Jan Morris, one of Britain’s most revered writers and travellers, was a self-confessed incorrigible Welsh romantic. Her passing reminds us of how her lucid writing about Wales was lived as both a personal and collective experience at the same time. To her, we were a nation full of rumours, dreams and transcendental qualities. Texts such as Matter of Wales burst with anecdotes, facts and stories about our landscape, politics, ancient princes, language and literature – all of which played their part in the story of struggle to create a truly Welsh Wales.
It seems that nobody could capture our national characteristics better. Whether it was through describing the impact of devolution (“what the national assembly sadly failed to give us was any sense of charisma”); noting how the poor Welsh were still the butt of jokes across Britain (“In England it is open-season still for Welsh-baiting”); or describing perfectly how many of our peoples, including herself, saw Cymru through rose-tinted spectacles (“I am in thrall to the idea of Wales, and the complex legend of it”): Jan Morris was not only peerless as a writer across time and place, but also on the subject of Wales – past, present and future.
How fitting it was then to read her final message to the most reluctant Welsh rebel since Morris’ own medieval hero, Owain Glyndŵr. Delivered by her son Twm in response to a tribute from the first minister, Mark Drakeford was reminded: “One was born Glyn Dŵr; some achieve Glyndŵrness, and some have Glyndŵrness thrust upon them. What will you do next? Astonish us by striking hard and Welsh while the iron is hot or just sink back again into the old kowtowing?”. It was certainly the best thing I have read on my Twitter feed.
Owain Glyndŵr has long stirred the imagination of Welsh nationalists – the last Prince of Wales was the patron of Matter of Wales, according to the author – who have longed for his return to save the nation from what Morris dubbed the “English-style officialdom” that have stifled our politics. Now, with thanks to Morris’ parting words, we have the official re-birth of the idea that a Glyndŵr Moment may just yet enable the Welsh to achieve national serenity at last. It must all sound a bit daunting for Mark Drakeford.
Such are the pitfalls of social media in 2020: even a seemingly touching tribute can muster questions over your Glyndŵrness. But the first minister has shown a surprising rebel streak in recent months. Gone is the bore of devolved politics, as Morris put it, and an energetic and firebreaking government has emerged. Public support for the Welsh government’s policies compared to rules determined in Westminster are staggeringly high. Devo-max – the closest thing to full sovereignty nationalists and unionists alike may yet have to compromise on – has recorded its highest-ever support in Wales. Independence is the trendiest political movement of the year.
What of the Welsh rebel who now has a nation looking at what he will do next? The first minister’s mentor, Rhodri Morgan, described himself as “an enthusiastic gradualist”. The middle way of devolutionism (rather than other ‘isms’) suited a regional party that had a parent in power in London. But the current first minister is finding it more difficult to stay in the middle of the road; indeed, Mark Drakeford has even gone as far as to call for a reform of the UK in recent weeks. That is no Clear Red Water – the famous words Drakeford crafted for that speech in the early years of devolution – but a full-blown assault on the current political settlement.
We must remind ourselves that Mark Drakeford is a unionist born and bred in the Welsh Labour tradition. I doubt he is inspired by the notion of Welsh greatness as dreamt up by Glyndŵrness – following the footsteps of Aneurin Bevan, Jim Griffiths or Rhodri Morgan would be enough. But even a majority of the first minister’s own party members support independence. Although he isn’t a nationalist by default, cracks in the arguments are appearing already. Basing the argument for Welsh unionism on the notion that the UK is a “big insurance policy”, for example, while also warning that the UK government want to “clip the wings” of devolution, is not going to register among the people of Wales.
So, what would tip the first minister to take his Glyndŵr moment? COVID or Brexit are the likely arenas of battle. What will be enough for the first minister to take action? And what does action look like? Whisper it quietly: perhaps it’s supporting a referendum on Wales’ place in the union. Or, most sensibly, it’s to support giving our parliament the legislative framework to have our right to self-determination in the first instance. The lingering issue is whether there is anything so significant to turn the first minister into the rebel that Wales has apparently waited centuries for.
While Conrad Black described Boris Johnson as a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear, it may be that the pandemic has exposed how Mark Drakeford may be Owain Glyndŵr underneath the veneer of a cheese-loving, allotment tending, former probation officer.
There is no doubt that this unassuming and professorial leader has given Wales serious political credibility for the first time since his old mentor dared to chart a separate course from New Labour. But as Jan Morris reminds us, Mark Drakeford has his most testing times ahead of him.
Will he ensure Wales can flourish with some degree of autonomy – with no wings clipped by other powers on these Isles – or will he let the dreams of Cymru continue to languish among the poets? Alas, we can only wait and see.