Eye on Wales: In search of 21st Century Welsh identity

As Wales steps in to a new era of making laws for itself, reporter Selma Chalabi goes in search of Welsh identity for the BBC Radio Wales programme, Eye on Wales.

As someone with English, Arabic and Scottish blood, but having lived in Wales for most of my adult life, I've always been fascinated by how people identify themselves.

When the opportunity arose to explore Welsh national identity for BBC Radio Wales, I was keen to test the waters.

In this new era of devolution, how Welsh do people feel themselves to be? And what, after all, does it mean to be Welsh?

In an attempt to avoid the obvious interviews, I decided to narrow the field down and focus in on one community - a narrow window, but nevertheless a view of Welshness.

The community I settled on is that of Senghenydd, a village that lies at the far end of the Aber Valley in Caerphilly county.

In the 2009 annual population survey, almost 80% of people living within the Caerphilly local authority boundary identified themselves as Welsh, compared to 44% of people in Flintshire, and 48% of people in Monmouthshire.

Yet, like many of the surrounding towns and villages of the valleys, Senghenydd was originally made up of people migrating to the region to work.

It is thus a community that is used to absorbing outsiders and uniting them under the dragon.

As I talked to people in the area, it became clear that language was seen as a key symbol of national identity. However, most people felt that speaking Welsh was not essential to being Welsh.

Yet, when I talked to a group of 19-20-year-olds, one of them stated that she felt less Welsh because she couldn't speak Welsh.

It's a view that emerged in research conducted by Cardiff University's psychology department between 2006 and 2008.

Prof Tony Manstead, who was part of the research team, said: "Among Welsh speakers, their attitude to the Welsh language and how important it is to speak Welsh depended on their perception of the relationship with England.

'Divide us'

"The more unfair they saw the relationship with England, the more important they thought it was to speak Welsh.

"If they thought the relationship was unfair, but improving, they were less keen to see the Welsh language as being the way to define yourself as Welsh.

"For the non-Welsh speakers, we found that at least some of them saw themselves as less Welsh precisely because they couldn't speak Welsh, and that was a bit of an eye-opener… they had this sense they were missing some vital aspect of what it means to be Welsh."

Former Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price believes the language issues "cuts both ways".

"It creates a deeper sense of national identity and gives us a tangible source of distinctiveness," said Mr Price. "On the other hand, in some people's eyes, it does divide us between two communities.

"It's as if being Welsh is some sort of sliding scale. That is a problem for us here in Wales, and one that we haven't fully worked through yet."

Putting aside language, the Welsh character was a strong contender for representing national identity.

I asked people to give me words that encapsulated Welshness, and passion, warmth, open-heartedness, welcoming were repeatedly used.

On the flip side, words such as hemmed-in, self-doubt, insecurity, and cynical surfaced.

It's an interesting combination that I don't think would ever appear on a list of words used to describe Englishness, except perhaps cynical.

Certainly, for a community such as Senghenydd, its industrial past remains a key part of its identity.

As it approaches the 100th anniversary of the mining disaster that took 440 lives of its working men and boys, that sense of national identity and pride is strong.

It's an identity that is intimately tied to the industrial era of Great Britain.

For some, that sense of Britishness is still there alongside the Welshness. But there's also a growing sense of being Welsh and European .

As new generations grow up without the industry to bind them, what will being Welsh mean to them in 20 years' time?

Eye On Wales is on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday, 17 July at 1300 BST.

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