I can conjure an image of Wales as a magnificent land: breathtaking mountains from coast to glorious coast, with some of the best wildlife (in particular birds of prey) these islands have to offer; unrivalled sporting passion, for everything from grand slam winning rugby teams and footballing success in Europe, to individual competitors like cyclist Geraint Thomas; we boast poets, actors and musicians known the world over, with the likes of Michael Sheen, Charlotte Church and the Manic Street Preachers willing to use their voices to call for positive political change; we are the part of the UK with the best claim to the bilingualism most of the world enjoys, a nation proud of one of Europe’s oldest languages; we have a reputation for looking out for one another in the country where the red flag first flew, where the Labour movement won one of its first MPs, where the NHS was born.
The fight for equality is an essential chapter in the telling of the fairytale of Wales, and why we need not subscribe to jingoistic notions of superiority: here, we look after the people at the bottom. Or so the story goes.
Credited with the formation of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan was voted our national hero at the turn of the millennium. He entertained parliament (and inspired a Manics album title) with the line ‘this is my truth, tell me yours.’ Though he was confident his own truth carried the most weight, these words allude to the existence of other truths.
While the Wales I describe exists, so too does a Wales far less deserving of awe.
Our mountains are bald, devoid of life beyond sheep and increasing the risk of floods to the valleys below. While red kite numbers are growing today we allowed them to diminish perilously close to extinction, and birds of prey continue to be persecuted. Rather than rewilding our countryside, we debate the existence of our only remaining medium-sized mammals as we argue over fox-hunting and badger culls.
Our sports teams provide a focal point for our nationhood but also act as a cage in which to contain aspirations for our nation: Wales can succeed, but only at playing games. And even then not the biggest game of all, with Y Ddraig Goch excluded from the Olympics.
Our lack of a national media shoulders much of the blame for this. We have an enviable list of cultural greats, but how much longer and greater if we created them on our own terms? How differently would we see ourselves, how much better would we understand our problems if the news and culture we consume were not put together with an English palate in mind?
How differently would we view our language? It is remarkable that it remains a source of pride even for non-Welsh speakers when it is so often used as a tool by those intent on stoking divisions. Would we really continue to neglect the communities where it remains a living language?
The ‘welcome in the hillsides’ of the valleys is absolutely true. So too is rampant racism and a steadily increasing empathy with fascist ideologies. Communities that pride themselves on their history of unions struggle with some of the worst inequalities in the developed world. A land synonymous with socialism votes in record numbers for right-wing parties of austerity, nakedly determined to destroy the NHS. Our assembly, with one of the more representative voting systems, gave UKIP the seats to match their votes – and they call for its abolition. Socialism barely exists within Welsh Labour these days: no longer a party for those longing for revolution but one of the status quo, unwilling to risk rocking the neoliberal boat.
Nye himself held more than one truth, though undoubtedly he would have approved of his story the way it is often told today. But with a talent for rubbing people up the wrong way, others had their own versions of the man. For me, it’s hard to ignore his involvement in strike-breaking or how he sometimes seemed to care little for Welsh speakers, and we would be unlikely to agree on a solution to Wales’ problems either: I see independence as the only way to make the changes we need. The positives I describe are in spite of the union, many of the negatives because of it.
This post is neither a romanticised portrayal of a country I love nor a tribute to one of our national heroes. It is an acknowledgement that Wales is both a country to be proud of, and a country in need of much work. It is up to us to choose which truth holds most weight.