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Returning native

Returning to Wales, David Marquand finds that devolution has created a political community interestingly open to new possibilities.

David Marquand
18 December 2015
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(Image: Geraint Rowland, Cardiff Bay (The Other Side) Sunrise Glow, CC BY-NC 2.0.)

 I was born in Cardiff 81 years ago and, though most of my life has been spent in England, my Welsh roots matter more and more to me the older I get. I begin with a brief look at them. Like me, my father Hilary Marquand was born in Cardiff, as was his father Alfred Marquand. His grand-father, my paternal great-grand-father, another Hilary Marquand, was born in 1825 in Guernsey. He worked briefly in a lawyer’s office after leaving school, but the call of the sea was irresistible. As a cabin boy of 14 he sailed to Havana and thence to Trieste; on the return voyage the ship was chased by pirates off the coast of North Africa, and the captain succumbed to a severe bout of insanity. Undeterred, Hilary stuck to his chosen career, rising to become a Master Mariner. In 1867 he retired from sea-faring and settled in Cardiff. He and a friend John Martin set up a shipping firm, Martin and Marquand, to take part in the burgeoning coal trade which was making Cardiff an El Dorado.

My great-grand-father Hilary died of smallpox, aged only 46, in 1872, but the firm continued to prosper. Though my grand-father Alfred was the least successful of great-grand-father Hilary’s sons, he shared the instinctive, anti-intellectual Toryism of his more successful brothers. My father Hilary broke dramatically with the family tradition. He used to sell the Daily Herald, then a rumbustious, far-left socialist paper, outside the dock gates, and joined the Labour Party in 1920, aged eighteen. He won a scholarship to Cardiff High School, and another to the University College of Cardiff in what was then the federal University of Wales. After graduating, he spent a year in America as a research fellow and then taught at Birmingham University. He was professor of industrial relations at Cardiff throughout the 1930s. He published a path-breaking study, South Wales Needs A Plan, which still resonates today. He was drafted into the civil service at the start of the Second World War. In 1945 he was elected Labour MP for Cardiff East, and held a variety of ministerial posts in the post-war Attlee government.

Far more important than any of this was his marriage to Rachel, née Rees. She was born in 1903, in what was then the mining village of Ystalyfera, in the upper Swansea Valley. She and my father met accidentally in the University Library in Cardiff; long after my father’s death my mother told me that the first thing that struck her when she saw him was: ‘he’s beautiful’.  Her family history could hardly have been more different from his. Her grand-father Ebenezer, my Rees great-grandfather, was born in western Monmouthshire, in 1848. He was illegitimate, and brought up by his mother’s relatives in the village of Cwmtwrch, a few miles from Ystalyfera. He went down the pit at the age of seven. As a young man he was black-listed as a trouble-maker and trade unionist. He emigrated to America with his wife Jane (who had taught him to read and write). Somewhere along the way, he learned printing; and when Jane’s mother died, they went back to Ystalyfera and started a small printing business. In 1898, Ebenezer founded the first socialist newspaper in Wales, Llais Llafur (‘Labour Voice’). It preached a blood-red socialism that would make Jeremy Corbyn look pale pink. It was both an emblem and a catalyst of a mood of insurgent popular defiance that swept through the South Wales coalfield in the early twentieth century.

As a child I wasn’t conscious of this heritage. My grand-father Alfred Marquand died during the First World War, long before I was born. Though his widow Mary survived him, I can’t remember her. But my mother’s parents, David James and Roberta Rees, played a major part in my young life.  During the War, their house in Ystalyfera was a haven of continuity for me and my siblings. Our family home in Llanishen may have been requisitioned; in any case we didn’t live in it between 1940 and 1944. For most of the time, my father’s job was in Cardiff; and we lived in a bewildering variety of places in the Vale of Glamorgan: a farm house called Maes Mawr; a disused railway office near Miskin; Radyr; and Porthcawl, then full of American soldiers training for the Normandy invasion. Then, in the autumn of 1944, we went back to Llanishen. I think of the year 1944 to 1945 as my first Cardiff incarnation. I travelled by train every day to school in Penarth (why Penarth I have no idea); I used to go swimming in Cardiff; and I have a hazy memory of going to an open-air play, in a warm summer evening, in the grounds of Cardiff Castle. I have a very clear memory of Sir Stafford Cripps speaking at a packed election meeting in the Cory Hall.

My second incarnation came nearly 20 years later. In late 1963 I was selected as Labour candidate for Barry. The actual election came ten months later. I lost, of course. The incumbent Conservative MP, Raymond Gower, was. an indefatigable, inexhaustible, even compulsive canvasser. No sooner were the votes counted in one election than he was tramping the streets and knocking on doors in preparation for the next. Letters, sometimes of condolence and sometimes of congratulation, poured from his office to constituents of all kinds. All this had made Barry a safe Conservative seat.

