can all think of them-but the clue is in the word ‘exception’. And, if you refuse to accept my analysis, I’d challenge you to do some ethnographical research within power environments and document what you see and experience.

I’m conscious that all sounds rather depressing and downbeat. But it needn’t be so. I am actually optimistic, for several reasons…

This can change-by becoming more diverse and more self-aware, we can become better. Some professional colleagues of mine who are not Welsh tell me why they came to Wales in the first place and stayed…it is not just the beautiful environment and landscape, and the standard of living, mostly it is because of the people. It is a cliché but our people are our greatest asset. We need to give all of the talent in the next generation the conditions to contribute and to love Wales because of itself, not in spite of itself.

So, given we need radical solutions, how about a giant succession-planning scheme whereby no male leader is allowed to appoint a male successor to himself, and every female must find a female successor but one who is qualitatively different to herself?

That’s slightly tongue in cheek, but I often wonder what kind of leaders Wales wants? People tell me that they want brave ones, ones who do not glance over their shoulder to see how a tough or controversial decision might disrupt the calm waters of Cathays Park or Cardiff Bay. They tell me that we need louder, more confident, more professional and assured voices. Leaders who are not intimidated by the occasional patronising pat on the head or, worse still, being ignored.

And before anyone suggests this is a simple question of size. A neighbouring population of 53 million, juxtaposed against our three. But a muscular, bantamweight can often hold his own in the ring against a bigger opponent.

And don’t forget, until recently Scotland was as studiously ignored by the UK media and establishment as Wales is. So what changed? A collective flexing of their muscles by the Scottish people, urged on by Mr. and Mrs. Motivator, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon-that’s what.

In the jungle of public life, it is self-evidently better to be a lion than a lamb. Wales’s leaders need to roar- or, at least, shout a little louder! Now I know that many of us are uncomfortable about shouting-it’s not really our style, is it?

But my own experience, especially around board tables in London is that we have to swallow our instincts and be prepared to be more strident than is our natural style. We have the arguments, we have the passion, but we need to raise our collective voices to reach that tipping point where respect quite simply has to be given.


There are certain things that are meant to symbolise Wales, aren’t there? Mountains, song-mainly choirs, sheep even? But largely and predominantly, rugby, which has provided the sound track for our nation’s modern history.

Now, no-one takes greater pleasure in our success on the rugby pitch than me. I saw my home town club, Bridgend Ravens (underdogs on the day) topple the mighty Pontypridd in the SWALEC Cup final earlier this month, and few will forget the nail-biting finale to this year’s Six Nations. But, as we look ahead to the Autumn and a sporting extravaganza with the Rugby World Cup in England and Wales, and Wales’s final qualifiers for football’s UEFA European Championships in France next year, I am going to say something that I have absolutely no doubt will be controversial.

Deep breath! It is more important to the reputation, profile and image of our nation that Wales qualifies for the football Euros next year, than if we win the Rugby World Cup this autumn. There, I’ve said it, and the heavens haven’t fallen in…yet!

So before, the brickbats rain down on me, let me explain. Firstly, of course I would prefer that we do both- win the Rugby World Cup and qualify for France. They are not mutually exclusive, and there is no need for a destructive rivalry between our two national sports.

But, by any objective measurement, it is blindingly obvious that Wales qualifying for the European Championships next year will have a deeper and more significant resonance for our international reputation and profile.

To borrow a somewhat over-used political phrase, football is a process, whilst rugby is an event. 328,000 people in Wales played football in the last month; a third of that number played rugby. The average attendance at our two top Welsh football clubs is comfortably over 20,000; the average for a regional rugby game is around 6,000.

A generous interpretation would put a maximum of 25 nations as playing rugby globally; 208 play football. The European football market alone is worth an estimated 20 billion Euros.

The reason why this example is significant is that it edges us back to the themes of my lecture. If our fragile confidence as a nation totters precariously on a sport where yes, we can dominate but which is small-fry globally, then, our chances of selling ourselves to the world, becoming an international brand and reaping the economic dividends that come with that, are rather squeezed. No-one would dream of denying the proud history of rugby here, or its historical and social import, but we simply cannot let rugby define us as a nation.

Some would argue that ambition depends on whether you are looking at the future from the gutter or the stars. No one can deny that poverty is part of our reality and yes, we are a horribly unequal nation in wealth terms- so eastern Wales has a GDP of 94% of the EU average, whilst west Wales and the Valleys, 67%.

