Culture and Identity

Why we need to protect what it means to be Welsh

As we enjoy Eisteddfod week – albeit one where we regrettably cannot visit the Maes – I want to offer a personal vision of what identity means in a modern Wales writes Paul Davies MS. In committing my ideas to writing, I am well aware how dangerous it can be to express ideas about personal and national identity. People get shouted down and vilified or misrepresented so easily by online mobs or media manipulation. Our public debate is not richer for it. Somewhere along the road of free speech and free thought, too many people have appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner in deciding what is an acceptable view of Wales and Welsh identity to hold. The strength of our liberal, tolerant and vibrant democracy is that we are not dictated to as people who live in Wales in terms of what is and is not Welshness. 

But as a political leader and a proud Welsh person, I want to set out my own view on Welsh identity. I had hoped to do this by means of a lecture at the Eisteddfod – an Eisteddfod I visit as much as I can with friends and family, an Eisteddfod which is a home to me, an Eisteddfod which is absolutely central to how so many of us view a cultured and cultural Wales. As we cannot meet in the conventional way, another essay seems the best way of setting out my thoughts. 

My thoughts on Welsh identity fall into three parts – past, present, and future. You won’t be surprised that I take the past first. The celebration of Welsh history is fundamental to our Welsh identity and our understanding of Wales, and I am pleased that a future Welsh curriculum looks likely to give greater weight to our broader history. But yet I know the past can often be a difficult place for Welsh Conservatives. We have made mistakes. Looking back to the days before the Welsh Office in 1964, we wasted thirteen years believing that just having an MP from an English constituency dealing with Welsh affairs was enough. It was similarly a mistake to have four MPs from England in a row as Welsh Secretary between 1987 and 1997, no matter the strength of their characters and capabilities. In making decisions like that we enabled our opponents to portray the Conservatives in Wales as alien and detached, the successors of the High Tories of the mid nineteenth century that evicted tenant farmers for voting Liberal. It is not my place to apologise for errors in the Conservative past in Wales, but in order to offer an honest appraisal of what it means to be Welsh as a Welsh Conservative then I at least have to acknowledge those mistakes.

They cannot be airbrushed from history, but neither can the role of the Welsh Conservatives as a force for good in our political history. 

As uncomfortable as it may be for our opponents to acknowledge it, Wales-only institutions have often thrived when driven forward by Conservative governments. We got some things wrong in the 1950s but we made big steps forward in terms of Welshness too. We established the Broadcasting Council for Wales, the new capital of Cardiff was adopted in 1955, the Y Ddraig Goch flag became the national emblem in 1959, while from a practical functional perspective the publication of The Digest of Welsh Statistics began in 1954, the Welsh Grand Committee was established in 1960 and a small office to superintend the economy was set up in Cardiff in 1963. From a cultural perspective, in 1953 for the first time full bilingualism was permitted in schools following Circular 15, grants began for the publication of Welsh language schoolbooks and more public money was awarded to the National Eisteddfod. All of these were achievements for Wales of thirteen years of Conservative Government but all too often these things have been pushed to the side-lines as history has been written from the narrow perspective of devolving government. Yes, establishing a Welsh Office was important in 1964, but its creation does not negate the considerable advances for Wales which a non-Labour government achieved.

Looking at the Thatcher and Major years, many of us will clearly remember the establishment of S4C, the enshrining of the Welsh Language in the curriculum, and the creation of the Welsh Language Board. All the work of the Conservative Party and, it must be acknowledged, the work in particular of Sir Wyn Roberts. Has there ever been a Welsh politician who has achieved more for Welsh identity and culture than Sir Wyn? But yet again too many commentators and historians obsess about devolution referendums and disregard everything that does not suit their narrative.

Looking at the last two decades it was the leadership of Nick Bourne that remoulded our Welsh Conservative Party as a movement that was committed to making devolution work. It was Cheryl Gillan as a proud Welsh woman who oversaw the vote in 2011 to extend the Senedd’s powers, and who began the process known as the Silk Commission. Its fruition has been not only new powers gained by agreement for Cardiff Bay, but also the devolution of tax raising powers and tax varying powers. We Conservatives even negotiated a fair fiscal framework with the Welsh Labour Government, something which Labour failed to do when it was in power at both ends of the M4.

But as Conservatives we have far too often failed to explain what we did and why we did it. We have been too content to be pushed to the side-lines of history because, quite frankly, it doesn’t suit lots of people to acknowledge we Welsh Conservatives even exist. The Labour historian Kenneth O. Morgan has even disputed that there is any such thing as a Conservative historical imprint on Wales. In his book Modern Wales, he argues with particular venom that “Since the 1868 general election, Toryism or Conservatism has played only a marginal part, at best, in Welsh political consciousness, and as a result I am unable to think of any single biography which focuses on a Welsh Conservative. The literary tradition over the decades has just followed the election returns.”  

Such an assertion was so inflammatory to Lord Crickhowell, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, that he devoted much of the focus of his Welsh Political Archive Annual Lecture 2006 to refuting it, arguing strongly that “It is not in fact true that the literary tradition, or indeed the interest of historians, has just followed the election returns. A great deal has been written about the supporters of Welsh Nationalism, despite the lack of support that they have received over much of the period from the electors of Wales.” Lord Crickhowell has a point, but not one I will dwell on other than to say in no sustained period in the last hundred years can it be argued the Conservatives were not the second party in Wales.