But despite failing to unseat Gower, I learned a lot about the constituency – and a fair amount about Cardiff which the constituency encircled, like the outer ring of a doughnut encircling the hole in the middle. Despite its magnificent civic centre, I have to confess that Cardiff did not capture my imagination. In the mid-1950s the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George, the great Lloyd George’s son but to all intents and purposes a Conservative, made Cardiff the capital of Wales. But, unlike Edinburgh, Cardiff did not feel like a capital city. It felt more like an English provincial city – less exciting than  Manchester, but more exciting than Leeds. As that implies, it wasn’t noticeably Welsh. I remember a member of the Barry constituency Labour Party telling me, ‘Wales for the Welsh and Glamorgan for us’. That may have been a joke, but I suspect that it expressed a fairly widespread attitude.

My third Cardiff incarnation still continues. It started at an IWA event around ten years ago. Geraint Talfan Davies, then IWA Chairman, invited me to speak about a book of mine which had interested him; he and John Osmond the Director took my wife and me out to lunch, I think in the Millennium Centre. We joined the IWA, and over the years came back to Cardiff for several IWA events. Since then we have settled in Penarth and luxuriate in the ever-changing seascape and the beautifully restored Victorian pier. 

The contrast between this incarnation and the second is extraordinary. Today no one could possibly doubt that Cardiff is indeed a capital city, and a remarkably vibrant one. Visually, the redeveloped Bay area is a splendid counterpoint to the Edwardian baroque of the civic centre. Richard Rogers’s elegant and welcoming Senedd building is not just beautiful; it breathes a spirit of participatory democracy, a world away from the oligarchic archaism and pompous flummery that pervade the atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster. Visiting the Houses of Parliament you feel that they belong to that remote and myth-encrusted entity, the Crown in Parliament. Visiting the Senedd you feel that it is the property of the Welsh people.

But there is more to twenty-first century Cardiff than the visual excitement of the redeveloped Bay. The Senedd is the child of the Government of Wales Act of 1997 that gave the Principality a limited form of what used to be called home rule and is now called devolution, and of the subsequent Welsh  referendum. In 1979, in the dying days of the ill-starred Callaghan Government, the Welsh electorate had voted by an overwhelming majority against devolution. In 1997 they voted by a tiny majority in favour. (Cardiff and Newport voted against.) But the minutiae of the result didn’t and don’t matter. What did and does matter is that for the first time since the days of Hywel Dda in the early-middle ages, and arguably since the eve of the barbarian invasions in the fifth century CE, distinct Welsh political institutions now reflect and shape a distinct Welsh political will.

As a result Cardiff is now the most exciting city in the United Kingdom, and one of the most exciting in Europe. A brief look at the contrast between the histories of Wales and Scotland helps to explain why. Scotland was an independent kingdom for centuries before the treaty and acts of union of 1707 that created the United Kingdom. It had its own legal system, its own Presbyterian Kirk, which professed different doctrines and had a different form of church government from the Church of England and four great universities as against England’s two. It also had its own Parliament, which went back to the fourteenth century. The acts of union of 1707 merged the Scottish and English Parliaments, but they guaranteed the continued existence of the other institutions that differentiated Scotland from England; and these kept the memory of independent Scottish statehood alive and acted as an enduring focus for a distinct Scottish identity.

None of this was true of Wales. What Wales had was the language. Its survival for centuries, not as a peasant patois, but as a language of high culture and learned disputation, testify to an extraordinary resilience among Welsh speakers. Yet it was a waning asset. By the early-twentieth century, Welsh speakers were a minority of the population of Wales, albeit a substantial minority. By the early-twenty-first the great majority of Welsh people didn’t speak it. (Of the three greatest Welshmen of the last century – David Lloyd George, Aneurin Bevan and Dylan Thomas – only Lloyd George was a Welsh speaker.) Against that background, Welsh devolution takes on a special significance, absent from its Scottish counterpart. To put it simply, it has given the people of Wales new strings to their bow. As readers of the Welsh Agenda know only too well, the devolution settlement was unsatisfactory in many ways. Despite subsequent improvements it still is. But with all its inadequacies, it has given the people of Wales, through their elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly and Government, a better chance of answering the primordial questions that face all political communities – Who are we? And who do we want to be? – than we have had for centuries.

At bottom these questions are philosophical, in a profound sense moral, not mechanical, economic or narrowly institutional. They have to do with ends, not means; with the intangibles of culture and sentiment, not the outward forms that clothe and all too often conceal them. In stable, settled political communities they are rarely discussed. They don’t need to be. But the reason why Cardiff  is such an exciting place is that the political community that is Wales is neither stable nor settled. Thanks to devolution it is unsettled. So the questions have to be debated, and the answers sought. I don’t pretend to know the answers. No single person could. But I am sure of one thing. Some time ago a civil servant in the devolved Welsh administration tried, in my hearing, to distil in a few words the crucial difference between the political culture of Wales and that of the United Kingdom as a whole. The overarching theme of United Kingdom governance, he said, can be summed up as ‘choice, customer, competition.’ The Welsh equivalent, he thought, is: ‘voice, citizen, collaboration’. Instead of endlessly looking over her shoulder at her English neighbour, the task for Wales is to make a reality of that magnificent trio.

This article was first published in The Welsh Agenda, the journal of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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