But economic poverty does not have to go hand-in-hand with poverty of thinking, and poverty of ambition. To suggest poverty is permanent and that we cannot break free of our current economic plight is unforgivable and sets Wales apart from other Euro “regions”, within relatively poor nations like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who figure much more positively in the Eurostat GDP rankings than we do. Interestingly, these regions have talked up their future, rather than dwelled upon their current plights.

The truth is that nothing about the future is inevitable. Of course, we can’t remedy the structural failings of the Welsh economy overnight, but we can change our psychology. It is unforgivable that some who are “leaders” are unconsciously promoting passivity and subordination as the new Welsh psyche. I hope, that in the next elections in 2016 or 2020, we will not see another televised leaders’ debate, where the leitmotif is almost exclusively: “woe is us. Give us some more cash!”.

So, whilst I have used the sports sector to demonstrate the Great Welsh Confidence Trick, it might surprise you to hear that I don’t want Wales to be seen solely through the prism of sport. Nothing would make me happier than sport being relegated to a part –albeit, an important element- of our identity, rather than its foremost feature.

The artists, scientists, actors, poets, academics, opera singers, business people that we have produced, are not short of talent or belief.

Ultimately, talent cannot be manufactured, whereas we most certainly can build and nurture our self-belief as a people and a nation.

Wales is not short of talent, but we are short of confidence. And, like recovering addicts, admitting that simple reality can help us change. But for that, we need a new generation who actually lead not just follow, diverse leaders who are brave – with bold ambitions and thick skins. Leaders who recognise that, in our people, we already have all of the core ingredients for a different future – talent, passion and humility.

If we can mix in some tenacity and self-belief, we could just pull it off you know. Now that would be some Great Welsh Confidence Trick….

Laura McAllister is Professor of Governance at Liverpool University. She is Chair of Sport Wales and a Trustee of the IWA.

20 thoughts on “The Great Welsh Confidence Trick

  1. well just when I thought every cheesy, empty political and sporting cliche had been used up I was delighted to see that Laura had managed to shoehorn in something about the English being arrogant.

  2. The Prof states that we need ‘a new generation’ of civic and business ‘leaders’. Whilst I and probably most people in Wales (I hesitate to confine this to only the Welsh natives like myself) would commend and applaud her ‘lecture’ and Call, the key to resurrecting Welsh ‘confidence’, does not, however, lie with the present generation of inhabitants or the present ‘leaders’ such as they are.
    Children (and the new generation of young adults) who possess the positive attributes that Professor McCallister describes so well as being needed here in Wales are well aware of (because of the Internet, the Media, new tech and even old fashioned education) the attractions and opportunities for advancement that lie outside of Wales. This ‘diaspora’, ‘brain/talent drain’ or whatever you want to call it has been going on for centuries and it is difficult to see how it can be reversed, as it will need to be, if a change is to be made in the viability of Wales as a Nation.
    People move on if they are being persecuted financially, for their religion or their mores or even if they believe (often mistakenly) that the grass is greener (than our Valleys) on the other side. In the last couple of decades this has been much easier for people to do (and not come back). Good people are no longer trapped by physical boundaries, warfare or other constraints as much as even a couple of decades ago. However, they can be trapped by penury – a rather embarrassing feature of much of rural Wales as recognised by all the EU development grants we’ve been the recipient of!
    So what I would like to see is not more exhortations to be more ‘confident’, thank you very much, but imaginative practical steps and inducements to keep the ‘new generation’ here. Wales is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a safe and good place to ‘bring up’ children but if we are not to be seen as some sort of glorified nursery, tourist playground or retirement settlement (I could go on…), we need proper reasons for talented young people not to take the first train/bus/plane to Llundain or the States.

  3. I fully agree with the article that confidence is what Wales needs. However saying that we lack confidence and need to change of our ways is perhaps treating the symptom rather then the cause. At the end of the day this lack of confidence isn’t some kind of genetic affliction – Wales lacks confidence because we’re a post-colonial country that has been convinced that we’re failures due to our poverty and that our language and culture lack prestige. The best starting point to tackling this would be to teach Wales’ own history to its people, so that they realized that there is nothing inferior about our culture, and that our poverty is also to a large extent as a result of being the largely ignored backwater of a previously vast empire, and not being in control of our own resources. Nationalism is thought of as a cultural matter which builds walls and runs contrary to financial good sense. However nationalism can be a force for financial good if it instills in a people the confidence to take their own futures into their own hands. Unfortunately as the election showed, nationalism in Wales skews mainly to the hard left, and would have use increase our dependence on the public purse rather than wean ourselves off it. Like a 30 year old who has lived in his parent’s basement for too long, Wales will only become a confident, assertive nation when she leaves home and becomes financially self-sufficient. The other option is to drop all pretence of being a nation and seek self confidence as the Victorians did, by becoming more like and seeking the praise of our richer neighbours and glorying in their history rather than our own (see the increased praise and attention for Cor Glanaethwy now that they’ve made it on Britain’s Got Talnt – I don’t blame them for taking part, but they were brilliant and deserved the same amount of praise before they did). That option however means continuing to feed off scraps from the table, rather than taking matters into our own hands.

