Devolving Poetry: Questions, Directions

This is a brief edited extract from a research paper that Matthew Jarvis gave to the Department of English & Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University on 24 October 2012. The passage presented here is part of his discussion about the decision to start the timeframe of the Devolved Voices project from 1997 (the year of Wales’s devolution ‘yes’ vote) rather than 1999 (‘the date of the actual creation of the National Assembly for Wales, following the first Assembly elections on May 6th of that latter year’, as he put it earlier in his presentation).


Whilst it is demonstrably false to look at 1999 as constituting some sort of clear-cut starting-point for devolved existence, it is nonetheless the case that the 1997 vote to create the National Assembly for Wales ushered in something very new indeed. Writing in the volume The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence, the historian Keith Robbins suggests that, in the period 1536–43, Wales was essentially incorporated into the English state ‘before Wales had achieved what we might call the scaffolding of statehood’.[1] As such, the striking opening contention of Robbins’s essay is, quite simply, that ‘The assembly […] which has now been set up in Cardiff cannot be meaningfully said to have had a predecessor’.[2] Effectively – and pertinently by comparison with Scotland, for example – Robbins is suggesting that the practical machinery of statehood is historically absent from Wales.
The constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor makes a similar point when he writes, in his landmark 1999 volume Devolution in the United Kingdom, that – historically speaking – ‘Wales, unlike Scotland, did not enjoy those independent institutions which not only ensured separate treatment, but, more crucially, preserved the memory of independent statehood’.[3] And he goes on to contend the following:

Welsh nationalism, lacking an institutional focus, had to build on less concrete factors – language, religion, and culture. It was left to writers, poets, and preachers to create ‘the cultural form, the tracery of a nation where no state had existed’.[4]

Now I must be clear about what I’m getting at here: Bogdanor’s analysis at this point isn’t claiming that no Welsh nation has existed, but rather that no Welsh state has existed – and, in this respect, he is building on the distinction between what he describes as ‘a nation which had succeeded in retaining the institutions of statehood and one which had not’. In Marxist terms, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, this is the distinction between what are termed ‘historic’ as opposed to ‘non-historic’ nations.[5] Wales, for Bognador, then, belongs to the latter category, along with (to cite his two parallel examples) ‘the Corsicans and the Bretons’.[6]
For the ‘Devolved Voices’ project, then, 1997 is the starting-point because – and exactly because –that is the point at which Wales commits itself to having precisely such ‘institutions of statehood’, at least to the extent that they were embodied in the initial Assembly. The ‘yes’ vote itself is a fundamental declaration of intent, which seemingly makes a profound impact on the sensibility of the nation. As Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully indicate in their fascinating study of the 2011 referendum, opposition to an elected body in Wales dropped sharply from 37% to 24% between 1997 and 1999 – only going down a further 7 points in the subsequent decade. In parallel, support for a parliament shot up 10 points in those same two years.[7] A striking change in sensibility, in other words, appears to have taken place in the post-vote, pre-Assembly period of 1997–99. Given such observations, there’s no way – for our purposes as a project – that we could start from 1999, rather than 1997, in terms of thinking about poets who emerge within the devolutionary flux of the late 1990s.
And to step away from statistics for a moment, we need only turn to Poetry Wales to get a sense of the 1997 vote being claimed as a sort of game-changer, and potentially a literary game-changer at that. Robert Minhinnick took over the editorship of Poetry Wales in 1997. His first editorial – written in the immediate aftermath of the ‘yes’ vote – was appropriately entitled ‘A Country That Said Yes’.[8] Whilst acknowledging that ‘The daily grind goes on’ and observing that ‘the measure of political power we have awarded ourselves would seem small beer to inhabitants of New Brunswick or Schleswig Holstein’, Minhinnick nonetheless turns his argument in another direction:

Yet very carefully, and with considerable reluctance, Wales is remaking itself. What changes this morning, imperceptibly but permanently, is a sense of a people’s esteem for itself. With that must come tolerance – indeed, celebration – of the differences of others. Writers here should savour such things. And then be wary.

Why ‘wary’? Well, Minhinnick goes on to urge that, whatever the result of the referendum had been, there would be no future in what he calls ‘the dour, regional introspection that underlies much art in this country’. Rather, on the back of what he sees as the new potential for post-vote self-esteem, he urges Wales’s writers to ‘look at the wider world, read about it, and visit it. […] Then come back and for all our sakes share what has been discovered’. In short, for Minhinnick, the new post-vote confidence should free our creative powers from naval-gazing and turn us outwards to the world.

[1] Keith Robbins, ‘Cultural Independence and Political Devolution in Wales’, in H. T. Dickinson and Michael Lynch, eds, The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2000), pp. 81–90: p. 82.
[2] Ibid., p. 81; emphasis added.
[3] Vernon Bogdanor, Devolution in the United Kingdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 144. Bogdanor’s quotation here is from key New Left thinker Tom Nairn, who was writing in Planet in 1976.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, Wales Says Yes: Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 68.
[8] Robert Minhinnick, ‘A Country That Said Yes’, Poetry Wales, 33/2 (October 1997), p. 2.