Friday, November 18, 2011

Sympathy for the devil

One of the great challenges facing a Welsh nationalist is identifying ways in which the Welsh have been horribly treated by the English. This is an all-important feature of any movement to sever ties with the crown. We Americans did it; the Irish did it; any number of African nations did it; the Scottish are doing it now. For some reason, a people can't just simply walk away, they must walk away mad.

This element is especially important in Wales where there is, in fact, no good reason at all for separation. I've mentioned before that if Wales were to cut ties today, it would celebrate tonight and wake up tomorrow with a terrible hangover and the sick reality of being considerably worse off. Roughly 28 percent of Welsh jobs are in the public sector. Cut ties with the British government and it's inevitable that quite a few of those jobs would go. Unless business taxes were lowered (somewhat unlikely if we assume separation would be driven by the socialist Plaid Cymru), it's possible a number of private sector jobs would go as well. 

Wales' transportation infrastructure is stuck somewhere in the 1970s, with too few dilapidated trains running too few places and just a two-lane road serving as the only viable north-south route -- a road that, at one point, narrows to a single lane because it crosses a medieval bridge. Meanwhile Wales' digital infrastructure is laughable, with fewer people receiving broadband here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Wales would find itself several decades behind the rest of the developed world with not enough resources, natural or intellectual, to give it a realistic chance of ever catching up within any of our lifetimes. The Welsh nationalist response, of course, is to blame England for the dismal state of things. But who do the disadvantaged peoples of England blame? Infrastructure is poor but it is not poor as a slight to the Welsh. In trying to find that vital "They Did This To Us" argument, pointing to lack of economic development isn't acceptable because they've done the same to themselves. If you and I are eating from the same bowl of cold, tasteless porridge you can accuse me of a number of things but malice toward you isn't honestly one of them.

Admittedly, any nationalist argument is inherently un-winnable, or un-loseable, depending on which side you're arguing. Because it is so emotionally driven. It is wrapped up in what the person feels more than what is. And as an ex-girlfriend once screamed at me in an argument: emotions are never wrong. Emotions are not tied to logic; they just are. An outside observer, or, indeed, a whole fleet of outside observers, may struggle to connect what they perceive to be reality to your emotional response to said reality, but that does not make your emotion wrong. There is no right and wrong with emotion. If you feel deeply hurt and betrayed by someone baking your favourite cake and giving it to you on a sunny day, it is not wrong for you to feel so. Confusing to the cake baker, perhaps, but not wrong.

So, if a Welsh nationalist wants to feel that Wales' lack of infrastructure and economic output can be blamed on English people actively detesting the Welsh, there may not be a great deal of evidence to support this line of thinking outside his or her own head, but he or she is not wrong in an emotional sense.

That said, emotion seeks vindication. When we feel something we want to feel it to be right. My friend Jim, who worked with me at television stations in both Reno and San Diego, used to say of the angry people who called to complain about our perceived bias one way or the other, that they did not want to discuss things, they simply wanted you to echo their opinion so they felt less crazy. Very few of us are happy to simply be right. We can't just accept that we see the sky to be blue, we need this confirmed and affirmed by other people.

So when the Welsh nationalist fails to win you over with arguments of being economically neglected by the English (who were economically neglecting themselves), he or she will try a different tact. In Wales there are a lack of atrocities like the Highland clearances or the myriad Bloody Sundays of 1887, 1920, 1921 and 1972, so it can be a little bit of a challenge for the Welsh "nat," but diligence is a long-standing Welsh virtue and eventually he or she will come up with something. If the nationalist is particularly well-versed he or she will sight acts of union in 1536 and 1543, which put Wales on equal legal footing with England but also prohibited a Welsh-only speaker, i.e. one that did not speak English, from holding public office (a).

Indeed, just about any They Did This To Us argument is going to hinge on the Welsh language. And, as such, it will almost certainly include Brad y Llyfrau Gleision ("Treachery of the Blue Books," a series of academic reports in the 1840s that, in part, blamed the Welsh language and religious nonconformism for Wales' inadequate schools) and the most iconic symbol of that line of thinking: the Welsh Not.

The Welsh Not was a small piece of wood with the words "Welsh Not" or, simply, "WN" inscribed that a child would have to wear around his or her neck if caught speaking Welsh in school. It was effectively a dunce cap for Welsh speakers. At the end of the day, the child would often receive a beating. It's worth noting that the authors of the much reviled Llyfrau Gleision didn't endorse the practice, feeling it was arbitrary and unnecessary, and, according to John Davies' History of Wales, it was not a particularly widespread practice.

The practice had disappeared by the early 1900s, but, yes, it did happen. The Welsh Not was brought up in one of my classes the other day by a man who had allowed himself to get quite angry and I've found myself thinking about it ever since. I wonder whether it's terribly fair to get so upset about the thing.

Victorian attitudes toward the discipline of children is notorious. I sometimes wonder just how accurate is such a portrayal but you simply can't have a story about a kid growing up in Victorian times without including at least one stick-wielding authority figure. I can believe it, though. Long after the Victorians were dead, their buildings crumbling, teachers in my childhood schools were still wielding paddles. As far as I'm aware, none of us kids in Texas in the 1980s ever got a spanking for speaking Welsh. That's probably just because none of us spoke Welsh.

The kids suffering a block of wood around the neck and an afternoon lashing more than a century earlier were, I think, suffering more because of the philosophy of the time than because of what they were actually doing. The cruelty of Victorian thinking was there as much for the English-only speaker as the speaker of Welsh. If a child wasn't being disciplined for speaking Welsh it might have been for getting maths tables wrong or speaking before being spoken to or nodding his head to the rhythm of a teacher's voice (I was once sent to detention for that last one). The disciplinary actions weren't inherently anti-Welsh but just overall unkind.

