Putting Wales in the driving seat

John Osmond reflects on the way the IWA has survived over thirty years

Reflecting on the IWA’s achievements the first word that comes to mind is – survival.

Margaret Atwood once wrote a book with Survival as its title. In it she mused that countries can be summed up with a single word. For the United States she said the word is – Frontier. Without a tongue in cheek, Atwood said that for England the word is Island.

For Canada the word is Survival.

What of Wales? I used to think our word was – Defeat.

But now I’m inclined to think that the word has become Survival – not in the Canadian sense of surviving against the elements, the frozen North and so on, but more in existential terms.

Some years ago the IWA published a lecture by Jane Aaron. Her theme was how Welsh identity has continued to exist against the odds over the centuries. As a matter of fact, we also published a book titled Against the Odds, by Harold Carter, on much the same theme. Its subtitle was The survival of Welsh identity.

In Jane’s case we picked out a line from her lecture The Welsh Survival Gene, and put that on the cover.

Though interesting, I didn’t expect the lecture would cause much of a stir. However, it received enormous publicity, right across the globe.

I did an interview on the phone with a radio station in California.

“Now then John,” I was asked. ‘Tell us about this survival gene you Welsh people seem to have.”

The important thing about survival is that it lets you hang around long enough to occasionally make an impact.

An important moment arose early in my tenure as director. It was the summer of 1996 when Tony Blair, then Leader of the Opposition, announced to much consternation that before Labour’s devolution plans could go ahead there would have to be referendums in Wales and Scotland.

For those of us who had lived through the trauma of 1979 this came as a cruel blow. How could we possibly turn around that four-to-one defeat?

One thing soon became obvious. The referendums couldn’t be held on the same day as they had been in 1979. This time Scotland would have to go first. So we published a report making this case, dredging up all manner of arguments around press coverage and so on.

We launched the report on a warm July evening in a committee room in the House of Commons. We and various hangers on – including a man sitting next to me I had never met – were ranged on one side of the table. On the other was the Shadow Welsh Office team, Ron Davies, Peter Hain and the rest.

But something else turned out to be the most memorable part of the evening. I had to leave before the end of the meeting to catch a late train home from Paddington. At the station I reached inside my jacket for my ticket and found myself staring at a strange wallet.

Of course, I’d grabbed the jacket of that man next to me.

Luckily I found his phone number, rang him and ended up spending the night in his place. He was Gerry Holtham and the rest, you might say, is history.

Years later, in 2008, we were commissioned by the All Wales Convention to examine what benefits might accrue from the Assembly having primary legislative powers. We examined the Scottish experience and concluded that primary powers would enable the Assembly to develop a strategic approach to its policy-making across the range of its responsibilities. We provided concrete examples in the fields of health, transport and the environment.

After he had read our report Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the Convention’s Chair, remarked that of the mountain of evidence he had received ours was the only submission to have come up with something new.

It was a proud moment.

The title of the report was Putting Wales in the Driving Seat. Over the years the IWA has contributed more than its fair share of doing just that. Long may it continue to do so.


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John Osmond was the the IWA’s first full-time director, between 1996 and 2013

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