  4. Professor McAllister’s analysis of prevailing leadership styles and practices is trenchant and necessary. Her sport for all proposal needs to be complemented by a recognition that imagination and creativity flourish at least as much in other areas of Welsh life and culture. I’m not a Welsh speaker but every time I see pupils from Welsh language schools singing, reciting and dancing I am struck by the confidence and exuberance which they manifest. Perhaps there is an embryonic lesson there. Another point. For too long Wales has been defined by the fortunes of its national rugby team, rather as some English people define themselves by the variable fortunes of their football team. It seems to me that a far more apt example would be that of Swansea City, where business skills and supporter engagement have combined to lead and manage a conspicuously successful operation.

  5. “I’m not a Welsh speaker but every time I see pupils from Welsh language schools singing, reciting and dancing I am struck by the confidence and exuberance which they manifest. Perhaps there is an embryonic lesson there. Another point”

    Oh right, so now you cant be confident unless you’re a Welsh speaker either! Shall we soon expect a paper published by the university of Bangor demonstrating a link between the two like we’ve seen between cognitive ability and bilingualism (the fine print always clarifying that it strictly relates to simultaneous bilingualism from birth and not sequential bilingualism… but hey ho those are just minor details so lets close all English medium schools anyway).

  6. “It’s a shame you lot (we Welsh, that is) are so afraid of your own shadow. Think what you could achieve with such talent if you weren’t”!
    Never a truer word but that’s not the worst of it. . You only have to read this blog, full of anti-Welsh Welsh correspondents running the place down, to know that not only are we afraid of our own shadow, we are proud of being afraid of our own shadow. Self-denigration and servility are paraded as “realism”. How shameful. I won’t name names for fear of the censor. You know who you are.

  7. Laura McAllister’s old hat ‘plummy accents’ and ‘entitled’ prerogative reveal yet again, the malaise of inferiority complex and insecurity that still pervade deep within the Welsh psyche, in spite of her worthy protestations of heroic deliverance.

    I myself was privately educated from the age of four (for which I make no apology) and did all my academic and practical legal training in London (again, neither of which will I apologise for).

    Such an education was certainly not ‘privileged’; my father simply worked hard to pay the school fees for both myself and siblings, nether indeed did such a scurrilous education leave me with any sense of ‘entitlement’ – the opposite obtained, I was taught self -reliance.

    One thing my privately educated ‘posh Welsh’ antecedents did give me however, was an ability to fearlessly speak out (a quality that the Welsh are in dire need of resurrecting) and not bend my knee to ridiculous notions of Welsh dominion, Welsh speaking ‘identity’ and nationalist delusion.

    The lady’s burnt out cliché of Wales ‘punching above its weight’ is nothing but a facile exercise in pure masochistic exaggeration, and why? Because the boxing gloves Wales punches with, are always filled with taxpayers’ money.

    If Wales is to progress, it must dump its insular and parochial obsession of ‘Wales for the Welsh’ and addiction to Sate aid. Even the ghosted autobiographies of its glorious sports people are paid for by the taxpayer, which Laura would do well to note

    Wales is seen as a backwater by the rest of the UK and a crematorium of ambition and the Welsh only have themselves and no-one else to blame, least of all the English who by the way, keep Wales and its precious language afloat, which incidentally is playing its part in the exodus of our young to English universities and never coming back .

    So then, according to Laura’s trainered-up musings , ‘confidence’ is the new, wondrously unoriginal remedy for whining, boo-hoo Welsh inertia.

    Well, how about to hell with self-referential excuses, get a bloody grip and while you’re at it, try standing on your own two feet for once!

    It doesn’t hurt, ‘onest.

    Julian Ruck

  8. None of the comments I have read since the speech suggests that the penny has dropped. We are a can do nation if you believe it. It’s taking oneself out of the grid lock we gave been forced fed for centuries and start believing in ourselves . It’s more an act of faith than mechanics or fine words. The message is not for the faint hearted . It’s a message of deliverance and optimism. Some might find that difficult to swallow because it’s a call to arms.
    its not a political message either since politics in Wales remains persistently one dimensional still and it’s suffocating us.
    The target must be the up and coming generation. I see hope on the horizon that I have not felt ever before.
    Someone has to further distil it and refine it even customise it to fit all parts of Wales. Let’s start the fight back now!

