By Emma Buchman
Last week, our program took us on a political study trip to Cardiff, the capital of Wales. It was an experience that was enlightening not only with the experience of a new culture and an interesting city, but also in Wales’ history, given its economically unstable past and present.
While Cardiff is a rather quiet city, it is also a beautiful one with a lot of opportunities for exploration. Cardiff Castle was said to be the must-see location of the trip, though I must woefully admit that I went to The Doctor Who Experience instead. As our tour guide mentioned, you can’t spit without stepping in a place where the TV series “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who” were filmed, most notably at Cardiff University and the National Museum. BBC Drama is now based out of Cardiff and sits right next to the home of the National Assembly of Wales or the Senedd. As a side notes, cawl, a traditional Welsh stew, was recommended as the dish to try. Might I say, if you hadn’t had cawl, you haven’t really lived.
There was one aspect of the trip, however, that caught my attention. On our first tour of the city, our guide described Wales’ rich history of economic success. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wales was an extremely powerful exporter, particularly for its high quality coal. In fact, Cardiff was where the first deal worth one million pounds took place. Then, throughout the 20th century, Wales’ economy declined, especially during the period between World War I and World War II. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that Wales suffered economically as a result of the devolution of the British government in the 1990s. Now, Wales is reliant on Britain to remain economically sound.
This deterioration of the Welsh economy seems to resonate with its people even today as they confront a United Kingdom that isn’t so united anymore. The sense of identity in Wales still appears to be strong and is in fact making a resurgence as more parents send their children to Welsh-speaking schools. Speaking the Welsh language seems to be an integral part of the Welsh identity. Everything from traffic signs to brochures has a Welsh translation right below the English one, and it is spoken frequently in the official meetings of the Senedd.
However, there still seems to be a longing for the prosperity of the past, and Wales still fights to be independent of the UK (though, admittedly, not as independent as Scotland wants to be.) In an article for the BBC, Selma Chalabi asked residents of the Welsh town of Senghenydd what words “encapsulated Welshness” for them. She said, “passion, warmth, open-heartedness, welcoming were repeatedly used. On the flip side, words such as hemmed-in, self-doubt, insecurity, and cynical” surfaced. Wales is trying to retain an identity that is separate from the English to make its place in the international community.
Cardiff was a wonderful city that I definitely plan on visiting again and when I don’t have six talks to attend with a cold. It has so much to offer, and the idea of studying the modern Welsh identity, even informally, is rather appealing. As my GRW professor used to say, this would be a great thesis for a paper.