This week Guto Bebb, self proclaimed proud Welshman and a Conservative MP, bemoaned the fact that when he visits Edinburgh or Dublin, he comes away feeling despondent at the fact that they feel like they are in different countries. Leaving aside his A-star rating for stating the bloody obvious, what precisely was he moaning about? Is he despondent because Welsh cities don’t feel ‘Welsh’ or does his despondency arise from the fact that Edinburgh doesn’t feel ‘British’ or, more precisely, like ‘English’ cities? It can be interpreted either way, I suppose, but his unionist passions betray him and I suspect that what he really means is damn you, Edinburgh….damn you for feeling like a city in an INDEPENDENT COUNTRY.
I understand what he’s saying though and having myself visited, I too came away with a similar feeling. The sense of ‘Scotland’ is palpable and so too the Irish. However, until he had his little moment of consternation, I had never really framed this from a Welsh perspective. To be honest, his comment disturbed me, not because of the pithiness of his expression but rather because this accuracy of observation poses problems for those of us who yearn for an independent Wales. Speaking specifically of Scotland as a part of the UK, they have built a brand – it’s strong, it’s passionate and it’s proud. This must be what Guto Bebb recognises and what, conversely, he happily doesn’t observe in Wales.
Nicola Sturgeon often repeats her ‘if you feel Scottish, you are Scottish’ invitation and of course, apart from issuing it from an economic standpoint, she also offers it from the assured position of a person who believes that ‘Scottishness’ is so ingrained in their communities and collective psyches, nothing can shake it. She has taken an already established brand, grown it, given it pride and made it distinct. But what of us in Wales? Where once we led the charge, I now feel like we optimistically follow Scotland in political soundbites but without acknowledging that perhaps the confidence of Welsh self assurance which should accompany it doesn’t really exist as it ought. And without that same confidence in ourselves, in Wales and without a determination to build our own brand, where might we end up? I’m really not sure that we are the point where we can copy Scotland with the same confidence. Being realistic, Brexit probably told us a lot of things which it might be uncomfortable for us to acknowledge, not least of which being the fact that for many in Wales, being Welsh may come second to being British. Or if not that, that we are not as engaged as we could be, should be and are perhaps a little bit too complacent for our own good.
What is Welsh anyway? How are we viewed? What if people travel across the border and notice no discernible difference between us and England, and what if they then think ‘well they feel like we do so let’s move there’. What if, as Guto Bebb observed, we are so like England, those who come here think we are the same place in all but name?
Before people misunderstand me and become defensive, I’m not suggesting we build a wall or block Offa’s Dyke; I’m asking what positive things WE can do to make Wales as disappointing to Guto Bebb as Scotland is. I worry about the dilution of Welshness within the bigger frame and I’m asking what WE can do to promote ourselves.
On a US visit, I met many third generation Americans who proudly told me that they were Scottish or Irish and who, when I told them that I was Welsh, looked at me quizically and asked ‘is that in England?’ Are we that bland?
This is a short post and it’s little more than a question, really – how do we build our brand so that when people come here, we are as distinct as Guto Bebb confirms that we are currently not? What do we do to build a Welsh USP so that it can oppose those who may regard Wales as little more than an English add on? We have our language, our customs and our traditions but if the air doesn’t feel different, those things can be easily avoided. How do we change the air?
I really think we need to look at this question before we get carried away with fantasies of independence. Wales has to be distinct within the UK, just as Scotland is. Of course I and plenty of others already recognise our special place and how precious our country is, but others don’t and in their defence, for many it won’t even have occurred to them. Some, inevitably, won’t care either way and some will come here specifically because it feels just like their own little home from home.
Our future hangs in the balance right now and it’s all too possible that Wangland may become our reality. We need to ask those people who we invite here with promises of ‘if you feel Welsh, you are Welsh’ what ‘feeling Welsh’ actually mean to them. We need to ask these questions of ourselves. What does ‘feeling Welsh’ mean to Welsh people? I feel like we need to talk about this – we need to make Wales feel different, special, unique if we are serious about independence. If, as it is evidently currently viewed, it’s just like England, the alternative may be so abstract as to be viewed as nothing more than a folly.