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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

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain