The Referendum vote on 23 June was not a calamitous vote to self-harm as characterised by the Welsh political class, but a vote which may yet unleash the Welsh dragon’s roar.
By Tomos Davies, Associate Partner and former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales.
This St David’s Day, Welsh men and women throughout Wales and across the world will be celebrating our unique culture and identity.
And the Welsh are entitled to feel self-satisfied on St David’s Day, don’t you think? After all, unlike England’s national saint who was Greek, or Scotland’s, who was a Galilean fisherman, or Ireland’s adopted Welshman, St David is the only home-grown patron saint. And as we toast his memory today, it is opportune that we should reflect on all that it means to be Welsh.
The Welsh historian, Professor Dai Smith, in his magnum opus “Wales! Wales?” (1985) defined Wales as a “singular noun but a plural experience”. Welsh identity is a complex and nuanced concept. Of course, we are fiercely proud of our beautiful native language, one of the oldest living languages in Europe; our celebrated literary and bardic tradition; our breath-taking castles and coastlines; and of course, our sporting idols (though for rugby, now read football!).
However, there is far more to this “plural” experience than romantic – some might say out-dated – notions of nationhood. Today, we rightly reflect on the economic dynamism and ambition of a proud, confident and outward looking nation.
There is a renewed confidence and vigour to the Welsh nation and much to celebrate and be proud of. After chronic levels of unemployment, more Welsh people are in work than at any other point in our history. The Welsh capital, one of Europe’s youngest capital cities, is quickly achieving a reputation for being one of the best places in the world to live, visit, study and do business.
As I experience a sense of hiraeth (longing) this St David’s Day, even this fiercely proud Welsh exile recognises that celebrating all that is good about Wales does not blind us to the serious challenges facing our nation.
There remain significant and stubborn economic challenges, not least the productivity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK, which is larger than any other region or constituent nation of the UK.
There is also the very real danger of Wales’ economic potential being paralysed by perennial debates about the constitution, the over-reliance of the Welsh economy on a bloated public sector, the desperate need for reform of our public services, lest we forget the challenges of adjusting to the post-Brexit landscape.
Following the referendum result of June last year, in which Wales voted for Brexit against all odds, some commentators concluded that the Welsh had clearly given up on themselves. Whilst the Scots and the Northern Irish reasserted their political and cultural distinctiveness against the Brexit tide, the Welsh, seemingly content to be labelled the poorer relation of the ‘Celtic fringe’, embraced with zeal the ‘Little Englander’ mantle. Similar hyperbole famously engulfed Welsh nationalists following the defeat of the 1979 devolution referendum.
An alternative reading of the referendum result in Wales might begin with a recognition that Wales has always been an ambitious, confident and outward looking nation. The vote on 23 June was not, as so patronisingly characterised by the Welsh political class, a calamitous vote to self-harm, but a vote to unleash the Welsh dragon’s roar.
Whilst leaving the European Union will require some adjustment, there are already signs that Welsh businesses and manufacturers are capitalising from exciting new international markets. Today, Welsh exports total £12bn a year, of which more than half are exported to non-EU countries. Meanwhile, Wales is already enjoying its best inward investment figures for almost a quarter of a century, proving once again that the Welsh economy remains an attractive destination for international investors.
Over a century ago, Welsh coal and manpower spearheaded the second Industrial Revolution and provided the foundations for a global trading empire. Now, as then, Wales is poised and ready to re-emerge as a successful global trading nation.