The ‘Iron Ring’ would be a blow to Wales – but will our politicians listen?

Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure at Flint Castle

 

Huw Williams

If the story of erecting a £400,000 iron ring in Flint Castle was a parody, it would be a wonderful allegory of modern day Wales.

Unfortunately, difficult though it is to believe, it is not a made up story.  This is real life, and it tells us much about what must happen for our political and public life to move forward.

It was all looking so promising for the Year of Legends.

Finally, a tourism campaign that sought to reflect and make the most of our unique heritage that has for so long been misappropriated. We might even have started to reclaim Arthur by the end of it.

Perhaps we should have known that the minister hadn’t quite bought into it all, after he led a shameful rejection of an Assembly vote to protect our place names.

There doesn’t appear to be much interest in protecting our homegrown artists either.

In time honoured fashion, rather than providing a grant to a renowned Welsh artist –  someone like Bedwyr Williams who was brought up on the North Wales coast – we award a massive £400,000 to a company from London.

When will we stop spraying money at companies the other side of Offa’s Dyke? And wouldn’t it have been much better value to use our local talent?

Disaster

With respect to money, a question has to be asked at a time of austerity and hardship for so many (the arts included) whether spending the best part of half a million on a vanity project justifiable?

As ex-Labour MP Gareth Thomas commented it seems a ‘prodigal and crass use of public money’.

We are not a rich nation, but we seem to want to act like one and live by the values and standards of London (which we should remind ourselves is a world city, not even an English one).

What about virtues such as parsimony, sustainability, and investment for the long term?

In this respect, the whole debacle smacks of the kind of failures we have seen time and again with respect to EU money – the tragic consequence of which was the inability to persuade many hard up communities of the real value of the funding during the referendum.

How money and resources are spent on such projects is a major issue not unique to Wales, but we’ve had enough practice by now.

It can be done; I’ve witnessed at a local level in Grangetown how Cardiff University has successfully worked hand in hand with the community – but it is not easy.

It takes hard work, commitment, sensitivity and project leaders who are embedded and actually care.

What happens when you get things wrong on all these counts is the disaster that awaits us at Flint Castle: something that is entirely unfit for purpose.

In one sense you can’t blame a London company for coming up with a tribute to Edward I – what else would you expect them to think of?

On the other hand, of the many mock names doing the rounds on social media it is #anusofthenorth that nails it.

It reflects the ongoing obsession reflected in the design with trying to emulate the Angel of the North through an outsized structure visible from space.  Where is the originality or Welshness in that?

Flint Castle. Picture by Matthew Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Denial

In the end, much of this comes down to fundamental questions about identity and who we are as a nation.

The Year of Legends suggests a country with new found confidence, connecting with its past to sell itself on the world stage.

This latest episode, however, is probably more in keeping with a country that systematically denies its children a thorough understanding of its own history; a country unsure of how to handle and interpret its past with confidence and common sense.

This needs to be addressed, not just as an educational issue (see another petition); as economists will tell you, those places who make a success of themselves culturally and economically know who they are.

Perverse pleasure

We can and should be able to remember Edward’s castles and make money out of them – as symbols of what it took to oppress us, as monuments to our own historical struggle, as the nation that took the best blows of a tyrant and a war machine that was left too weak to conquer their other neighbour.

We should view them from the perspective of the remarkable survival of our history, culture, and language.

We don’t, however, need to take a perverse pleasure in the Norman conquest and draw more attention to historical monuments that ultimately speak for themselves.

Indeed why does the ‘iron ring’ need representation anyway?  It is there for tourists to explore the length and breadth of Wales; do we feel the need to build a monument to our wonderful coastline?

For this project to be pushed through to completion will be a collective blow. It will be a warning that in terms of our politics, our democracy and our sense of self, 20 years of devolution has only built up the veneer of a mature, transparent and responsive Welsh polity that reflects the pride of its nation.

History is not kind to those who flatter to deceive.

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