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5 March 2016

The wild mountains of Wales, Carwyn on Corbyn and why Plaid Cymru isn’t the SNP

We love our politics on Radio 2, so we’re a little shocked when the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, tells us that “devolution has been boring”.

By Phil Jones

My father always used to pretend he was Welsh. It was easy with a name like Jones. No one suspected his duplicity. He hated the English because they were an imperialist nation, and fed us with stories of how Welsh schoolchildren would be beaten for speaking their native tongue in the playground. Yet he didn’t speak Welsh, and so, ironically, he was denied a teaching job in his beloved Wales.

I also love Wales, the wildness of its mountains: the Arans, Arenigs and my personal favourite, the Rhinogs – romantic names that conjure up pictures of dark, rocky escarpments, miles of purple-topped ridges and lying in the arms of my wife in grassy hollows. I used to leave London at six on Saturday morning and arrive at the edge of the Rhinogs by ten, exclaiming as I pointed to the wilderness, “You could be in Canada!” We once found a frightened lamb twisted and bloodied in barbed wire, but when the farmer arrived we were told to keep out of his business.

I always thought that Welsh farmers were none too fond of us English, until one day, as I was hitchhiking back along a narrow country lane, a lovely young farmer stopped to give me a lift. We don’t do dedications but I made an exception and soon after that we played his favourite song on Radio 2.


Plaid shirty

Cardiff is a city that has blossomed over the past few decades. As I write, Radio 2 is here on St David’s Day to celebrate the tenth ­anniversary of the Welsh Assembly. Jeremy Vine is made for live outside broadcasts. He thrives on the excitement.

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A charming man, Gareth, shows us around the beautiful Senedd (the Welsh Assembly), designed by Richard Rogers. It came at a fraction of the cost of Holyrood, and is dominated by a steel roof, a Welsh timber ceiling and a thousand tonnes of Welsh slate. Lord Rogers seems quite moved to be back in the building he helped to create. He tells Jeremy it is a joyous place and that it was “designed to put people at the centre of the world”. That’s quite a ­vision, and could almost define democracy. He walks off to take a photo of a grandfather and grandson sitting down to tea.

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We love our politics on Radio 2, so we’re a little shocked when the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, tells us that “devolution has been boring”. Jeremy interviews the two key players, Wood and Carwyn Jones, the First Minister. Politics in Wales has changed far less than in Scotland or Westminster, with Labour’s 17 years in power providing continuity. I am briefed by a smart young commentator. He thinks Labour will hang on in the May elections; this is helped by the unshaking refusal by the two opposition parties, the Conservatives and Plaid, to contemplate a coalition.

When the First Minister is asked if he would like Jeremy Corbyn to come and campaign in the Welsh marginals, his lukewarm response barely hides his contempt for the Labour leader.


Brussels sprouted

David Cameron was here last week, campaigning with all the passion of a born-again Europhile. Wales is a net beneficiary of Brussels money and the Prime Minister argued that he couldn’t guarantee equivalent levels of investment if Britain votes to leave the EU. Unlike in Scotland, Ukip does reasonably well here. A poll last month even suggested there’s a majority in Wales in favour of leaving. Never mind Scotland voting to stay as England votes to leave; what if everyone votes to remain except Wales?


Rugby rows

I remember on a previous visit to Cardiff the magic of watching salmon leap on the Taff while my wife danced the Argentinian tango at the magnificent Portland House. Framed by the bay are the Victorian terraces of Penarth, up on the hill. The city centre is dominated by the Millennium Stadium (recently renamed the Principality Stadium), home of Welsh rugby. The England v Wales game on 12 March looks like it will decide the Six Nations this year. I make a small concession to my much-missed father by rooting for Wales at rugby. But in football, come the Euros, I’m afraid I’ll be cheering on the English – and 16 June is already in my diary.


Sprung a leek

Our programme thrives on controversy, so we asked, “What has devolution ever done for me?” and “Is Welsh steel worth fighting for?” and we said, “It’s time to decide whether the national symbol should be the daffodil or the leek.” Leanne Wood did her best to explain for the umpteenth time why she and her party aren’t as popular as Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. I guess it’s partly down to cultural differences – not least so many people in South Wales not being Welsh-speakers. Maybe southerners feel differently about their country from those in the west and north who are fluent in the language. Could Wales ever be independent? There are several countries in Europe a good deal smaller. But I suspect most of them, however passionately they might cheer on their own national team, will always want to be wedded to the UK.

Phil Jones is the editor of the “Jeremy Vine” show, which broadcast live from the National Assembly for Wales on 1 March

This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis