NWR Issue 45

New Wales

It is very early to be drawing conclusions about the significance of the political earthquake which shook Wales on May 6, in the first elections to Wales's National Assembly, and which was re-affirmed in the European Parliament elections on June 10. However, it is the duty of contemporary journals to try, and in the current issue, historian Peter Stead has bravely sought (see p. 11) to put the seismic change in the political scene, into a wider context.

The all important fact about Wales today, he writes, is that it is a country in which a very large percentage of talented and energetic people, and most of them are young, want to live their lives in a Welsh context. The winning of the Assembly was a cultural and not a narrowly political achievement. The actual size of the winning margin the Referendum and the views of individual Labour MPs or even constituency parties is less important now than the fact that within Wales there are academics, journalists, bureaucrats, business people, musicians, actors, film-makers and artists for whom Cardiff is the focus of their aspirations.

Stead attributes the upheaval to the failure of the Labour Party to recognise this cultural shift, for reasons which are partly inevitable and partly of its own making.

Beyond his analysis concentrating on Labour, there is also another side to the political equation. For the past three decades and more, a generation of Welsh men and women, led by some very able politicians, have argued that Wales, to put it at its simplest, deserved better. Their political consciousness was first awakened by Liverpool's drowning of Tryweryn in the teeth of opposition from the whole of Wales, and the possibilities of political change generated by Gwynfor Evans's victory in Carmarthen and the upsurge in Plaid Cymru support in by-elections in the 1960s and 1970s. The overwhelming referendum rejection of a Welsh Assembly in 1979 was a devastating setback, as was the minimal support which the Plaid Cymru cause attracted in the 1980s, when the Welsh economy and employment were being taken apart by the alien nostrums of Thatcherism.

Nonetheless, the big idea - that a better Wales depended upon our taking more political responsibility for our own affairs; that there was a democratic alternative to centralised control of its economic, social and cultural life by London and its local place men - was kept on the political agenda, assisted, it has to be said, by the growth in importance of the European dimension. The new Wales which that generation doggedly argued for - or at least its basic framework - is now upon us. But it is now faced with the political realities. In sum, these add up to the basic question: will the National Assembly, in spite of its very limited powers, be able to meet the high aspirations now being placed upon it by many in Welsh life?

Fatefully, those working in arts and culture in Wales seem likely to be among the first to find out. The Assembly has decided to undertake a "major policy development study" of arts and culture - a highly welcome move. The Arts Council of Wales's resources (in contrast to England's) are currently suffering from an unprecedented squeeze. Early, positive action is required.

While always accepting the Assembly has limited room for manoeuvre, bluntly, any failure to provide fillip and encouragement for arts and culture in Wales will not only be a very damaging blow to the thousands who scratch a living in the arts industries, but it will also be a betrayal of those who have long said that an assembly was an essential pre-requisite for putting Wales's cultural life on a sound footing - and everything that means for building a healthy, confident society where creative talent is fostered and appreciated.


previous editorial: Celebrating the millennium
next editorial: Less a National Assembly, more a Glamorgan C.C. on stilts


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