The growth of English nationalism – Friend or Foe?

Simon Brooks examines Welsh Citizenship in the IWA Annual Eisteddfod Lecture 2014.


Institute of Welsh Affairs Lecture, Llanelli National Eisteddfod, 2014

It’s a dangerous year in Wales. Next month, the Scots will venture to the polling booths in order to decide whether they want Scotland to be an independent country or not. If they say Yes, some believe that Wales will become independent soon afterwards. This is possible; everything in life is possible. But it is far more likely that Wales and England will be merged as one state for many decades, perhaps forever. That state will be commonly known as England. Its territory shall essentially be the same as that kingdom, The Kingdom of England, that conquered Wales, and of which Wales was a part between 1282 and 1707. Despite all its failings, at least the most important successor to it, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was a multi-national state, and there was, in theory at least, a fairly equal balance between Saxon and Celt. In 1841, the English formed only about 60% of the United Kingdom’s population. But if Scotland votes for independence, the English will account for 93% of the population, 95% if we exclude northern Ireland, of the state of which Wales will be a member. Britain will be an English state without Scotland, although it will include the Welsh as a national minority, a minority that may keep its devolved institutions for as long as they are tolerated by the English.

It is a dangerous decade in Wales. Following next year’s general election, it is likely that we shall see another Conservative government in Westminster. The English seem to have more faith in the Tories to look after the economy than the Labour Party. Soon afterwards, perhaps in 2017, a referendum will be held on Britain’s membership of the European Union. I would not be too hopeful of the result. There is a limit to Berlin’s patience with London’s whingeing about all things European and not every European will be willing to kneel before Great Britain, or will it be Little Britain by then, in order to keep her in the European Union. If Scotland leaves Britain, and Britain leaves Europe, Little Britain will see itself increasingly as an English fortress. It will become a real Little Britain too with the poor Welshman left as ‘the only Celt in the village’.

It could be a century too of significant immigration into Wales, mainly from England but also from other parts of the world. According to the Census, only 72% of the population of Wales was born in Wales. This is not necessarily a problem. After all only 63% of the population of London was born in Britain. But London isn’t Wales. Wales is a poor, marginal country, in a dependent relationship with her next door neighbour, and it has a minority identity. Such a country is far more open to threats to its identity as a result of demographic change than are majority cultures.

Of course, there is no direct relationship between being born in Wales and empathising or sympathising with Welsh nationhood. There are tens of thousands of people in Wales who were born in England and who speak Welsh, and tens of thousands more who consider themselves to be Welsh. I say this sincerely as a lad from London whose sister is one of the English rugby team’s greatest fans! Despite this, further Anglicisation of Wales in terms of the percentage of the population born outside the country will have political implications for Welsh identity. It is not immigration in itself that is problematic for a stateless nation such as Wales, rather the difficulties that a minority culture faces in trying to integrate newcomers.

I do not wish to raise concerns prematurely, but there is a strong possibility that Britain in the future will become a far more English place than it has been until now, and it is very possible too that Wales will become far more Anglicised as well. The dangers attached to this are intensified by the increasingly reactionary and anti-multicultural nature of recent definitions of Englishness, at least as seen in the growth of political parties such as UKIP.

So a painful question for us as a national minority is whether the recent xenophobia displayed by English nationalism represents the opening of a new path in the cultural history of England, where minorities will face a harsher, sharper wind, or is this merely a temporary storm?

The current intolerant nature of English nationalism and its general attitude towards minorities does cause concern. It is certainly not insignificant. In large states, historically at least, there has been a tendency for antagonistic attitudes towards immigrant ethnic minorities to accompany a deep mistrust of the existence of indigenous minorities. I wonder whether English nationalism will have morphed within ten or twenty years to target the Welsh national minority? We shall see, but it would be irresponsible of us to ignore the possibility that this could happen.

So, is English nationalism friend or foe?

It is a friend to the extent that it will create opportunities for us to sharpen our identity against it. Multinational states often start to unravel when strong nationalisms develop within their most important constituent nations, as happened in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the nineteenth century, and as is happening in England and Scotland today. It is perhaps the hope that the threat of the growth of English nationalism will lead in dialectical fashion to a growth in Welsh nationalism that causes so many nationalists to be in favour of independence for Scotland. In other words, that independence for Scotland will reveal the essentially English nature of the British state and that this will motivate the Welsh to adopt a position of resistance against it.

But English nationalism is also an enemy since such a thing exists in the world as social power. Indeed, the failure of Wales and Scotland to win home rule at the same time as Ireland, at the end of the First World War, goes to show that it is not inevitable that an empire on losing one colony is bound to cede the rest. Indeed, it might strengthen its grip on what remains, more fiercely than ever before: indeed does not the recent history of Russia bear witness to this possibility? And in the future English nationalism could be very powerful indeed. Should English nationalism start to become anti-Welsh, we would have no chance of withstanding its pressure. The Welsh language, as John Cleese might put it, would be a dead parrot. As dead as Ifor ap Glyn’s Cornish-speaking parrot, for those of you who remember that immortal sketch.

For all these reasons, we cannot ignore the debate on nationhood and citizenship that is currently taking place in England.