  9. A powerful, insightful analysis.
    Yet, one word missing here is ‘narrative’. Confidence is a by-product of a positive , forward-thinking & supportive narrative.- which Laura does so well to paint here.
    On a wider front, we need to encourage a plurality of narratives around what it means to be ‘Welsh’ to achieve Laura’s dream of a more confident Wales,

  10. Peter Phillips ain’t wrong about one thing. Swansea City have been extremely well run while the Welsh Rugby Union has not been particularly well run, a success or two and a number of failures. Swansea did it by giving the ordinary supporters enough of a say to make them feel involved and by not being afraid to bring in the best talent they could afford from outside, whether to the pitch or the manager’s office. While being loyal they haven’t been too sentimental to get rid of players who couldn’t cope at the next level. Welsh Labour could learn a thing or two from all that.

  11. Oh yes….Welsh speakers are certainly more confident. Confident of getting an advantage in the employment market for instance with 66% of fluent Welsh speakers working in the non productive sector (Public sector+ third sector) and 77% of all Welsh essential jobs being occupied by a person who had at least one parent fluent in Welsh. Only 15% of Welsh essential jobs go to anyone who didn’t have a Welsh speaking parent. This sort of privilege and security tends to breed self confidence…particularly when you have your very own Language commissioner to stick up for your ‘uman rights.

    Is self confidence in Welsh speaking children a side effect of the “bilingual advantage” well there was the well publicised research into bilingualism by Prof Cathercole, Prof Clare et al :-

    Then there was the totally un-publicised results of the study:- “No bilingual advantage was found…..” Never mind, the myth lives on in the comments of the ignorant.

    So, where do all the confident Welsh non Welsh speakers go to I wonder?

  12. @ J Jones

    The article seeks to point up the importance of a culture of confidence and your only response is to rant on about the language, yet again. Why should Welsh speakers not feel confident about their language and their ability to speak it. Would you rather they were all like my Nan who was so ashamed of being a Welsh speaker, she told no-one about it, not even her own family. You could have talked about sources of confidence for people who are not Welsh speakers but still have a great deal to be proud of and confident about. But that would require climbing out of the cynical gutter you have created for yourself and taking the risk of trying to achieve something positive. Why change the habits of a lifetime?

  13. There is no shortage of confidence from the political class in Wales – indeed it borders on and sometimes exceeds arrogance. The problem is they are confident they are right when they seem to me to be wrong most of the time. I’m pretty confident about that and the outcomes confirm it.

    I’m all for sweeping one layer of them away completely – we have a third rate legislature too many!

  14. @JRW

    Your description of the National Assembly as being third-rate is a very good example of the anti-Welsh rhetoric which seeks to continually belittle Welsh achievement while lauding everything that comes from England as being entirely virtuous. And yet it is the Parliament in England that is collapsing before your eyes but you cannot see it. Perhaps one of your ancestors was on the Titanic when, after being struck by an iceberg, proclaimed the supremacy of British marine engineering.

  15. Rhobat; nothing but nothing published in these comments make one iota of difference to what anyone does or thinks. We are all essentially talking to ourselves. Why do I return to the same topic? Well, I actually believe that Wales is lied to by its government and that the deliberate enhancement of life advantages for Welsh speakers has undermined democracy and equality here. We have, over a long period, put the interests of Welsh speakers above the interests of all the other people of Wales. We have enshrined in law measures that make Welsh speakers “more equal” than non Welsh speakers and taken away fundamental rights from non-Welsh speakers.

    Look at the polls that ask whether the respondents consider themselves “more Welsh” if they speak Welsh. Amongst fluent Welsh speakers nearly half did consider themselves to be of superior Welshness and even amongst non-Welsh speakers a third of people agreed.

    Think on it Rhobat. The gift of self confidence awarded in perpetuity to a hereditary 10% of the population. The gift of secure employment and social and political advantage for an elite and, of course that leaves 90% of the population as second class citizens in their own land. But let’s not “rant” about it, much better to let it go. Much better to see endless IWA articles written by the religious zealots of Welsh language superiority and say nothing at all.

  16. It is so frightfully easy to sit back in a comfortable armchair with a ‘nice cup of tea’, and bemoan the inadequacies of our politicians. Academics,who know only the classroom and lecture theatre, not to mention callow challenge are the most self-indulgent of all, more so as few have little if any experience of the real world and nasty adult cut and thrust.