Within that, I think it's important to remember how different the past is to the present. It is possibly unfair, but at the very least misleading to apply modern thinking to situations of roughly 150 years ago. When the Victorian (primarily English) establishment looked at the Welsh they found a people who were, on the whole, disadvantaged. Additionally, the Victorian establishment felt their own ways of thinking and acting to be superior above all. To help the Welsh, then, one obviously needed to instruct them in the ways of the Victorian establishment. First and foremost, this meant speaking English.

We are very quick to attack this arrogance but I think it's firstly important to accept that it was a different time, they were operating by different rules. And secondly, it is good to ask whether this line of thinking is really so distant. Go back to the top of this blog post, where I lament Wales' inadequate access to technology. I am certain a number of Welsh nationalists would agree with me that computer literacy and access to technology is incredibly important. But what makes us right? We see it as right.

We would applaud initiatives to extend broadband to rural areas. All the politicians would wear out their arms patting each other on the back. We would put little ribbons on education centres and stand around having our picture taken cutting these ribbons. We would unveil plaques to show for all time how proud we are of ourselves. And I cannot think of how such a thing could be wrong. But what if, 150 years from now, they looked back at us in disgust? What right did we have destroying cultures and families and communities with internet access?

The example I used in my class was of the Arab Spring. In my heart of hearts I see nothing wrong with the spread of democracy in the Arab world. I applaud it. I get teary-eyed over it. I feel inspired by it. If I had any money, I would contribute to see it continue. But why do I think this way? Is it really good? Or do I simply say it is good because it is what I have and I feel I am superior? What will they say 150 years down the line? Will they look back in bitterness at those who drove democratic movements? When some American comes along to teach Berber in the Libya of the future will he find himself wondering whether the actions of the Benghazi establishment so many years before really were as awful as some of those around him claim?

I think it is fair to assume that in many cases the Victorian establishment felt they were doing the right thing by discouraging Welsh. I am sure some of them felt a great sense of altruism and righteousness. We can accuse them of being misguided, shortsighted and arrogant but I'm not sure it's fair to accuse them of malice, of being anti-Welsh. I'm not sure the Welsh can claim (overall) to have been horribly treated simply for being Welsh. I'm not sure the Welsh Not was as terrible a thing as a Welsh nationalist would have you believe.

(a) The acts were finally repealed in the mid-1990s. I wonder, though, if a person would actually be hired today if he or she spoke Welsh but no English. 


Anonymous said...

There was massive discrimination against the Welsh until the Act of Union. Welsh people were slaughtered by Anglo-Norman forces along the rich, fertile coastal plains and 'contained' in the poor, unproductive land of the hills/valleys. That divide is at the very heart Wales' problems and the root of our inferiority complex, our neurotic tendencies and the reason we are so hard to define.

Throughout the 20th century most people in Wales lived in a hybrid Welsh/working-class British culture that has been slowly dying since the 1970s. We're not really sure who or what we are at the moment, which can result in a lot of paranoia and insecurity. People want an easy narrative.

However, I think it's resonable argue that since the 70s, the Welsh people have been subject of far more ridicule than the Irish or Scottish. We've replaced the Irish as the butt of the joke. It's hard for the English to make fun of the Gaels these days because the Americans are so fond of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure it was a terrible thing, it's no wonder a lot of Welsh people get upset by it.

alun said...

Excellent points made Chris.

1. People are surprised that someone like me, a first Welsh Language speaker, is against independence. I support greater powers for Wales (just like American federal states is my model) but independence? No, its a pointless exercise.

Even if you get independence, the room towards policy manoeuvres is very small, all in the strictures of a free market economy. Ireland has done a lot of improving over the last thirty years but there are still problems, housing, education is still sparse.

Its why Alex Salmond riles me so much because he says 'everything will be okay once we would have independence, because its the English fault'.

2. Victim status, its primary basis of nationalist philosophy. Its not until you start reading into context that you get a fuller picture.

Welsh was discouraged in schools, but then Welsh books, hymns, music and general culture operated freely. In fact, Welsh Language blossomed during this time.

Of course being hit for speaking your first language was awful but this was the age of child labour in mines and being sent up chimneys.

Brian said...

Keep going with this. Sometimes it takes an outsider to write about stuff like this, and I want to hear more.

Owain Wyn Jones said...

I agree that Wales would wake up to massive problems if it now became independent, but I think it is fair to argue the nationalist line that this situation would worsen rather than improve if Wales stayed in the UK. Wales is one of those areas of the UK where heavy industry was dominant in the economy and, when that industry declined, softer industries and financial services were encouraged mainly in the south-east of England (something which was done as far back as the 1930s). The UK would concentrate on these areas and, in return, would place a disproportionate number of public sector jobs in the areas with a declining industrial economy, like Wales or north-east England. This is the situation which has led to Wales' over-dependence on the public sector, where a more federal state such as Germany may not have written off its industrial base so easily. One could argue along similar lines for infrastructure. Independence for Wales would take us away from a state which prioritises the interests of the centre at the expense of the periphery (though I admit that similar problems exist within Wales). It's not blaming England to say that UK economic policies has been to Wales' massive disadvantage, and that a self-governing Wales would have reacted better to those problems: many areas of England have had their economies sacrificed in a similar way, it's just Wales has a better excuse to govern itself. I'm also of the opinion that a federal Britain could still be dominated by the interests of the south-east, although to a lesser extent, and I've got a feeling it's just less likely to happen than independence. For independence we have to persuade Wales there's a problem, for federalism we have to persuade England.