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Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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2 Welsh identity

Politics and questions of national identity are closely linked. The 2011 census collected data on national identity for the first time, and Welsh was given as an option. This opened up a rich source of data. 66% of the 3.1m people living in Wales at the time described themselves as Welsh. Of these, around 20% described themselves as British and Welsh. Just under 17% described themselves as British.

As Professor Awan-Scully mentioned in the interview in Section 1, there is a link between identity and voting intention, with individuals who identify as only or mostly Welsh tending to back Plaid Cymru, and those who view themselves as mostly British supporting the Welsh Conservatives.

Welsh Labour have been successful in balancing the two by taking a position which appeals to those with compatible Welsh and British identities. Indeed, Labour First Minister from 2000 to 2009 Rhodri Morgan described this approach as ‘clear, red water’ – taking a Welsh approach as part of the United Kingdom.

Professor Awan-Scully also noted that high levels of immigration into Wales, especially from England, has had an impact on Welsh identity. He observes that some actively embrace Welsh language and culture while many others remain somewhat separate from it, for example not engaging with political developments in Cardiff Bay.

It could be argued that the creation of Welsh political institutions should have increased a sense of ‘Welshness’. On this point, Professor Awan-Scully says there is no observable rise in levels of Welsh identity in tandem with devolution, however what has changed is ‘the implications for identity’ with an increasing desire for identity to be reflected in separate political institutions.

Further reading - Who Speaks for Wales?

In 2003, a collection of writings on the theme of Welsh identity by cultural theorist Raymond Williams was published posthumously. In the book, William considers what makes a nation and the role culture plays in defining it. He asked ‘who speaks for Wales?’ and argued that we should listen to a plurality of voices.

The theme of who speaks for Wales was taken up by actor and activist Michael Sheen, who delivered the 2017 Raymond Williams lecture which was supported by the Open University.

Detailing his experiences of being ‘othered’ due to his Welshness, Sheen reflects on England's historical exertion of power over Wales, covering the disconnect between Welsh people and political institutions outside of Wales. The actor urges politicans to ‘learn how to listen’ and to embed politics in the lives of Welsh people, highlighting systemic flaws with the financial and political relationships between England and Wales.

Another theme woven into Sheen's discourse is the lack of Welsh media, noting the decline of local media in his hometown of Port Talbot over the last few decades. This ‘news void’, as Sheen puts it, is further contributing to the disengagement and disillusionment of communities across Wales, and this culminates in a disinterest in the politics happening on our doorstep as the Welsh people consume more and more news produced in London for those living in England.

Sheen criticises the inaction of Welsh Labour and the British-centric approach of the Tories, as well as Plaid Cymru's failure to strike a balance between often-ineffective civic nationalism and overly-hearty cultural nationalism. The theme of national identity is strong throughout Sheen's lecture as he condemns the dangers of this cultural nationalism, especially in a British context. Repeating Raymond Williams' question again, ‘who speaks for Wales?’, Sheen urges Welsh voices to come together to ‘create a Wales that is our own world’.

You can find a link to the full lecture in the Further Reading section.