The valleys of south seem to have a very strange hold over the psyche of the British press. Most of the time we don’t feature in any story at all. And then suddenly, when there’s a murder, a drugs death or a byelection, the press get out their sat nav and descend in search of grim images of decline – boarded-up houses, men with no teeth, rubbish circling in the wind.
And this week, with Scottish independence in the news, the Guardian (in the shape of John Harris) , fired up with a story that somehow or other the valleys and Labour are in a mutually assured process of decline and Welsh nationalism is on the rise. Never mind the fact that, or that they don’t hold a single valleys seat in Cardiff or Westminster, or that the latest poll saw them falling even further behind Labour, the Tories and Ukip, with a mere .
For those of us who live in the valleys and try to turn around the historic problems that deindustrialisation has left us with, this tendency is mighty infuriating. Because the truth is that the vast majority of people in the Rhondda work, just like anywhere else. Most of us hold mortgages and own our own homes. We pay our way. In fact a recent survey I did of all 16- to 18-year-olds in the Rhondda showed that our youngsters are more likely to work and significantly less likely to smoke or take drugs than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK or in Europe.
Yes, the closure of the mines has cast a pall over the valleys, leaving us with high levels of diabetes and ischaemic heart disease. There are people with long-term mental health problems and alcohol has just as damaging an effect as it does in suburbia. And the steep valley sides make it difficult to attract large-scale industry. But the Rhondda has coped with dramatic social change far better than many other communities. Less than a century ago there were more than 100,000 miners working in the Rhondda alone. Now there are none. Work was manual, male and local. Now, work will just as probably be done by a woman, it will almost certainly require travel and very few people will be in unskilled manual jobs. In just three generations the whole world of work has changed in the valleys – and a whole community has had to adapt with it. That is quite an achievement.
Another version of the valleys myth is doing the rounds at the moment – albeit in a kinder way. The heartwarming movierelies, in its own way, on an assumption that the people of the valleys will be parochial, socially conservative and judgmental. It all comes right in the end. Under the cosh of Thatcherism, the lesbians and gays join forces with the striking miners of Onllwyn (inspired by the woman who would become the Labour MP for Swansea East, Sian James). But the assumption there is the same assumption that led to one national newspaper running the headline “How pink was my valley?” when I was selected as Labour candidate in the Rhondda in 2000.
So this is a gentle plea to journalists – tell the whole valleys story. In the last decade the Rhondda alone has had a new hospital, three new health centres, four new primary schools, a much improved railway service and a new bypass road. We have tough challenges, especially with tight local spending determined by Westminster, but there is very little appetite for Welsh independence here, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t end the bedroom tax, it wouldn’t pay anyone’s mortgage, it wouldn’t build a new factory, it wouldn’t put wages back ahead of inflation.
We’re not dull in Wales. We know a false dawn when we see one. Which is why we’re proud to be thoroughly Welsh, and British too. After all Cymru means “fellow countrymen”, and that fellowship requires solidarity with those places in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland that face just the same problems.