Is Wales a Nation or a City-State?

Image of Cardiff Bay

Simon Brooks bemoans the centralisation of Wales in Cardiff.

I like Cardiff. I lived there for five years. I like its people, its way of life, its restaurants and its bars. I too was excited when the Danish Bakery opened its doors in Pontcanna. I used to be a card-carrying member of the Cameo Club. When I was younger, I went dancing in Clwb Ifor Bach.

So I don’t do Cardiff-bashing. I find Cardiff-bashing rather boorish. As a capital city, I find Cardiff very pleasant.

But then I moved to Gwynedd. It was an accident. My children moved to Gwynedd, and because I love my children more than I love the Cameo Club, I moved to Gwynedd too.

Gwynedd is great. It has mountains and sea and beaches and it has the Welsh language. It is the Bavaria of Wales. But what it doesn’t have is jobs.

And rural Gwynedd doesn’t have many young people. They all move to Cardiff. As a friend told me on the Llŷn Peninsula: “We love our children. We bring them up. And then they are taken away.”

Many patriots – of every political party – think that this doesn’t matter. They believe in the ‘Cardiff project’ because they think Cardiff can become a sort of Welsh Barcelona. A metropolis which represents the urban and the modern, the crucible in which a nation for the 21st and the 22nd century can be forged.

Even if the rest of Wales disintegrates, the Welsh nation will pull through because it has been encapsulated within the modernity of a new Welsh city, the Diff.

And indeed, a dynamic Cardiff city-region might pull through. But the downside to the strategy is enormous.

Wales must now be the most centralized country in Europe. Everything is in Cardiff. Media, government, head offices, the Big University, the international weekends, the lot.

Back in the 1970s, Gwynedd and Dyfed produced a regional political movement called Adfer whose aim was to keep everything in rural Wales, and, as a point of principle, put nothing in Cardiff, at least nothing Welsh.

Now in the 21st century, Wales has produced a movement as ideological and as stubborn as its predecessor. Its aim is to put everything Welsh in Cardiff, or near enough to Cardiff so that people can live in Cardiff anyway.

This current policy of putting everything and everyone in Cardiff is Adfer-in-reverse. We’re not building a nation in Wales any more, we’re building a city-state. And this, on every level, is wrong.

North-west Wales does not house the national headquarters of a single substantial Welsh institution. S4C had the chance to buck the trend, but blew it. Gwynedd does have the national headquarters for sailing and, as it happens, for cerdd dant singing, but there are no national headquarters of an institution central to Wales post-devolution.

If we were serious about devolution, social justice, and the Welsh language, then the Welsh Government would make it perfectly clear that national institution A, B, C or Ch had to up sticks and move to north-west Wales.

Here in Porthmadog we had until last week HMRC’s Welsh-language tax collection service. I suppose that there have been more august public bodies. Perhaps there are institutions with sexier names. Nevertheless its existence sent out a rare cultural message: Gwynedd matters. If you wanted to work in Welsh-language tax collection, you had to come to Gwynedd.

The service is excellent. Since hearing of its demise, people have been taking to twitter praising the joyous experience of paying tax through the Porthmadog Welsh-language tax service.

Tax collectors have never been so popular!

But the service is moving to Cardiff. It’s moving to save money (of course) and in order to make ‘a big contribution to the economy of Wales’. It’s also moving so that the Welsh-language service can liaise more effectively with other Welsh-language government services, all of which are in Cardiff.

The message of HMRC centralisation is simple. And what an apt slogan for post-devolution Wales it is too. If you don’t move to Cardiff, you don’t get on.

I know that fighting to keep Porthmadog’s Welsh-language tax collection service in Porthmadog might appear to the man on the omnibus in Roath to be a somewhat parochial issue.

But it speaks to a wider truth about the sort of society we want to create in Wales. Is the new Wales merely to be the mirror image of the bad Britain of old with everything located in the capital?

Thankfully, it is the Westminster Government which is responsible for HMRC so we can fight this fight without criticism of the Government in Cardiff Bay. But the Government in Cardiff Bay also needs to take note and take steps to spread opportunity around our country a little bit more fairly.

Simon Brooks is a member of Cyngor Tref Porthmadog (Porthmadog Town Council).

19 thoughts on “Is Wales a Nation or a City-State?

  1. I thought this might be a good article but then I clicked who’d written it… And sure enough the term ‘Welsh language’ is in every other sentence. Surely this is an issue for all of us in Wales not just 20%.

