Who would live in Wales?

October 22, 2021 4 Comments
Vaughan Gething

This week the Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (RhLC from now on) wrote an article sparked by the campaign by Vaughan Gething, the minister for the Welsh economy, to persuade young people born or raised in Wales not to emigrate.

An important part of her, she says, is Welsh – she grew up in north Wales – even though she’s lived in London, the place of her birth, for many years.  And indeed, she’s one of the very few London-based journalists who, in her newspaper work, betrays any curiosity about Wales, or affinity with it.  But her self-identity is far from simple: ‘if you pressed me, I suppose I would say that I’m ‘London Welsh’, part of the diaspora that has made the English capital our home.’

She lists familiar reasons why young people leave Wales – to better themselves and their careers in England or further afield (a common phenomenon since at least the Tudor period), and to find an area where they can afford a home (though surely that applies mainly to locations favoured by second home buyers?) – and she adds some of her own: finding a bigger pool from which to select a partner, and Welsh weather.

Aberdaron, September 2021

Then she adds more still.  By now, though, the reasons are becoming a bit more dubious. She recalls instances of difficult conversations about race in Wales.  But racial prejudice can be met with anywhere in Britain, even in north London.  She seems to think that to encounter multiculturalism you need to cross Offa’s Dyke. But Wales is surely no monoculture or ‘white enclave’ these days, if it ever was.

Then we get to a reason that does ring true and personal: the urge to escape the place of your upbringing, to listen to the inner voice that says ‘where it’s happening’ is always somewhere else, somewhere distant; the conviction, on returning to your ex-home, that it’s ‘small town and small-minded’.  This may be a universal instinct (though why does it seldom apply to Londoners, I wonder?)  RhLC says she’s now old enough now to understand what Welsh people she loved chose to stay, though she’ll never be one of them: ‘I’m unlikely ever to return’.  A piece of Wales, she finishes, is always inside her – but she can never bring herself to give it enough room.

RhLC’s piece is engaging and personal. But it’s also frivolous.  Because she can’t bring herself to see things from a Wales perspective, or to concede that Vaughan Gething has a strong point.

Gold mine entrance, Dolaucothi

The economy of Wales has always been extractive and exploitative, ever since the factories of Graig Lwyd exported axes in the stone age and the Romans mined gold at Dolaucothi.  For centuries coal came out of Welsh pits, and the profits went mainly elsewhere.  Today the mining is mostly of people’s skills and talents, but again the benefits are often felt outside the country.  It’s perfectly proper to ask the question, what can be done to prevent the permanent loss of so many talented people to Wales?

I say ‘permanent’, because leaving home to extend horizons, in search of education and training, initial employment or to find ‘where it’s happening’, is, as RhLC says, natural and healthy.  But if there are factors that discourage Welsh people from returning, or, worse, drive them away from Wales for good, does a government not have a duty to alleviate them?

This may mean taking action against clear injustices, like outsiders buying second homes in Llŷn and Pembrokeshire for their occasional summer use, so driving up prices and reducing housing stock for local people.  The recent decision to close the primary school at Abersoch is a sad and perfect symbol of social, linguistic and economic decay.  Another example is removing the barriers to the new, remote models of employment that have blossomed since the start of Covid.  Online working should make it much easier to base yourself in Wales, even if your employer is in London or Amsterdam.  But large parts of Wales still suffer from intolerably low internet speeds.  A third Welsh government concern should be the Londonification of Wales – the way Cardiff pulls in young people and talent at the expense of other parts of Wales, just as London acts as a magnet on a larger scale.

Ysgol Abersoch

Other actions are needed to amplify the powerful reasons why anyone should seriously wish to live in Wales.  For those who care about Welsh and its flourishing as a community language, whether or not they speak Welsh themselves, the benefits of living, working and raising a family in Wales should be obvious.  The journalist and novelist Ifan Morgan Jones recently tweeted,

Promoting Welsh language/culture has an important role in stopping the brain drain IMO.  If Wales didn’t have its own distinctive language/culture that I wanted to be a part of and wanted to raise a family that was part of I don’t think anything would have attracted me back.

Another good reason for choosing to live in Wales as opposed to England, for anyone with a social conscience, can be summed up in two words: Boris Johnson.  Is RhLC really content to live under the direct rule of the nastiest, most corrupt and least competent UK governments in living memory – and with little hope of a change of regime?  Would she not rather not live in a place with a government that, for all its limitations, follows a progressive agenda, seems genuinely to care about the interests of its people, and has not lost the skills and arts of governing?

Then there’s the environment.  Wales is, or should be, an ideal place to plan and practice the green economy of the future, and promote efforts to reverse biodiversity loss.  Though its economic levers at its disposal are few and weak compared with those of the UK government, the Welsh Government is beginning to take seriously its self-imposed duties under the Well-being of Future Generations Act (a statute still unique in Europe).   

Of course, Wales’s environment is an important reason why many people there enjoy a high quality of life, even if average incomes and wealth may be lower than elsewhere.  Even the wet weather RhLC regrets might work in its favour in future, once the artesian wells of the Thames valley dry up and the Thames Barrier is overwhelmed by the floods that we’re told are on the way in the decades to come.

So, beth amdani, Rhiannon?  How about a companion article explaining to Guardian readers the attractions of Wales to people from Wales, and to those from outside who might want to make a bigger contribution to the country than spending the occasional tourist pound or paying the builder for a cottage extension?

Comments (4)

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  1. Diolch am sylwadau tra goleuedig. Thanks for the enlightening comments.
    There is another dimension to the linguistic scene in Wales: whereas rural communities can (wrongly) be regarded as confining, the retaining power of belonging to Wales has for a generation or more been felt in urban communities. Abersoch on our north coast may sadly lose its school for pre-8 year old pupils (of whom there are around 12 at present), while in Swansea a new building near the Clase council estate in nearing completion, which will increase capacity for Welsh medium education in the Morriston area from 150 to 450.
    Vaughan Gething then needs to persuade his own government to disband the present ‘Seren’ scheme which aims to attract talented pupils from Wales to the Russell group of universities – all but one in England – and to set up a scheme which encourages these pupils to attend Wales’ universities, particularly to courses taught in Welsh. Confidence in our own education system is clearly lacking, and maybe our migration problems will partly by solved by a renewed national awareness and confidence.

  2. David Jones says:

    At the age of 18 I could not wait to leave Anglesey and Wales, where I had spent all of my childhood, to become a student in England. I wasn’t, and still am not, a proper Welshman as I can’t speak Welsh. My father was as staunch a Welshman as you could find, but my mother was English, very English from Kent. They met in the army during the war.
    Two years spent working in Aberystwyth did not go well and I retreated back to England. My sister also left Wales though has returned to live there in Llyn. She’s now remarried to Olda a potter from the Czech Republic; a Bohemian from Bohemia. http://sarnpottery.co.uk/. What with all the English Airbnb visitors, he’s done very well in the last two years.
    As we get older perhaps we tend increasingly to revisit our childhood.
    Britain has become a very heterogeneous country. Of all the world’s accents and patterns of speech, the North Wales accent remains my favourite.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, David. Not sure I’d agree that you’re ‘not a proper Welshman’ because you don’t speak Welsh!

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