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A Capital for Wales

 

 

On 20 December  1955, for the first time in its history, Wales had its own capital city.  "Cardiff's Moment of Emotion' and "Great Honour for Citizens' were the  headlines of the South Wales Echo the next day as it pronounced,  that after more than half a century of petitioning and lobbying, Cardiff  was recognised at last as the premier city of Wales.

      The  announcement was made in the House of Commons by the Minister for Welsh  Affairs, Gwilym Lloyd George who confirmed that the government was  prepared to accept the city as capital of the Principality. No formal  legislation would be necessary to implement this decision. It was a  rather low-key statement but Welsh MPs were generally jubilant. Jim  Griffiths of Llanelli had "no shadow of doubt that Cardiff is our  premier city' and Peter Thomas from Conwy forecast that the city "will  make a noble capital'. The members for Cardiff itself gave the news a  mixed reception. George Thomas, who was later to become Speaker of the  Commons and had often pressed Cardiff's claims for capital recognition,  was delighted. So was David Llewellyn, MP for Cardiff North but Jim  Callaghan, a future Prime Minister, was less enthusiastic. "Dockworkers  would be more excited', he argued, "if Mr. Lloyd George had announced  that two more ships a week would be sailing into Cardiff to discharge  their cargo'. Despite these comments at the time, Jim Callaghan's  affection for Cardiff is indisputable and this pride was reflected  when, in the fullness of time, he took his peerage as "Lord Callaghan  of Cardiff'.

      The Lord Mayor, Oliver Chapman, left his sick bed for  the City Hall. He urged the people of the new capital to fly flags from  all public and commercial buildings, in honour of "this great moment  not only for Cardiff but for Wales. It has been a long time coming but  come it has and the city will rise to the occasion'.

      The official  celebrations took place the following year. On 26 October 1956 Gwilym  Lloyd George visitedCardiff to receive the freedom of the city and to  present the formal documents recognising its new status. Letters patent  from the Queen authorised the Corporation to alter Cardiff's  coat-of-arms. Henceforth, its heraldic supporters, the mountain goat  and the seahorse, would display a gold chain and the royal badge of Wales.

      Shops, offices and public buildings were brightly decorated  for the occasion. Among the 700 guests invited to the City Hall were  the mayors of all the boroughs in Wales, the chairmen of the county  councils, Welsh Members of Parliament and representatives from every  walk of Welsh life. Gwilym Lloyd George made a gracious and eloquent  speech, as might be expected from the son of Wales's greatest  statesman. He recalled that he had been present as a small boy in 1908  when his father had received the freedom of Cardiff after it became a  city. Now he was being honoured as the first freeman of the capital of  Wales. Lloyd George then presented a scroll from the Queen to the Lord  Mayor, D.T. Williams, which proclaimed that henceforth Cardiff's leading citizen should be addressed as "The Right Honourable Lord  Mayor'.

      An historic day for Cardiff and Wales ended with a civic ball  for a thousand people at the City Hall. An old dream was fulfilled as  Cardiff received the accolade to which it had felt entitled for the  last fifty years. The harmonious acceptance of the city as the Welsh  capital provides a sharp contrast to the heated arguments which had  delayed the announcement for so many years.

 

The Act of Union in 1536  virtually annexed Wales to England and, unlike Scotland and Ireland, it  was never regarded as a distinctive nation within the United Kingdom.  The question of a capital for the Principality was scarcely considered  until the twentieth century, when many Welshmen began to argue that a  capital city might enhance the status of Wales as a separate and  distinctive nation. It might also provide a focal point for Welsh ideals and aspirations. When Cardiff became a city in 1905, the Western Mail suggested that its historical roots, together with  its commercial and cultural reputation, made it the logical choice for  this honour.

      In 1924 the local press raised the matter again, as the South Wales Daily News organised a ballot among Welsh local  authorities. Two questions were posed to them. Should there be a Welsh  capital? If so, where should it be sited? While 90% of the authorities  favoured a capital city for Wales, there was less agreement about where  it should be. Cardiff received the highest number of votes but other  boroughs, especially Caernarfon, gained strong support. The Lord Mayor  of Cardiff made a tactical error in requesting the Home Secretary to  nominate Cardiff as the capital of Wales. A storm of protest, from  Swansea Corporation among others, left no room for doubt that Cardiff  was not yet an acceptable choice to the rest of Wales.

      The matter was  shelved until after the Second World War when Cardiff Corporation again  stubbornly pressed its claims, though only after Caernarfon had made  similar representations. In North Wales there was a strong belief that  history, culture and sentiment all pointed to Caernarfon as the natural  capital of Wales. It was at the heart of the most Welsh-speaking area  in the country. In the mountainous terrain of Gwynedd, where the Welsh  Princes had attempted to unite the whole of Wales under their  leadership on more than one occasion, the  Nationalist cause is  stronger than anywhere in the Principality. Mighty CaernarfonCastle  was  the site where Edward I had presented his infant child  to the  Welsh people and henceforth the title, "Prince of Wales', was bestowed  on the Monarch's eldest son. As recently as 1911, the investiture of  the future Duke of Windsor had taken place at Caernarfon with great  pomp, and it was a matter of some prestige that Prince  Charles would be invested in a similar colourful ceremony.

