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Wales: England’s oldest colony

Subjugated and marginalised, the Welsh have refused to be dominated.

When Anne Robinson relegated the Welsh to oblivion a few years ago on Room 101, the outcry in Wales - much smaller than it was made out to be in England, but admittedly pretty shrill - was met over the border with a further sneer. "How predictable," was the response. "Where's their sense of humour?" Robinson, who was born in Liverpool (as was I, but a very different Liverpool from the one she knows), said that she found the Welsh "irritating", and asked: "What are they for?"

At the risk of endowing self-satisfied bigotry with a dignity it doesn't deserve, I'll answer the question and state that one of the functions of the Welsh is to not be English: that the people, nation and language are there for an arrogant and imperious bully of a neighbour to measure itself against, and to find itself wanting. The essential and assiduous unconquerability of an ex-colonial power's nearest neighbour and oldest colony is exasperating and an affront to certain hearts. So in short, Anne, to answer your preposterous query: the function of the Welsh is to not be you.

It's the continuing use and existence of the Welsh language, I think, that so infuriates the Anglocentric mind; for God's sake, they speak English 12,000 miles away in Australia, so why can't they speak it a mere 120 miles west of Whitehall? Britain's Celtic communities are defined linguistically, rather than by race or place of birth. Alistair Moffat, in his book The Sea Kingdoms, writes that "because Welsh is such an old language and because it described Britain first, it carries a version of the history of the whole island inside it" - an idea that can be seen as crystallised in the naming of nations. The word "Wales" in Old English means "land of foreigners", while "Cymru" in Welsh means "land of friends", and the Welsh word for England, "Lloegr", means "the lost lands". What histories of strife and surrender, what vacillations between tolerance and antagonism, are encapsulated in such nomenclature.

English is, of course, an astonishingly rich and diverse language, but its existence is not predicated on the extinction of other tongues, as Anglocentrism seems to think (and, sometimes, even to desire). Ned Thomas, a tireless campaigner for the Welsh language, wrote in The Welsh Extremist that "a campaign to establish proper bilingualism in Wales is . . . a direct threat to bureaucracy . . . To the system, the area in which people think in Welsh is an area of chaos." In Wales, the power politics of language has been, and is still, played out: from the "Welsh Knot" (a heavy block of wood hung around the neck of any child heard speaking Welsh) to the erasure of Eng lish names for Welsh towns from road signs. Welsh identity has always been bound up with the language. In fact, for some, the two cannot be differentiated.

Recently, in the Don egal Gaeltacht, an Irish learner explained to me the comparative success of the Welsh language: it was, he said, because the Welsh look forward, whereas the Irish look back. I can't agree with this entirely - the dead are fetishised in Wales as much as in any other Celtic country - but I take his point: self-confidence and sense of identity, and ultimately political recognition, are contingent (or can be made to be contingent) upon a living language. This know ledge has led, at last, to Welsh becoming "cool". Once that imprimatur is awarded, it is very difficult to lose, and a survival of some form is almost guaranteed. Half a million people speak Welsh fluently: that's one in six of the population. A century ago, it was one in 30. That's a slow recovery, but it's not going to go away; new learners appear every day (myself included).

The danger here, however, is that, to a certain type, the ability to speak Welsh allies them with other minorities across the globe. This is fine when a shared identity is forged with, say, Bretons or Catalans, but it becomes distasteful, to say the least, when a comparison is made with Palestinians or post-Katrina New Orleans blacks - particularly when one considers that the ability to speak Welsh is the very reason why a high-paying job in the Welsh media, and consequently a half-million-pound house in Cardiff's Pontcanna or the Bay, have become available. This has become a small, if persistent and self-congratulatory, trend in Welsh-language writing recently, and I find it profoundly offensive; it's concomitant with the wider western vogue for pretending, for wanting, to have suffered more (see the writing of James Frey or Augus ten Burroughs, for example). In England, such people tend to be called "the middle classes"; in Wales, they're the crachach, easily distinguishable by their frequent and vehement denials of belonging to that group.

I personally believe that a docker from Swansea has more in common with a docker from Hull than he does with a white-collar professional from West Glamorgan, but that's never going to be recognised; the conqueror's tactic of divide and rule has been so successful as to now run bone-deep, on both sides of Offa's Dyke. The cleverness of the common enemy - those who divide and rule - is that they stay unacknowledged and hidden.

Unconquerable connections

And yet, transcending class, and away from the industrialised, citified south or the arcaded and promenaded north - and less than half a day's travelling from Westminster - lies what many commentators (and tourists of the more intrepid sort) like to call the "real Wales": the green and mountainous heart of the country.

It's a place utterly "Other" to the Anglocentric mindset. Superficially, it resembles the Lake District, but where that has been widely gen trified and prettified and twee'd down towards the tourist quid, this place stays filled with that brooding wildness which tends to characterise lives lived in the shadows of colossal waves of rock. It suited the Enlightenment to present such a place as serene and beautiful, where men and nature lived in harmonious interaction, but the reality is what confronts you here every single day: mud, bone, shit, blood, rot, hawks hunting overhead, death always adjacent.

It's alien and threatening to the suburbanised soul; it's the cancer in the Little Englander's body politic. The "playground Wales" mentality never ventures here; it erects its Union flags elsewhere, it props up the bar in seaside towns and sounds off about not liking the Welsh, but "at least there are no niggers here" (I'm sorry, but I've lost count of the number of times I've heard such sentiments expressed; see the kind of people we're invaded by?). This place endures; its boulders, peaks and streams can be discerned in the hard consonants and snarled sibilants and sudden plosives of the language that long ago evolved from these pinnacles and troughs.

Such a place informs the peculiarly and wholly Welsh concept of hiraeth. Often translated simply as "longing" or "homesickness", it is actually much, much more than that. It is more closely related to the Portuguese saudade or the Spanish duende: a kind of affirmative sadness, of attachment to a place so physically and spiritually profound that it can be heartbreaking, as well as a powerful spur to creation. It has nothing to do with wearing patriotic garb or singing the national anthem (even if "Yr Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" sung at the Millennium Stadium does make the soul soar); instead, it's bound up with a recognition that the blood beats in your arteries in the same way that the seas and streams around you boom at their shores and banks. It's to do with a calmness, which, like the calmness that comes with finding a god, has absolutely nothing to do with comfort.

Marcus Tanner, in his The Last of the Celts, talks of how his travels through Wales in search of his ancestors' graves gave him the means to understand aspects of his looks and personality that had always, during his upbringing in southern England, baffled him. "Almost everything about me," he writes, "my personality, my face, my height, my shape - made more sense." What had marked him out as unusual in suburban England - his stockiness, his black-haired/blue-eyed colouring, his propensity to be quickly moved to tears of joy or rage - made him un remarkable in rural Wales. "In England, I had developed a sense of watchfulness about my own personality, aware that it needed keeping in check, and that at any moment I might sound unsuitably loud, excitable and over the top. In Wales, that feeling of difference from my surroundings fell away."

That's what it means to have an unconquerable connection to a place: it's an indication of how a culture can endure. Such constancy despite ubiquitous social flux - in which the cosmetic creation of personal identity is not only foisted on us but, it seems, actively yearned for - offers a necessary anchoring: a placid and vital immutability. As the old song says: "Ry'n ni yma o hyd/Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth/Ry'n ni yma o hyd". Which, for those non-Welsh speakers out, there means: "We're still here/Despite everybody and everything/We're still here". And thank God for that.

This article also appears in Catalyst magazine 

 

Assembly elections

The National Assembly for Wales has its third election on 3 May. Labour, which holds 29 of the 60 seats, is likely to suffer, although not as heavily perhaps as in Scotland. This is what is at stake:

A coalition government of Labour and the Liberal Democrats is the most likely outcome. If Labour's losses are severe enough, however, a "grand coalition" between the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru could oust Labour from power altogether.

Turnout is expected to be low. In 2003, just 38 per cent voted.

The Welsh Assembly is far less powerful than its Scottish counterpart. It cannot make primary legislation and has no tax-varying powers. Despite this, the assembly has introduced some eye-catching policies, such as providing free school milk to primary-school children and scrapping prescription charges.

As in Scotland, each voter votes twice. Of the 60 assembly seats, 40 are elected from constituencies under the usual first-past-the-post system. The remaining 20 are elected through a form of proportional representation. In 2003, all Labour's seats were constituency ones, whereas the Conservatives gained ten top-up seats and won in only one constituency.

After the election, the Government of Wales Act 2006 will come into force, expanding the assembly's powers. However, some believe it is not far-reaching enough.

Research by Sarah O'Connor

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).