Swansea licks its wounds at Cardiff victory

March 20, 1998

FRIDAY March 13, 1998, is a date that will not readily be forgotten in the city of Swansea. On that day Ron Davies, the secretary of state for Wales, made one thing clear: the new National Assembly for Wales would definitely be located in Cardiff.

There was instant dismay in Swansea and not a little disbelief and confusion in the rest of Wales as Davies went on to reveal that there would be a further delay and a design competition before a new building would be constructed for the assembly on one of two possible sites on Cardiff's south side.

In a programme of events that seemed to have been hastily improvised, it emerged that the formal opening of the assembly in May 1999 would take place in the court of the university, a location nobody could readily identify but which later turned out to be a council chamber belonging to the University of Wales, Cardiff. Following that ceremony, a temporary home would have to be found for the year or so it would take to complete the new building.

In typical style, Cardiff West MP Rhodri Morgan reflected: "If this is a decision then I am a banana." There was a general sense of anticlimax. But in Swansea there was real anger and a deep sense of betrayal. When, in the last week of November, it had suddenly become known that the widely anticipated home of the assembly, Cardiff's venerable City Hall, was no longer affordable, the City of Swansea immediately offered its Guildhall as an alternative.

Ron Davies appeared greatly relieved by Swansea's prompt response, and for three months he and his officials praised the enthusiasm, presentation and all-Wales dimension of the Swansea bid, which, they stressed, they were taking very seriously. As decision time approached, the Welsh Office insisted that Swansea's Guildhall was as much in the running as several bids that were being rapidly put together in Cardiff by various combinations of public and private interests. There was widespread appreciation of the irony that in last year's referendum the citizens of Swansea, unlike those of Cardiff, had actually voted in favour of an assembly.

Since late November the ancient rivalry of these two Welsh cities, now only 45 minutes motorway time apart, has been given a new twist. For some time the mutual hatred of the respective soccer fans has been more bitter and bloody than in any comparable British "derby" twinning, while even the more respectable rugby contests have become grudge matches. But now local government officials, pop stars and even academics were at it too.

In cafeterias and senior common rooms, sides were taken and colleagues, whether they wanted to or not, were having to listen to either the case against excessive centralisation in Cardiff or that in favour of an economic regeneration in southwest Wales. Several leading pundits were seen slinking away from these heated debates, anxious not to lose friends and concerned about losing their media credibility, for in Wales there is now so much broadcasting that many academics have permanent taxi bookings for getting to the studios.

In one broadcast on the morning of March 13 Merfyn Jones, a Bangor professor, neatly summed up the dilemma for most non-Cardiffians as he juxtaposed the traditional Welsh antagonism to centralised power -the country had no capital before 1955, its National Eisteddfod has no permanent home and what was once a real national university was genuinely federal -with a feeling that Cardiff has the potential to become a capital city with a real European dimension, like dynamic Barcelona, which has long been Cardiff's model.

Welsh politicians often dither, but the constitutional position of Wales changes almost by the day. One Welsh MP asked: "Who in the 1970s would ever have believed that in the 1990s Wales would have its own Higher Education Funding Council?" Of course, the Government of Wales Bill confirms the independence of that funding council, but already there is growing pressure to bring higher education more fully under the assembly's control.

There is a distinctive education debate in Wales, and politicians and educationists are determined to tackle specific problems by developing lifelong learning, a new curriculum including a Welsh baccalaureate, and further education in such ways as to prepare Wales for the new century. Inevitably Welsh universities will be drawn into this revolution.

One thing is clear: early retirement strategies at all educational levels have come just in time for the assembly elections. The new body will have its full quota of graduates and professors. The challenge facing them will be to rediscover real vision after the parochial farce of 1998.

Peter Stead was formerly lecturer in history, University of Wales, Swansea.

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