Last night I started reading ‘Celtic Identity and the British Image’ by Murray Pittock. Here’s a musing based on the first 20 pages which explores what we mean by Celtic, and in order to help us identify that, briefly what is meant by British. It’s hard to define one without the other, when for hundreds of years Celtic has been defined in opposition to Britishness. In other words, if the British branded themselves as being fair, noble and civilised then the Celts were castigated as being primitive savages. For example this piece in The Times in 1866, about an exhibition of Welsh art and culture in Chester said,
“all the progress and civilisation in Wales has come from England, and a sensible Welshman would direct all his endeavours towards inducing his countrymen to appreciate their neighbours, instead of themselves.”
You may not hear this said so openly these days, but it doesn’t take much scratching of the surface to find many that still believe this to be true. Perhaps it’s equally as found amongst Welsh people as English people, as over time, Wales internalised the projection made against her by her neighbour. One person who isn’t afraid to continue this imperial tradition is, surprise surprise, Katie Hopkins, who just yesterday said, “What is Welsh for: ‘get back down the mines you dullard?” to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, during a row on Twitter. Presumably, down the mines, is where Welsh people belong, slaving for their imperial masters. A feature of British Imperialism is the projection of inferior values, and the stigmatisation of the oppressed as being unintelligent. A clever ploy that no doubt the British employed because it has the toxic effect of internalising within the youth of the oppressed country. After a couple of generations, the youth naturally want to move away from their indigenous culture and towards the enforced imperial culture. The British, before taking this venture worldwide, practised for centuries on the Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and the English peasantry. So essentially over time Britishness took on the identity of the upper class elite, and left behind the values of the peasants, and perhaps what we could call real England. The British were masters at fostering an air of aspiration — indeed it’s still done today, Margaret Thatcher resurrected this practice of dividing the peasantry (now known as the working class) by inducing in them a distaste of their own background, and enticing the ‘ambition’ to move ‘beyond’ it. Her offer of home ownership was but one of her tactics to fulfill this strategy of earning a larger group of voters for the Conservatives. She was just the continuation of British Imperalism.
Coming back to the castigation of the ‘other’ — in this context the Celts, it wouldn’t be too hard to psychoanalyse that the British would project their shadow i.e. the character traits they did not wish to own, onto their neighbours, so as to attempt to appear civilised and superior. It’s one of the most basic things humans do as a defence mechanism — projection, repression, denial, displacement, rationalisation and so on. The British like to export the values of justice, toughness, camaraderie, sport, service, rurality and so on. Equally British values are imperalism, genocide, classism, industrialism and inequality to name a few. As British people we have usually bought into the myth that we’re somehow superior than most — it’s a belief that crops up from time to time, rearing its head when we least expect it.
There you have it, I’ve switched from ‘the British’ to ‘we British’, and that’s the complexity of being born both Welsh and British. The more I learn about what British really means the less I identify with it, but that doesn’t mean I can be free of it. The values I was told Britain stand for might have crumbled in my mind, but I’m still, politically, and culturally-speaking, British. I benefit from the privilege of being British. Which leads to my own inner conflict, of which I’m only recently fully exploring.
We live in an era where people seem to want to free themselves of identity, with people using universalist arguments of us all being the same, we’re all one human race. And universally that’s true, but there is the collective level, and that level shouldn’t be ignored. It’s all well saying we’re all one, but then when one group of people is treated differently to another it’s asked of us to explore those reasons why — clearly the divisions exist whether we like to see it or not. We’ve become scared of identity, and in doing so have gifted over the fate of our identities to those that would willingly use them against us. Whether that’s the rise of the British monarch from the 16th century, the rise of Nazi Germany, or the bigoted politics of Trump or Farage. If we fail to educate ourselves and become aware of our identity then others will shape it for us for their own Machiavellian means. It’s a deep, powerful part of the human psyche, that can’t simply be tamed. Having a strong sense of culture doesn’t then mean we have to force our culture onto others, and have them submit to us. Diversity within an eco-system is its strength, and through this plants and animals can work co-operatively.
If Wales wants to have its own political determination, then we need to start at the murky level of culture, because there are many unsaid assumptions and myths about Welshness that need to be explored first. Wales has had centuries of cultural imperialism enforced upon it, with her language and culture being actively undermined by the British State. If you go to the anglicised parts of Wales, like where I grew up in Swansea, then there is an overt sense of Wales and Welshness being ‘backward’. There is a mistrust of Wales and Welshness. Is it any wonder when in our schools we teach only English/British history? I learnt all of the English Kings and Queens, and the Magna Carta. It was a cleansed, Bowdlerised history that’s been sanctioned by the State. Not once did I learn of the devastating impact of the Blues Books on the Welsh psyche, or the heroism of Owain Glyndwr, or the fairness of the laws of Hywel Dda. The culture of Wales was simply not taught because its assumed that the culture of England, of Britain, has surpassed it and encompassed it. To be Welsh is to be British. We’re taught the history of the victor. On the conflation of Britishness and Englishness Pittock says,
“…Britishness, while remaining essentially totally English, and often southern English at that. Internal differences in Britain are not acknowledged by them: the phrase ‘island race’, derived from the imperial lexicon, apparently excludes the very presence of a ‘Celtic fringe’, unless its inhabitants are to be viewed as alien to the body politic. Where such differences are recognised at all, the Celtic ‘other’ is often perceived as an inferior being…”
If Wales is to realise itself again, and become a strong political identity, whether through further devolution, or through independence then we must work through the underlying cultural assumptions that hold us back. Is it not curious that you can offer a country greater self-determination and they would vote against it? How many of the former British colonies voted against greater power for themselves? How thorough has the internal colonisation of the Welsh been in order to achieve a nation of people who have zero confidence in their own ability govern? A nation that has existed for over a thousand years that has deep cultural waters to draw upon. Indeed the very idea of a united Britain was stolen from Welsh myth and then used against them. Clever sleights of hand by the English monarch at the time of Henry VII, who himself was born in Wales, and marched from Pembroke with ‘the red dragon banner of Wales’ using the legend of the return of Arthur to justify his ‘uniting’ of Britain.
What mythic story must we now turn to, to re-establish Wales as a nation in its own right? What will it take for Welsh people to no longer feel inferior to their neighbours? What will it take for Welsh people to once again believe that it can govern itself, and no longer require its imperial masters? The myth of ‘it’s unrealistic for Wales to be an independent nation,’ because we ‘don’t have the economy for it’. Where do we find that confidence in ourselves again? That’s what I’m hoping to explore. How do we rebuild Welsh politics, economy and culture?