    I have interviewed many politicians, although it must be observed that Welsh Labour politicos are certainly the most adept when it comes to avoiding any kind of pointed questioning – this is not the case where their Westminster counterparts are concerned it must be noted, but do you know something and from the sharp end of life not a book?

    I have found all the opposition party leaders et al at the Senate to be sincere, passionate and genuine in their intent. They are the ones who have to tolerate pretty, self-righteous criticism from those who wail with fantastic ignorance about real politik and how things actually work in government.

    And lest we forget, those who can’t, teach.

    J Jones is correct in every word he writes and I have ample evidence in my hard drive to prove it.

    When are you warriors of Welsh language tyranny and delusion going to wake up the fact that when the whip of the Statute book and coercion are used you have lost the war.

    Why will you not admit that the promotion of your oh so precious language has become nothing but a political weapon to achieve dominion in Wales and a crusade for an RS Thomas backward Welsh speaking dystopia??

    The Welsh language is making our young uncompetitive – fact.

    It is having a supremely negative impact on the Welsh economy – fact.

    Anyone with half a brain and even a modicum of ambition, is taking off from Wales – fact.

    You’ve had billions of taxpayers’ money thrown at your romantic (one billion plus for S4C alone and rising) anachronism.

    And yet in spite of all the money, the sly imposition, coercion and vicious tactics toward those who speak out against you, your language is dying. There are counties in Wales that are now even trying to annihilate English medium primary schools. How desperate can you get and what an utterly grotesque affront to democracy?

    Your language will eventually go the way of Latin and Greek, fine for the dark bowels of an academic library but of no practical use to man or beast.

    Young Welsh people are not interested and as you well know, lose the young you lose the future.

    Get over it!

    NB Welsh language extremists of which there are many, have tried every dirty trick in the book to discredit, smear and silence me. It hasn’t worked. It never will. I will continue to voice my opinions both here and in the media and if you don’t like it – tough.

    It is time the majority non- Welsh speaking people of Wales stood up and shouted loud and clear ‘Enough!’.

    And I for one have a far louder voice than any of the contributors here.

    Julian Ruck

  17. 77 per cent of jobs where Welsh language proficiency is required were occupied by someone with a parent fluent in Welsh. Duh! That could be said of any language on earth. If that is the best example of pro-welsh bias you can find, it shows you are complaining about nothing. What you don’t say is very very few jobs in Wales require Welsh language proficiency. Almost all top civil servants in Wales are English, only one government minister is a Welsh speaker, our universities all have Vice-chancellors who do not speak Welsh. J.Jones, I know the facts can’t shake your paranoia about Welsh but even you can do better than your last post.

  18. A lot of accurate points made by Laura McAllister we really need to build up our confidence here in Wales. I think the vast majority would see it as a vital project bringing benefit to all including those who are at the moment naysayers. As for those who make up the small but vocal band of naysayers who go the extra mile or score. Well every project has its saboteurs and apparently they can be placed in a number of categories, namely,
    •The Insecure Person
    •The Lazy Worker
    •The Personal Enemy
    •The Evil Sceptic
    •The Enlightened Sceptic
    detailed descriptions can be found on various websites.

    Non project-sabs might find matching names with categories entertaining.

  19. Claire is right about the ever increasing number and variety of worthless leadership templates. However,It’s a pity that she didn’t explore the leadership concept to the extent of defining it. This would also help in preventing her confusing leaders with managers. Focussing on the leader excludes the most important ingredient – followers. Leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers to bring about change through creativity – with resulting innovation. As such it’s a process of relational activity between an emergent structure that provides all that is needed to achieve a common goal. This includes stuff such as belief and confidence – along with imagination.

    Most of all, leadership is a process that brings about a positive change in leaders and followers: everybody learns and grows by doing it. The statement that talent cannot be manufactured might be true but good leadership allows it to be located and fostered. Everybody is capable of expressing talent if the circumstances allow. All that is required is the confidence to believe that it’s so…

    If Wales is to be the small, smart and prosperous country of our dreams then we could begin the big change that is necessary by encouraging leadership – particularly the informal kind – in all sorts of organisation at all levels. Particularly for start-ups. It’s a no brainer, really. If there is something else, other than leadership, which can make for smart and prosperous – regardless of how big the country – then I’d like to know what it is.

  20. Julian,
    Has reinventing Hebrew and making everyone speak it made Israel uncompetitive? Has reviving Basque from a threatened condition to be in more or less the same state as Welsh now made the Basque country less competitive than the rest of Spain? Has keeping Gaelic on life support undermined the Irish republic? All of those were much more difficult and required more pressure than keeping Welsh going. So what’s the problem? Why do you get so excited about Welsh. No-one make you speak it.

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