    As an aside I know many a Cardiffian who can’t wait for S4C and its card carrying cameo club members to put their money where their mouth is and move to Carmarthen!

  2. Difficult not to agree with much of this but what is required is concrete radical solutions, lobbying & execution.

  3. Whilst agreeing with the accusation of over-centralisation in Cardiff, Simon let’s his argument slip by only talking about the NW. Surely if he is against over-centralisation, then the SW, NE and centre should also be included in his comments?
    The £1 billion spent on the over-cooked M4 relief road will starve much of Wales of transport funding & the further delay to extend electrification to the SW is shameful, if predictable. Now that the Cardiff City Region appears to be going ahead, surely it is time to choose a cheaper M4 option? This will enable the Welsh Government to show that the rest of Wales is just as important to them, as the SE M4 corridor.

    This of course, will not happen.

  4. Yes, Simon, a potent reminder of a major issue.

    Centralisation of Wales in Cardiff has been a long-term trend. It has done nothing the productivity (measured in GVA/capita) of North and Mid Wales. The much-vaunted Cardiff City Region is seeking a diversion of even more funds from the rest of Wales (eg. Dr Elizabeth Haywood on this blog, 23 June 2015) in pursuit of growth which will purportedly trickledown from an ‘engine of growth’ – except that it hasn’t, not even as far as Torfaen! Or Ely. And won’t. Cities only prosper if they can secure extra funding and cheaper resources from elsewhere. They are desperately dependent on long supply chains for water, energy, food and labour.

    Macho talk from Cardiff does us no favours. It should be acting as a national (or federal) capital. Seeking unity and commonality of purpose over all our communities. We should emphatically reject its special pleading.

    I really enjoy Cardiff, a great city, a world city already punching well above its weight. And we need a vibrant capital, but not one based on impoverishing its sub-regional centres and the rest of Wales with more (unsustainable and wasteful) commuting, via the over-hyped Metro.

    We fail to understand how destructive of the economy of Wales that ease of transportation by road and rail east and west is. And we want more of it! The New M4 and the Third Menai Bridge are examples of infrastructure that primarily serve the economy of England, not Wales with only tiny local benefits accruing. Our out-commuters (to London, Bristol, Manchester..) enhance the GVAs of their destinations, and only bring their salaries home.

    In addition, transportation and spatial planning is dysfunctional in Wales (and England). More on this soon…

    But it is not quite true that all political parties seek further centralisation. Leanne Wood gave a well-received speech before the General Election arguing for devolution within Wales. This has a much better chance of improving the lot of people to the north. Of retaining our children in quality local jobs. Of spreading development and opportunity more equitably through the whole country – as envisaged by a central principle of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

    It will be interesting to see how the politicians handle the implications of that! Or just another Act of lofty intent and little delivery…?

  5. I agree 100%. Getting rural North-West Wales going again isn’t going to be a quick job, however. We have the W.A.G. in Llandudno Junction but nothing much else. One of the major problems is the lack of transport infrastructure. If I had my way the railway line from Bangor to Caernarfon would be reopened as a matter of priority and other lines restored as soon as possible afterwards. The north coast is mainly given over to tourism, which is fine in itself, but not enough. I wish you luck with your efforts to reinvigorate this wonderful part of the country.

  6. I’d never thought of Wales as a ‘city state’ before reading this article. I’d say it isn’t a city state like Vatican City, just because of the geographical distance between North, and South Wales. But it does look as though the capital is preferred over other places in Wales for political, administrative, and developmental projects, and funding. Large areas of Wales are rural, or hilly, and protected as special landscapes, which restricts their development. Transport links aren’t quite as conducive to frequent travel as say, the M4, or the South Wales – London train line. Many places seem to be ticking over as intermittent ‘tourism’ destinations, or retirement boltholes. It isn’t unusual though – southern Spain seems like this too, although some major motorway development is speeding up travel there. Perhaps the university might be the hub of new developments in the north, that could attract young people and new organisations to the area, and help retain the interest of young people already living there. Anything from the sciences, to engineering, architecture, transport, and the arts might be developed there.

  7. I don’t exactly qualify as the man on the Roath omnibus but I can claim to be the man on the Cardiff train from Lisvane. Before the referendum in 1997, many people were warning that if there was an Assembly in Cardiff, all the money would go to the south-east. There are a few exceptions, S4C has decided to retreat to its cultural heartland in Sir Gâr for example, but on the whole they have been proved right.

