I won’t let the Welsh Government off the hook for its role in the Severn Bridge debacle
Adam Price, Plaid Cymru Shadow Economy and Transport Secretary
On the eve of a new Assembly term, I confess that I find myself with a spring in my step and hope in heart.
Perhaps this isn’t fashionable at a time when the one consistent theme in global politics is cynicism bred by chaos. But the reaction to a series of insults to Wales has given me cause for hope.
It’s not that I, and I’m sure others feel the same, am wallowing in the fact that my country has been insulted by the Severn Bridge renaming decision.
It is not about ‘having a chip on the shoulder’ when a major UK paper allows a columnist to degrade my language, and our very identity.
It is more about finding inspiration in the reaction of many people in Wales to those transgressions. There is a sense that we won’t take this lying down anymore.
This new and welcome national confidence, while reactive for now, could well become proactive in demanding that we make decisions for ourselves, as the next step after condemning those made on our behalf.
Being Welsh can be quite the emotional investment. Not only are small nations quite common across Europe, but the fact that they are beset by outside forces, attitudes and decisions is also common.
From Estonia to Ireland, Cyprus to Slovenia, small countries shape their destinies in a way that is itself shaped by the behaviour of neighbouring or nearby powers.
Nobody exists in glorious isolation, and turning your conquerors and your masters into your partners and equals is the defining task of civic nationalists in modern Europe.
From a Welsh perspective it is not always obvious to people’s daily lives that they are in a post-colonial situation.
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but a series of economic and cultural processes have shaped modern Wales into a nation that is integrated into its neighbouring country in complex ways – but which also has a potential for new a more confident psychology.
So symbolic decisions matter. From a practical point of view, the name of one of our major arteries into England matters, for the perceptions of tourists, visitors and citizens alike.
There is surely no other country on earth where the elected government would opt out of having a say on the name, brand and identity of one of its key gateways, even in those examples of cross-border links where responsibility is shared with another authority.
You’d have thought that the bridge linking Wales to England should keep a name based on the geography that links our countries at that location- Pont Hafren or the Severn Bridge. Much like the bridge between Sweden and Denmark is named after the Øresund strait which it spans.
But the utilisation of a royal name compounds the way this decision was imposed on Wales. It is not a decision solicited by the heir to the throne himself. It is an entirely political move by the Wales Office.
It creates quite a shameful situation by dragging Clarence House into politics, something which I’m sure they would prefer to avoid.
It has provoked an adverse reaction. And to defend the decision, the Secretary of State for Wales had to embarrassingly weaponise the monarchy issue.
It is not just republicans that have been critical, but a wider spectrum of opinion than might have been expected.
Never again should the good work of the Prince’s Trust and other organisations be used as a shield for an elected politician who has made a mistake.
The reaction has surely taken the Wales Office aback. I am more than ready to say that politicians did not lead on this.
A petition from a Welsh citizen has generated tens of thousands of signatures so far; a far higher level of engagement than on most other political topics in Wales.
Plaid Cymru politicians did speak out across the media (and people have joined our party as a result), but it is equally important that mainstream media commentators – Aled Blake and Carolyn Hitt of Wales Online to name just two – and Labour and other politicians also addressed why this is wrong.
This therefore represents a moment where some very credible voices have come on board with the idea that we shouldn’t put up with these symbolic impositions any longer.
A moment when a new, confident and assertive Wales is seen not just on the pages of nationalist websites (though it’s certainly there) but in the comments of other people who “get” modern Wales.
And at least one commentator made the vital link to the real scandal, the one that has actually kept us poor and underdeveloped, of the lack of rail electrification and paucity of infrastructure investment in Wales.
The same two parties that made and then consented to this decision through their governments, are the same two parties which have conspired to keep railway infrastructure policy for Wales reserved in the hands of Westminster.
It’s no accident that the Conservative UK Government is renaming the bridge, slashing the tolls, and asking the Labour Welsh Government to spend more than £1bn on a new M4 from its own budget. They’re laughing all the way to the Treasury.
In terms of what happens next, I have a job to do as Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Transport Secretary. The National Assembly reconvenes in the coming days, and the number of signatures on that petition is still going up.
There is no way I will let the Wales Office off the hook for this, but I want to reiterate that the Labour Welsh Government was consulted, and failed to raise objections.
These things matter. Remember, when the Welsh Government’s Culture Minister said he wanted to market Wales as a Principality, he was rebuffed by Labour figures in that government.
How our country is marketed and branded is a policy issue affecting tourism, trade and the economy.
The First Minister and Labour Government must answer serious questions in the chamber. They could have responded to that letter by seeking constructive talks, saying that the Assembly should be asked, or best of all by saying that there should be public consultation.
They did none of these things and must now be hoping that the issue will now blow over.
I believe that this won’t be good enough for the 30,000 and counting who have said ‘not in my name’.
What we’re seeing is not so much ‘water under the bridge’ as a spring tide of Welsh public opinion. Long may it continue.