Things are changing. I am delighted that finally there are more books being written which will redress the balance. I am especially keen that there are plans afoot to launch a Welsh Conservative History Society. It is time we as Conservatives promote our own history and I fully commit the Conservative Party in Wales to this initiative. My friend and colleague, Lord Davies of Gower, is amongst those pushing this initiative forward and I know that by the time of our next Welsh Conservative Party conference there will finally be an organisation celebrating and reflecting on our party’s historical contribution.

Which brings me to the present. These are turbulent political times in which rhetoric and political acrimony have become the common language of the day. As ever, it is from the extremes of debate that the most savage denunciations come, be they from those who want to Abolish an Assembly that no longer exists (it’s now the Welsh Parliament!), or those who have got so trapped in their own social media bubbles they believe Welsh independence is just around the corner. Both of these groups are blinkered in their visions partly because they spend so long just fighting it out on social media. I sometimes think Twitter would be a much better place if twenty or thirty online trolls and keyboard warriors weren’t on it.

But do I think either of those movements or viewpoints should not actually exist? Absolutely not. Of course, we as Welsh Conservatives will put our own case to the electorate next year and we will fight for every single seat. But we live in a representative democracy and that means different viewpoints can be voiced without being shouted down or abused or vilified. As a Welsh speaking Conservative growing up in West Wales, I know full well how that feels. How hurtful it can be to be told you are not Welsh if you are not in favour of independence. How wrong it is to be told that the Welsh language – my language – belongs to Welsh nationalism. And also – and I do not shy away from this – it hurts too when you’re told that as a Conservative you shouldn’t believe in devolution. 

What unites us as Welsh Conservatives is the belief that for devolution to work in any way there should be a devolution revolution to throw out this Labour government. That will be the message that pulls us together every week, every month, and in every action between now and next May.

Words are important. It’s why we all need to be careful not to stir up division and hatred in society. One of the things that has concerned me most during this pandemic is the rise of isolationism in public discussion. We’ve all seen the media reports in which the spread of the disease has been put down to people crossing the border into Wales, as though Wales could have survived this all on our own. I want to live in a Wales which is inclusive in its outlook, does not blame others for our problems but looks to work together to find positive solutions. A distinctive Welsh solution has no borders and no limit to ideas.

I’m also concerned that this isolation is trying to define what it means to be Welsh. It is not for anyone to say what being welsh is. Many people who have moved to Wales engage fully with their community but feel isolated by others for not being deemed Welsh enough. This needs to end as we all want an inclusive Wales. Fundamental to being a Welsh Conservative is that it is what someone does that matters, not where they were born. I don’t care whether the person living in my constituency of Newport, Pembrokeshire comes from Newport, Gwent or Newport Pagnell – it’s what a person does that matters, not where they are from.

And when I look to the future too in terms of Welsh identity, I want to see a country that celebrates its past because of our achievements. In drawing up the manifesto for the next Welsh Parliament election, the Welsh Conservatives will be pledging to celebrate our past in a way that Labour has never actually managed despite its warm words. We have a proper commitment to our shared Welsh past including a greater place for the National Archives in Wales. We will also be offering a National Art Gallery for Wales, with collections in North and South Wales, as part of our commitment to share out the national jewels, containing historical and contemporary art. We will establish a National Military Museum based in Brecon, with exhibitions throughout Wales so that we can remember and reflect on the proud record of Welsh service personnel. We will tell the history of Wales and astronomy, using a location set amongst the dark skies of Mid-Wales to establish a National Observatory for Wales. And we will create a permanent exhibition for the National Library of Wales in Cardiff as well as Aberystwyth, perhaps using the iconic Pierhead building on the Welsh Parliament estate, which is often painfully underused. Those are firm pledges to bring the culture of Wales to life. 

And it would not be appropriate on Eisteddfod week for me not refer to what we will do for the Welsh Language too. As a Welsh Conservative Government we will look at making sure that all aspects of government promote the use of the language of my home. Welsh Labour talks the Welsh language talk but rarely seems to know how to make things actually happen. Let me give you one example. Look at the Operational Plan of the Welsh Books Council for 2018-19.

It even contains a budget for the spending on publications for Welsh learners. The problem is that the spending is zero. Not a single pound spent last year by the body entrusted with promoting literature was spent supporting Welsh learners. The future of the Welsh language is in the hands of those that want to learn. In the first months of a Welsh Conservative Government that will change. We will issue a new Remit Letter to the Welsh Books Council as part of a series of remit letters to every public body in Wales. And we will tell them that they need to reflect the agenda of the government, not the agenda that suits them. 

As Welsh Conservatives we have many challenges. We have the challenge of making sure the past is more reflective of the part the Conservatives played in our shared history. We have the challenge of making sure our present is less divisive and more honest in its politics. And we have the biggest challenge of all – forming a government in Wales so that once again, as in the days of Wyn Roberts, we have a government that has a culture and Welsh language policy that isn’t just geiriau twym (warm words). The Welsh language has always been safe with the Welsh Conservatives and it will be safe with my government too. It is my language – our language – as much as any other party. 

A Welsh Conservative Government will go beyond words. As I have said previously, we will be judged by our deeds. A National Art Gallery. A National Military Museum. A National Observatory. A National Library permanent exhibition in Cardiff. A greater place for the National Archives in Wales. Five pledges for five years of a Welsh Conservative Government that will revolutionise access to our history and culture – and in every part of Wales.

As Welsh Conservatives we will not only conserve, we will protect, we will prize, and we will promote Welsh history, the Welsh language, and Welsh culture.

Paul Davies is the Leader of the Conservatives and the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament.

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