    There are good reasons of course for concentrating on the Cardiff Capital Region. As an area it has seen pathetic levels of investment since the demise of the coal industry in the valleys, expecially when you consider the wealth generated in that area that went to London rather than stayed here. It’s also the case that it is not enough to call yourself a capital city; you also need to have the institutions that enable a society to function and a government to implement its policies. But after that?

    There is a great deal of thought that needs to be given as to how the powers that the Assembly has can be used to ensure economic development for the different regions of Wales. There are different government departments located throughout Wales: Llandudno Junction, Aberystwyth, Carmarthen and Merthyr are a few examples and there is talk of investing in reconstructing the railway line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. What there is very little talk of is how such infrastructure developments are going to develop the regions so they become wealthier and offer longer-term job prospects than are currently on offer. My own attention is focused on how the Cardiff Capital Region could benefit a county such as Powys. With the right transport connections, towns such as Brecon and Builth Wells could see an economic dividend from the investment taking place here in the south-east. But with all the focus on the SE Wales Metro as being the measure by which the CCR will measure its success, any talk beyond these boundaries has little chance of being heard. It is ironic that when we complain about the London-centric nature of Westminster and the UK media, we have decided that North Wales now begins at Merthyr.

    I’m sure that the closure of the tax office, one which I have used for my tax returns, does have serious economic consequences for the town. But it is also a symptom of how little devolution dividend there is to be seen outside the capital and its economic catchment area. The problem unfortunately is whether the Cardiff-centric politics and media are interested in looking seriously at this. I suspect not. Which provides an opportunity for organisations such as the IWA to provide a forum for this and other agendas of a more long-term nature. However if our purpose is to lobby on current policy which seems to be the case, there’s very little room for it here either.

  8. Firstly Simon, this friend of yours….the one that gazes wistfully out over the Irish sea and mournfully intones:
    “We love our children. We bring them up. And then they are taken away.” Could you just tell him to stop wrapping himself in the much-loved shroud of perpetual Welsh victim-hood and join the rest of us parents who realise that our children are not “taken away” they just leave. They leave joyfully, trepidatiously, excitedly, bright eyed and looking towards new experiences, new places and new friends. Many from up here in Gwynedd are attracted to Cardiff and that is particularly the case amongst Welsh speakers as you can see from yesterday’s Welsh language use survey. Gwynedd and Anglesey lost 2,600 and 2,100 fluent Welsh speakers respectively between the 2004-2006 use survey and the 2013-2015 survey. Conwy lost 2,100 and Denbighshire lost 2000. Cardiff gained 7,100 fluent Welsh speakers. Unless you know different none of those people who moved to Cardiff were abducted.

    As for the ” people (who) have been taking to twitter praising the joyous experience of paying tax through the Porthmadog Welsh-language tax service.” The man or woman hasn’t been found that rejoiced in the paying of taxes in any language and, now that tax raising responsibilities have been gifted to our very own Assembly, you and your misty eyed friend down on the Llyn can petition your AM to get ALL the Welsh tax operation moved back up to Porthmadog where the tax office workers will be showered with flowers each and every day as they walk to work.

  9. Pretty much everything about Wales is parochial. Even our international outlook is parochial, we have to be the only country in the world that is represented in international sport by a completely different country, one we are not a part of.

    It’s like we are living in some sort of 1970s sci fi horror movie, a dark force somewhere in Wales is parasitically sucking the life out of us, our leaders have been body snatched and replaced by beings incapable of imagination, innovation, creativity, vision, empathy, resistance, passion, and independent thought. All is secondary to the need to make the force larger and stronger.

    The most depressing example of this is Lee Waters decision to stand as a Labour candidate. After years as IWA director, analysing what’s going wrong in Wales, he’s come to the conclusion that yet another 5 years of this “Welsh” Labour government is the answer to those problems.

  10. Well said, Simon. There’s a saying often heard here in Copnwy County, “Cardiff is miles away from anywhere”. It’s a four-hour journey from my home however you do it.

    Aberconwy Labour Party launched a petition to keep tax jobs and services in the north. It’s time for some devolution within Wales.

    Bill Chapman is a member of Cyngor Tref Conwy (Conwy Town Council).

  11. Never ending Navel Gazing and indulgence beyond belief. Demographics of Wales are changing and in my view for the worse but no one on this site or elsewhere in the Welsh media is prepared to be honest and address the root cause behind these changes!

