Put your money on Dragon Dull . . . but how much better if Dragon Dreamer could win, creating a small republic scoured of Anglo-American greed

Wales: A Question for History

Dai Smith <em>Seren, 216pp, £12.95</em>

ISBN 1854111256

The W

In Wales today we look into a deep, dark pool named Hiatus, and down there we see, as the old fabulists might have said, three dragons contesting for the nation's soul. Dumb, Dull and Dreamer, they are called. We have been having ecstatic times lately. Our rugby players have been triumphant. Our actors and actresses have filled the gossip columns. Our rock groups have stormed the charts. Even the London TV presenters have learnt to pronounce "Cymru". Above all we have acquired a National Assembly. The arrival of the Assembly changed the whole feeling of Wales. Suddenly it seemed a livelier, more interesting country, and everything else, we thought, would instantly become livelier and more interesting, too. But after a month or two hiatus set in, and we began to realise it would be a long, long time before we discovered which way Wales would really go: and then, in the pool down there, as we waited, those dragons began to thresh the waters. These three books are products of the wait.

Dragon Dumb is the curse of Wales and has a multitude of followers. It is odd, in a country so anciently full of craft and subtlety, that brainless apathy is so rampant, but then Dumb is not really a Welsh chimera at all. He is an imported product of the Atlantic capitalist culture, which has mutated half the world into inanity. Hundreds of thousands of Welsh people did not bother to vote in the devolution referendum of 1997, or in this year's Assembly elections. They did not feel Welsh enough to vote one way or British enough to vote the other. They had been de-clawed, as it were, or neutered. Tabloidised and TV-ised, they found a lottery, a chat show or a sex scandal more exciting any day than the future of a nation. If Dumb wins in the pool of contest, this is the way Wales itself will go. It will no longer really be Wales at all, but merely another UK region. Corporate internationalism will be paramount. The Assembly will have little more influence or interest than a county council, and soon enough life in even the Welshest part of Wales (for the influence of Dumb is widespread) will be indistinguishable from life in Essex. The Welsh language will disappear, and there will be no such thing as that beloved patriotic abstraction, the Welsh way of life. Only a few wan symbols will remain - a flag, a national anthem, an Assembly in its forlorn headquarters on Cardiff Bay.

We were very nearly there a few years ago. I believe the creation of the Assembly saved Wales from terminal decline - if the devolution referendum had gone the other way, the staunchest of our patriots and the bravest of our radicals would have lost heart. As it is, at least we have a breathing space. The Assembly is only finding its feet, the Assembly building is not built yet, the Neil Jenkinses and Bryn Terfels and Catherine Zeta Joneses and Catatonias are keeping our spirits up: but if Dumb triumphs, we may still be saying goodbye to Cymru before the next half-century is gone.

Fortunately Dragon Dull is clever - the cleverest of the three. He has a large following in Wales, and they are sensible, realistic, diligent, decent and intelligent people. Welsh intellectual life has been transformed by the growth of this community. Gone are the old conventions of hwyl and hiraeth, the ornate and sentimental approach to the matter of Wales: a new sense of adult responsibility has replaced it.

So far in its brief life our National Assembly has been dominated by Dull. Its leader, wished upon it by the English Labour Party, is marvellously lacking in charisma, and its actions until now have been less than dazzling, too. The one boldly independent decision it could have made for Wales - ending the beef-on-the-bone restriction - it was too restrained to make. So far as I know, nothing very inspiring has been said from any part of the chamber. No memorable gestures have been made, except one hackneyed manoeuvre of parliamentary confrontation, a brief opposition walk-out. No striking opinions have been expressed. No thrilling proposals have been made. It has all been sensible, rational - and dull.

What can we expect of the institution if it goes on this way? Well, I would expect such a Welsh Assembly to make a genuinely useful contribution to social progress in Wales. It will earnestly debate medical care, social security reforms, educational methods, equal opportunities, race relations and all the important and necessary subjects that concern sensible, realistic, diligent, decent and intelligent citizens. Consensus politics will be its style, as all rational persons would wish. The Welsh language will be preserved, within reasonable economic parameters, but will be not be compulsory in schools: it will be replaced on the curriculum by extra classes in gender-related studies. It will be a new, modern Wales that such an Assembly will create, able to compete or co-operate with England on its own terms: with politics just as correct, with game shows just as vulgar and a national language (English) just as trendy in slang, idiom and glottal stop. With luck, in a generation or two the Assembly will mature into a parliament: perhaps one day Wales will become an equal member of a UK federation, under the familiar aegis of Westminster and the Crown. What more could the Welsh want? Would it not be a fair fulfilment for them? It would provide an organic conclusion to their long history, and if I were a betting person, propping my elbows on the wall around the Pool of Hiatus, I might well put my money on Dragon Dull.

But, dear God, what a bore! Do you hear that gurgling, bubbling noise? It is Dragon Dreamer yawning. He and his supporters want a new Wales, too, but they want a Wales that is entertaining, high-spirited, original and daring. For the opportunities eventually open to our Welsh Assembly are boundless, if it has the vision to seize them. Wales is just the right size for a happy state - not a rich one, but a happy one, if the values it encourages are modest and neighbourly, not mercenary and envious. The sovereign Wales that dreamers want could be a small republic scoured of the omnipotent greed that is now the driving attribute of Anglo-Americanism. It could be cleared of the hydra-headed bureaucracy that entangles all our lives today, and of the myriad interferences of the state, from the nannyish to the sinister. It could do away with such obscenities as profitable prisons and GM experiments. It could simplify all our lives. It could make us feel wanted, every one. And it could make being Welsh a pleasure.

The only honourable purpose of devolution, as I see it, is to make the people happier: and the truest happiness, I think, is communal happiness - not the packaged consolation you feel when you are all alone with Sky Movies, but the joyous pride you feel when you are celebrating with 50,000 others at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium. That is the kind of happiness, in my opinion, that a National Assembly should aim to infuse into every aspect of Welsh national activity: the sensation that when something is done well in our country, we have done it - we happy few, we Welsh!

The authors of these three books are not all Utopians, like me, yet it seems to me that all their works are a little infected by the dream. Dai Smith, for instance, is one of the most resolutely unromantic of Welsh Labour historians, allowing not a breath of hwyl nor a sigh of hiraeth to enter his thinking: yet in this revised edition of his 1984 tour de force, Wales! Wales?, even he talks about the Welsh imagination "making Wales anew". Patrick Hannan, one of the worldliest and most caustic of Welsh journalists, says in this decidedly unsoppy memoir that "it is difficult to overstate the way in which the Assembly is likely to change our ideas about our lives and the way they are run". And as for Jeff Fallow, who is also the artist-author of Scotland for Beginners, his comic-book scramble through Welsh history is cheerful wishfulness from beginning to end and actually has a foreword by Paul Flynn MP, announcing that our Welsh generation is witnessing "the fulfilment of the dreams of our forebears".

Fulfilment of the dreams? Flynn speaks too soon, I fear. We must wait and see, while the three dragons lash their tails and hiss in the hiatus: except that, this being a sort of post-coital hiatus, nobody is lashing or hissing much in Wales just now. We are all a little emptied by ecstasy - you know what I mean?