Why confidence and chaos have led the Welsh to embrace a twenty-first century identity
Since 2016, football has been one of the most reliable barometers for national mood in Wales. Think back (again) to the intensity of emotion unleashed over a few weeks during the European Championships. The foundations were set for a movement that now transcends sport: championing cultural heritage and cradling political purpose.
Can we look back to see the flame of twenty-first Welshness having first flickered in France?
After all, it is only some years later that ‘Wales’ itself may be reinvented if FAW chief executive Noel Mooney gets his way.
Cymru will likely be the name of national teams on the international stage after the World Cup. “I would say it’s the direction of travel, but there’s no firm decisions on it,” Mooney told PA Media. “It’s more almost by osmosis that we’re heading towards it.”
The Welshness the FAW embodies is confident, bilingual, and an eclectic mix of grassroots and celebrity: led by Y Wal Goch, Dafydd Iwan and Michael Sheen.
Few other strands of national life have the potential to appeal to a mass audience domestically and internationally, and by doing so invigorating audiences on a sporting, cultural and political level.
Yet as much as this osmosis may have engulfed FAW headquarters in the Vale of Glamorgan, Welshness will always ebb and flow.
Like many readers, I am finally finding time to navigate Richard King’s totemic oral history of late twentieth century Wales, Brittle with Relics. Which by the very diverse nature of its contributors and chapters, ranging from Tryweryn to the Miners’ strike, demonstrates that national identity is by no means one dimensional and filled with contradictions (e.g., rural vs urban, Cymraeg vs English, direct vs non-direct action.)
Adam Price’s observation in the book’s final chapter is most relevant to this column: “I think we’ve struggled with pan-Welshness, and it’s pan, it’s not a monolith. It’s not creating some false unity; Pan is a god that celebrates diversity. Pan-Welshness is about recognising a connection in each other, and also seeing a version of Wales which is a bit like you but three degrees slightly off, and that’s wonderful.”
That “pan-Welshness” is hard to detect before 1997, especially in political terms. The mountainous climb for self-governance seemed implausible after the humiliation of the 1979 referendum.
But devolution came twenty years later, though it took the same amount of time for it to properly register as a part of the national consciousness – alongside the frequently referenced strands of identity (Cymraeg, rugby, male voice choirs, etc.) during the Covid pandemic.
The effect of Wales becoming a structurally political nation has been to establish a Welshness based on assuredness that the language’s resurgence and sporting success complement.
Running your own affairs well, or at least being perceived of doing so compared to successive English Conservative governments, does away with old tropes that Wales is ‘too small, too poor’ to stand on its own feet: whether as a fully devolved country within a United Kingdom or as an independent nation.
Alongside Mooney’s “direction of travel” with the FAW, an added political dimension to identity has tied people to Wales when they would have previously looked elsewhere.
Data from the Wales Governance Centre last year found that people feel more strongly Welsh than they did in 2016, with Brexit seen as a key catalyst.
The percentage of people who defined themselves as Welsh in Wales had climbed from 24% to 30% in five years; those who see themselves as British and Welsh has fallen from 27% to 19% during the same period.
And a lot has changed even since that data became available in 2021. Intergovernmental relations reached their low point under Liz Truss, with the former Prime Minister’s policies leaving the economy in turmoil.
Mark Drakeford’s outburst at the Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies, went viral for its extraordinary emotion but also rekindled the ferocity of Welsh leaders perhaps not seen since one of the First Minister’s heroes Nye Bevan.
Kenneth O. Morgan once described Wales as an “intensely political nation”, and it has always been so.
More difficult has been what Price alluded to as a Welsh cause that unites the majority of the public; an idea, belief, or campaign that is resonant with all of us.
For much of the twentieth century, that wasn’t devolution. Today, that is not (yet) independence. It is somewhere in the middle: the right level of self-governance of Wales, yet not for the purpose of its self-preservation but international success.
Wales qualifying for the World Cup has been an equally significant moment, for the symbolic reasons it will bring: Dafydd Iwan singing Yma o Hyd in Qatar and the red dragon flying next to independent countries in the world.
Mooney described the qualification as an “Owain Glyndŵr moment” that captured the attention of the whole country.
For this column’s author, who recently celebrated a birthday of a quarter of a century, there has been no such “moment” during the devolved era.
King’s book could lay claim to documenting a few (Aberfan, Tryweryn, Miners’ Strike, 1997) but none – however traumatic or momentous – arguably created the “pan-Welshness” so lacking in a country steeped in history and battles of reckoning with its own culture and identity.
As a child of devolution, it is only in recent years that Wales feels ever more united: across language, politics, and sport.
Devolution is the settled will of voters across the political spectrum, while our national institutions – the FAW foremost among them – have captured the feeling of a nation to give us confidence that so often is better associated with our neighbours.
Amid the chaos in Westminster, it is starting to formulate an identity, slowly but surely, among the next generation of Cymry. An identity that increasingly looks to the possibilities of the future rather than the battles of the past for its inspiration.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.