NWR Issue 47

Surviving the millennium

Will Wales still be around in 1,000 years time? Asking such an apocalyptic question is for once excusable as we move from the second to the third millennium - and the realistic answer must surely be, probably not.

Modern archaeologists and historians tell us that the land area we now call Wales was occupied by a variety of civilisation for some 50,000 years, i.e. fifty millennia, before the birth of Christ but that what we now like to call the Welsh nation began as a Romano-British identity, constructed a millennium and a half ago by a society seeking to come to terms with the collapse of the Roman empire and Anglo-Saxon invasion.

A millennium ago, Welsh society was still relatively young, looking back with nostalgia to the age of the saints and embarked upon the age of the princes. Governed by the liberal Laws of Hywel Dda, and with Viking incursions on the wane and the Norman invasion still sixty-six years away, the Welsh at that moment had reason to look towards the second millennium with cautious optimism.

Within 200 years, however, as David Rees points out in his review of a new biography of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd - Llewelyn the Last (p. 10) - Wales's attempt to build a medieval state had foundered. The disastrous failure of Owain Glyndwr's rebellion against the English Crown a century later led on, within the next 100 years, to the battle of Bosworth Field, the seizure of that Crown by Henry Tudor and his successors (an early example, surely, of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em') and the Act of Union with England.

Nearly 500 years later, after a civil war, a number of religious revivals, two industrial revolutions and two world wars, Wales has in the last years of the millennium taken on a small measure of political responsibility for its own destiny. But the National Assembly so far looks very puny indeed, particularly when set against the new challenges buffeting humankind.

There is no getting away from the fact that we are suddenly faced with an astonishing upsurge in globalisation of the world economy through new technologies, undreamt of even a couple of decades ago let alone prepared for. The World-Wide Web and E-commerce are already affecting the way we work and the way we think: the impact this change is going to have over the next century let along the next millennium is going to be profound.

What future is there for national identities - or even simply discrete cultural identities - in these circumstances? Will national or regional identities remain the basic unit of belonging for humankind in a global village/marketplace where geography has been abolished; always assuming, of course, the world survives the threats of nuclear and/or biotechnological catastrophe?

The doyen of Welsh novelists in English, Emyr Humphreys, thinks Wales may have an advantage. He suggests (see p. 84) that one consequence of globalisation is that England no longer has its own (literary/cultural) 'voice' but has lost it to America. In no doubt that language and vision are mutually dependent and crucial to the practice of writing, he concludes that the Welsh language, in mediating a unique vision, may still prove to be Wales's 'salvation' in the future which is hurtling towards us.

A case for Welsh, if not Anglo-Welsh, optimism was also well put by David Lloyd George, the only Welsh Prime Minister of this millennium. He told a Cardiff audience in 1906:

Let no man despise Wales, her language or her literature. She has survived many storms; she has survived many Empires. Her time will come. When the last truckload of coal reaches Cardiff, when the last black diamond is dug out of the earth of Glamorgan, there will be men then digging gems of pure brilliance from the inexhaustible mines of the literature and language of Wales.

Happy New Millennium!


previous editorial: Representing Wales
next editorial: Celebrating the millennium


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