      Caernarfon  was not Cardiff's only rival. Aberystwyth, home of the Welsh National  Library, staked a claim based on its central position between North and  South Wales. It overlooked its rather inaccessible communications with  the rest of the country and denounced both Cardiff and Swansea, which  was also in contention, as "swollen bull frogs' and "blatant young  cockerels off their perch'. Even more absurd was the argument favoured  by Machynlleth. It too stressed its geographical position as a balance  between North and South, but for good measure its council added that it  was the natural capital since Owain Glyndwr had once held a parliament  in the town.

      One suspects that some of these claims were facetious.  Yet it is hardly surprising that the statesmen ofWestminster,  confronted by such internecine strife, recoiled in horror from making a  decision which was bound to offend someone. When George Thomas sought  a commitment favouring Cardiff in 1951, the newly-appointed Minister  for Welsh Affairs, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, made it clear that he had  no intention of becoming involved in a Welsh family dispute. He said  that he had "no power to recognise Cardiff or indeed any other place  as capital of Wales but, if general agreement can be reached  throughout Wales as to where the capital should be, puny words of mine  will not be needed'.

      In other words Welshmen had to agree among  themselves and the supporters of Cardiff's case now strove to win over  public opinion throughout Wales. The most important objective was to  resolve the age-old jealousies of North and South Wales by placating  and reassuring Caernarfon of its historic place in Welsh life. Negotiations between the two corporations paved the way for Cardiff to  fulfil its ambition. Possibly the Caernarfon representatives decided it  was time to resolve the question of a Welsh capital once and for all.  They may also have nurtured the hope that their borough might be chosen  for the honour. They received assurances from the Cardiff councillors  that the investiture of Prince Charles, in due course, would be held at  Caernarfon. While never formally withdrawing its own claim, the  Caernarfon Corporation indicated a readiness to allow the issue of  capital status to be debated, and eventually decided, through a  conference of Welsh local authorities.

      Their association met in May  1954 and reached agreement that members should vote on the matter. When the result was announced in July, 90% of the delegates, representing  nearly 2 million people in Wales, had cast their votes in favour of  Cardiff. The Minister for Welsh Affairs was informed that "Wales is a  united nation for once in its history'. After consultation with Welsh  MPs and the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire, the official  announcement was made at the end of 1955.

      While the selection of a  capital had been delayed because of the rivalry among the different  regions ofWales, there was also resentment at the strident manner in  which Cardiff had promoted its case. To the citizens of Cardiff their  city appeared such an obvious choice that Percy Cudlipp, himself a  native of Cardiff, somewhat provocatively wrote in the News  Chronicle, "Probably most people thought Cardiff was already the  capital'.

      Not all Welshmen could be expected to share that  point of view. Many agreed with John Morgan's comment in The  Observer: "Within WalesCardiff is not greatly loved'. He  described the city as, "an alien place to many Welshmen where Welsh is  seldom heard', a valid observation since only about 1% of Cardiffians  speak the language. With less justification he questioned whether a  nation without power needed a capital at all, an argument which could  equally apply to Edinburgh and Belfast. Paradoxically, despite  the criticism that Cardiff is not as Welsh as it should be, no other  place in Wales was so well suited to its new role. Its ambition to be  the capital of Wales was stressed on three counts.

      The city stood  on an ancient site, dating back to the Roman occupation of Britain.  Since the Norman Conquest, the borough had been recognised as the  centre of administration for the largest county in Wales and, throughout the centuries, there had been close ties with Llandaff  Cathedral, one of the oldest Christian foundations in Wales. But  staking a claim to capital status on the grounds of antiquity and  history was a tenuous argument since several places in Wales had an  equally impressive pedigree.

      Secondly, Cardiff could point  to its commercial predominance, resulting from the expansion of the  coal industry in the nineteenth century. This prosperity not only led  to Cardiff emerging as the largest and richest town in Wales but also  ensured that it became the metropolis for the most densely populated  part of the country. Yet commercial success is not essential when  choosing a capital, otherwise Canberra and Washington, to name but two,  would never have reached their eminent positions.

      Tradition and  commerce might not be enough to justify its selection as a capital city  but Cardiff had a third attribute which none of its rivals could match.  At the end of the nineteenth century, far-sighted leaders of the community, especially the Third Marquess of Bute, provided a setting  worthy of the thriving, prosperous town which Cardiff had become. The  result was a splendid civic centre in CathaysPark which is still  considered to be one of the finest in the world. From the time that  Cardiff was designated as a city in 1905, until its proclamation fifty  years later as the Welsh capital, magnificent buildings sprang up in  spacious surroundings. Collectively, they provided the focus for almost  every aspect of Welsh cultural, administrative and educational life.  When the local authorities reached their decision in 1954, CathaysPark  proved to be the ace which no other city or town inWales could  trump.

      Even so Cardiff's success in 1955 is still extraordinary, when  we recall that 150 years earlier it was only a small market town and  port inhabited by less than 2,000 people. Its population had scarcely  changed since the twelfth century, when a Norman lord built his castle  on the site of an earlier Roman fort. It is here that the story of  Cardiff's past really begins.