For those who grew up in Aberystwyth and the surrounding area, the National Library is a building and institution that is integral to the landscape and the memory it shaped. As a school child this is a place you visited in awe and hushed silence, to take a look at William Morgan’s Bible, the embodiment of the miracle that was the survival of the language that still flowed from your tongue. As a teenager, it was a dignified building that was part of the backdrop of your daily life, standing over the town and a place that students visited – part of a life that was not yet within your reach, but suggestive of its possibilities. In adulthood it became a monument of culture, full of treasures, and a source of pride as a resident and Welsh person.
One summer, in my early twenties I was fortunate enough to work for a short time as a personal assistant to the Librarian. It was a privilege and pleasure to get a glimpse of the institution from within, and to discover some of its mysteries, gaining an appreciation and understanding of the specialisms, culture and civilisation that lived under its roof. An understanding, I suspect, that is beyond a large number of the politicians and administrators who have its future in their hands. In retrospect, one cloud that was rapidly forming above the bold Librarian at the time was the very real fear that the required resources would no longer be invested (and this was long before the threat of austerity).
If the writing was starting to appear on the walls of the library at that time, by the end of the Librarian’s period, and the time of Carwyn Jones’s promotion as First Minister, the scrawls were everywhere to be seen; today we see the culmination of this deliberate disinvestment in our heritage. This is cultural vandalism that takes us back to the days of Thatcher.
Thinking about Thatcher always leads me to reflect on another part of the world I am familiar with, my mother’s neck of the woods, Blaenau Gwent. It was one of those valleys so ruthlessly and utterly devastated by her turbo-charged, revolutionary capitalism. Efforts continue to replace some of the economic infrastructure of the past, but the means have been revealing, in more ways than one.
Alleged salvation was to come through a series of pipe dreams, the latest being a factory for the British luxury car-maker TVR, first mentioned back in 2016. This follows Welsh Labour’s long-standing pattern in trying to revitalize the Welsh economy: attracting inward investment on the basis of relatively cheap labour and the odd, not insignificant favour. And this is a pattern that is a significant aspect of Thatcher’s neoliberal legacy, where there has been an emphasis on targeting companies and jobs that will want to leave (if they ever arrive) at the earliest opportunity, when a more favourable deal comes along.
But what does this tale have to do with the National Library? Well, as Welsh communities our stories are interwoven, our fate tied together, in the hands of Thatcher’s children residing in the Senedd. Whilst the Library faces a bleak future due to an annual deficit of an estimated one and a half million a year, the profligate Welsh Government has spent £13.25 million on the TVR project, just to set up the factory for the company – while it remains £25 million short of the money needed even to start production.
The fact that the equivalent of 8 years of proper, additional funding for the library has been put into another ‘investment’ of the sort whose failures are tried and tested, speaks volumes for Welsh Labour’s approach and priorities. Indeed, these stories are rich in symbolism and a damning indictment of the state of Wales.
Long-suffering communities are being asked to expect salvation through ongoing attempts at ineffective bribes to multinationals, while the government pleads austerity for our home-grown national treasures. In this case, faith in the former glory of a British brand, accompanied by a seeming lack of faith in our people and our foundational economies, hand in hand with indifference towards the home of our nation’s memory – all this from a party that claims to be standing up for Wales.
Has there ever been such a grim joke? Unlikely. Except, perhaps, for the fact that it is all being administered by an ex-Cardi, communist and nationalist, who knows as well anyone the ineffable value of that which will be lost.