There are jobs in the South East, but the regions and deprived areas are losing out as the recession bites. But people in South Wales where I live have a sense of identity and belonging that can’t just be transplanted

Thought for the Day 24/12/2012

For many people in post-industrial towns with rising unemployment it’s galling to hear the cry, ‘Go South East, young man!’ We learned in yesterday’s report from the Centre for Cities that already prosperous areas with workforces that are well adapted to the modern global economy are weathering the recession much better than deprived areas that rely on a shrinking public sector. But there’s a cost to encouraging people to move where there are jobs rather than bringing jobs to where people already live. It has to do with belonging, history and cultural identity.

As the son of a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, I grew up deeply mistrustful of nationalism and notions of an ideological connection to the land. Becoming a Buddhist reinforced my belief that we’re all human beings first, and fundamentally the same, whatever our culture. However, my outlook been modified by moving to Wales and marrying a proud Welsh woman who can trace where her family has lived through many generations. I’m struck by the strength of community feeling in South Wales, and its connection to the culture and history of Wales itself. I’m also happy that we’re planning a Welsh language education for our son. When children everywhere grow up with the same global brands and icons, I value the distinctiveness and deep roots of a particular culture.

It’s true that incomers like me can be infected by a misty fantasy of Welshness, which the locals find particularly annoying. There’s a downside to community, and I hear about this when my Welsh friends complain about parochialism and closed-mindedness. Buddhist teachings remind me that any label whatsoever – including ‘Welsh’, ‘British’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘atheist’ or anything else – can become a psychological prop. For when we cling too tightly to a narrow sense of identity it can lead to intolerance, sectarianism and racism. And yet, while the social problems left here by the end of mining and steel are real enough, my Welsh friends would balk at the suggestion that those who can’t find work should head down the M4. That’s because they value the threads of connection and rootedness that still exist in this region.

The most impressive people I know are also the most individual and in that sense they’ve left behind the labels that define their identity. That’s something to aspire to, but it requires the kind of psychological stability that grows from knowing who you are and where you belong. However strongly the economic winds rage, our society will be poorer if they blow away that sense of belonging.