    We all know that Wales is subject to an unprecedented form of Social Engineering imposed by the Welsh Labour Government insisting that Wales is a ‘Bilingual nation’ and has made the Welsh language an ‘Essential Requirement’ for most of the public jobs.

    Implication: Cardiff and many other Welsh Cities are being colonised by Welsh speakers (Evident in 7K increase of those speaking Welsh in Cardiff only). This was recently reported by BBC and in the same article BBC states that NW Wales is losing its Welsh speakers!

    It’s a no brainer to realise what’s happening – The Welsh speakers are given privileges beyond anything that can be defined as rational or reasonable and this practice is already doing a huge harm to Welsh Education, Economy and the NHS.

    Then we have the rural areas and especially the beautiful Snowdonia National Park but nobody wants to live there and as Simon says work is hard to find – In other parts of the UK property is at a premium in any of the National Parks comparable to Snowdonia and house prices are sky high – In Snowdonia they’ll be hard pushed to get tenants even if they gave them away for nothing.

    The reason is again the Welsh language and significant intolerance from the locals towards the outsiders.

    Ignore this and watch Wales implode – Time to say to Carwyn Jones and others who blindly follow Welsh Labour’s’ Orwellian World: Enough is Enough – Welsh people must have linguistic Freedom of Choice free of compulsion and state interference (Provide practical and reasonable support to the minority but no minority can force or expect majority to assimilate into a language and culture of the few without huge and disastrous consequences for Wales)!

  12. Simon, it might surprise you how many of us Cardiffians agree with you.

    This used to be a pleasant provincial city, no more, no less – a Welsh city, a ‘city of villages’ where, if it was not quite true that everyone knew everyone, then everyone knew someone who did. No one asked us if we wanted to be Barcelona. Most of us understood – especially on a stormy November day like today – why we are not Barcelona and never can be. We were quite happy being Cardiff.

    While we welcome tourists, we never wanted to define ourselves as a tourist venue. Being the ‘hen night capital’ of mainland Britain is at best a mixed blessing. It is fun seeing bits of our city on ‘Doctor Who,’ but it makes no practical difference to us that it is filmed here. The excellent Mr Capaldi might spend a few quid while he is in Town, but this is not his home. It is ours – or was.

    Now our home is being ruined by an economically and environmentally unsustainable expansion. Our city is growing by a third, despite the inadequate infrastructure and lack of a proper productive base. We are losing all that made our community distinctive.

    Most of us in Cardiff would like to share that growth with the rest of Wales. Our only reservation is that it might spoil places like beautiful Porthmadog as it is spoiling Cardiff.

    The Assembly is part of the problem – not the whole problem, but certainly a contributory factor. Most of us here in Cardiff voted against its establishment. Once it was approved, we agreed it would be ridiculous for it be located anywhere but the capital, but it has added to our problems, superimposing a well-heeled ruling class on top of, but largely disconnected from, our civic community. Although set up on the pretext of ‘decentralisation,’ its Old Labour leaders have pursued a constant policy of centralisation of power within Wales, their proposals on local government being the latest example The last paragraph of the article demonstrates why they get away with it: people are afraid or unwilling to criticise Cardiff Bay.

    So rather than criticise, we just complain …and complain and complain, and nothing gets done.

  13. Pedantry alert:

    This article has 65 sentences, six of which mention the Welsh language (including one twice).

    That is 10.8% of the sentences (strictly speaking, 9.0% as six sentences, rather than seven mentions) which is appreciably less than than the 50.0% asserted.

    Never let the facts get in the way of an attack on Wales, its language and its culture.

  14. Firstly, an attack on Cymraeg is not an attack on Wales. The two are separate entities which, despite nationalists’ best attempts to intertwine them inseparably, remain as such. Secondly, I was not attacking the entity of Cymraeg… merely the author’s attempts to relate the Welsh language to every single issue that moves.

  15. David Lloyd Owen,

    shall we add ‘using figures of speech’ to the growing list of things that will be outlawed by pedants in a Welsh Nationalist ruled Wales? Along with freedom of speech, questioning Welsh language expenditure, asking for proof that the Welsh language generates Wealth, questioning the performance of the Welsh devolution, mentioning S4C viewing figures? I’m drawing up a charter now. Ymlaen!!

  16. I am rather fond of facts and rational debate, that is all. No offence is intended.

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