Review: Llyfr Du Cymru Fydd briskly explores what an independent Wales could look like
The Black Book has a long history in Wales, going back to the first existing manuscript written entirely in Welsh, being the 13th century ‘Black Book of Carmarthen,’ so named because of the colour of its binding. Then there was the ‘Black Book of Chirk’ which included the oldest text of the laws of Hywel Dda and the 16th century ‘Black Book of St David’s,’ a survey of land owned by the bishop. Much more recently, in the mid 1980s the playwright and polemicist Dedwydd Jones wrote his ‘Black Book on Welsh Theatre,’ a benign hand-grenade of a volume which railed against the then state of matters theatrical.
Now ‘Llyfr Du Cymru Fydd’ adds to the tradition. In this bilingual pamphlet, as the title suggests, Llywelyn ap Gwilym takes a leaf out of Islwyn Ffowc Elis’s novel published in 1957 ‘Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd’ – a fictional work of prophecy – as ap Gwilym sets out his own utopian stall. Tightly argued and briskly written, ‘Llyfr Du Cymru Fydd is an exploration of what a future independent Wales could look like. As its author suggests ‘It is written in the spirit of utopian thinking: its purpose is to question what is, and to envision what could be.’ In this it takes its cue from the late Steffan Lewis, whose thinking was ‘that we needed to overcome despair or apathy by introducing new ideas and a clear vision.’
This latest Black Book suggests that the current political and constitutional situation is untenable, one where Wales, a rich country – the fifth largest energy exporter in the world after Canada, Germany, Paraguay and France – has a quarter of its population living in poverty. It suggests that a New Wales is possible, indeed probable as the UK splinters and therefore offers a set of preparatory notes for the sort of country it might be. In keeping with a very old Welsh literary tradition it offers a basic triad of principles which would underpin this new prosperous country, namely fairness, kindness and sustainability. It underlines the importance of true democracy, arguing against the imbalance of a system which gives an entire country just 40 Westminster MPs out of a total of 650 and so gets in establishes what is in effect an English government each and every time, an archaic system also shored up the antiquated system of first-past-the-post.
In offering its concentrated vision ‘Llyfr Du Cymru Fydd’ suggests that when Wales wins its independence it can become truly independent, and in this it echoes and perhaps deepens the cultural thinker Raymond Williams’ take on things:
‘Real independence is a time of new and active creation: people sure enough of themselves to discard their baggage, knowing the past as past, as a shaping history, but with a new confident sense of the present and the future, where the decisive meanings and values are made.’
So what else needs to change? Ap Gwilym suggest that there a need for a true participative, grassroots democracy, and a change in how people are informed about things, dismantling the current state of the UK media, where a tiny elite controls broad swathes of newspapers and other outlets. Power would need to devolve to the lowest practical level and the collective sense of community would take its cue perhaps from the Welsh FA’s slogan ‘Together, stronger.’ This strength would be bolstered by diversity and from the welcoming of migrants such as the Syrians who are currently making their homes here.
One of the tests of utopian thinking – if such tests pertain – is whether or not the ideas are pragmatically possible and one of the strengths of this book is the listing of worked examples of how some things already work. So, we can read about ‘Benthyg,’ being a Library of Things in Cardiff and about Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog in which 12 social enterprises, employing over 150 people have come together to promote development in the area. One aspect of its success is that 53% of the wages are retained locally.
Looking further afield, we read about Preston’s commitment to local procurement and about the Mondragon co-operative in the Basque country. The latter is not a utopian model, as it works within the capitalist system but its annual revenues of 12 billion euros now benefits one of the poorest parts of Spain and has seen ‘the Basque region now becoming ‘one of the richest parts of the state.’ There are, of course other lessons we can learn from the Basque experience, such as using culture to revitalize former industrial areas, such as landmark buildings such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the like.
The book also encourages new ways of ensuring economic equalities, from taxing wealth through widening employee share ownership to taxation at more regional or local levels, such as exemplified by the Basque provincial councils.
One of the downsides of the brevity of a book such as this is that it leaves the reader wanting more detail about some of the examples it cites, such as public transport in Estonia which is both free to use and profitable so that one might imagine its principles being applied here, from the south Wales Metro to cross-country links for both bus and train. And, of course, the reader might think of her or his own examples of good or, indeed utopian practice in Wales such as the work done by Plastic Free Penarth. And while Llywelyn ap Gwilym suggests nations should ‘reverse habitat loss and to protect biodiversity’ it might be that the New Wales might go further and commit to not only protecting but expanding biodiversity, using already worked examples such as Denmark Farm in mid Wales which has shown how species can proliferate when, say, a monoculture field becomes a hay meadow.
If anyone has any doubt that short books like this can’t be super effective tools I’d like to cite a personal example. My eldest daughter Elena recently had to choose a subject for a school presentation and chose, without any parental input, to argue the case for Welsh independence. Some of her arguments were marshalled from another short book, namely ‘Independence in Your Pocket.’ This week she turned sixteen and is now eligible to vote. Her sense of the future might well chime with those utopian ideals so neatly catalogued and persuasively presented in the new Black Book.
The Black Book of the New Wales is published by y Lolfa and can be bought here.