We have become used to thinking of English nationalism as intolerant and unfriendly. Unfortunately, this is true, but it is also true that what is happening in England is a perfectly reasonable civic discussion concerning the nature of citizenship. Who can become an English citizen, and what are the duties and responsibilities of such citizens? Under what conditions should immigration be permitted, by whom and to what degree? Should immigrants be assimilated linguistically, or is it better to let immigrants use their own language if that is their wish?

Obviously, these could be Welsh themes too. Indeed, until recently, these questions were only being asked in Wales. It’s very strange then that this is not part of political debate in Wales today. It’s bizarre that these issues have been discussed within Welsh-language culture for half a century, but just as the discussion becomes legitimised in England, we in Wales give up on the debate altogether! This is particularly unwise because if we do not define Welsh citizenship ourselves, we shall be defined by what’s happening in England. Indeed that is what is happening at the moment.

UKIP’s message is that immigrants in Wales should be good Britons, and that they should speak English. What is our message?

For decades language campaigners have tried to tackle some of these themes surrounding immigration, citizenship and language. Consider, for example, Cynog Dafis’ mature contributions on the importance of integrating non-Welsh speakers in Mewnlifiad, Iaith a Chymdeithas (Immigration, Language and Society) (1971) and Cymdeithaseg Iaith a’r Gymraeg (The Sociology of Language and the Welsh Language) (1979). We have an intellectual tradition of discussing such matters in Wales.

There also exists a liberal tradition internationally that could legitimise the debate. In the work of some modern liberal philosophers, an attempt is made to reconcile liberalism as a political philosophy with the desire of minorities to protect their cultures. Perhaps the most famous scholar in this field is the liberal political theorist from Canada, Will Kymlicka. Since every state has its own rules which regulate immigration, and which by and large protect the interests of the largest ethnic group in the State, Kymlicka argues that it might be acceptable for stateless minorities to have control over the nature of immigration into their own territories. This would be ‘consistent with liberal principles of equality’. He goes on to say that ‘what distinguishes a liberal theory of minority rights is precisely that it accepts some external protections for ethnic groups and national minorities’.

In the context of immigration, it is perfectly valid, says Kymlicka, indeed essential, that liberal thinkers not only permit the national minority to ‘exercise some control over the volume of immigration, to ensure that the numbers of immigrants are not so great as to overwhelm the ability of the society to integrate them’ but also to have control over ‘the terms of integration.’ For example, if it’s acceptable for majority ethnic groups to set a language test for immigrants, on what basis could one begrudge the same right to a minority? Indeed, without influence over the process of integration, the minority may well be swallowed up. This is extremely important when the majority in the state insist that immigrants to the national minority’s territory, which the majority basically consider to be an extension of their own territory, assimilate into the majority culture and not to the minority culture.

Such a situation is extremely damaging to minority cultures, but not because immigrants from ethnic minority backgrounds who choose to side with the majority culture add to the absolute size of the majority community – in all parts of Welsh-speaking Wales, the numbers involved are too small to cause language shift. The harm done is that the process of establishing English as the language of civic integration for immigrants from outside of the European Union even in Welsh speaking areas denotes English as the civic language for the whole community. English becomes the language to be used in communication between ethnic groups and language groups. This in turn removes any moral responsibility on in-migrants from England to learn Welsh.

This then can lead to the indigenous minority assimilating into the majority culture on its own territory. In other words, the native culture assimilates into the immigrant culture, if the immigrant culture is also the culture of the state.

The implications of this are seen at their clearest in the recent British debate concerning immigration, citizenship and language.

There is a cross-party consensus in England that immigrants to Britain should learn English and that the state should promote this. Each one of the four main British parties are in favour of an unambiguous link between learning the English language and British citizenship. The Con-Dem government’s attitude in London on this is clear enough, as seen in a recent proposal that those unable to speak English should not receive dole money unless they are willing to learn English. The Labour Party’s attitude is similar as well. Indeed Ed Milliband came to north Wales during the European election campaign in order to remind us again, as if we didn’t know already, of the duty of immigrants to Britain to learn English. The Labour Party has been pushing this line for at least ten years. During his period as Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government between 2001 and 2004, David Blunkett introduced a number of statutory measures that made it impossible to gain British citizenship without passing a language test. And as we know, the future of the English language is one of UKIP’s main concerns. Who didn’t feel sympathy for Nigel Farage that the English language was not to be heard recently on a train journey between London and Kent?

Such messages come at us from across the border, and affect and influence us. This is scarcely a surprise; after all, the London based press is the main source of news for the Welsh people. As a result, opposition exists in parts of Wales to an imaginary enemy that doesn’t exist, namely the immigration of a non-English speaking population. In Welsh speaking communities there could in future be a battle between the monolingual rhetoric of the British state and the bilingual rhetoric of the embryonic Welsh state. We cannot be certain that the Welsh state will win. The Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, has pennies and smarties to spend on the fight; the Daily Mail is published every day. Inevitably the rhetoric of UKIP and English nationalism will undermine the confidence of the Welsh speaking community to insist that Welsh remains a community language, and it will give new confidence to those who oppose this.

What has been the response of the Welsh establishment to all this? They have buried their heads in the sand! There’s been huge reluctance to get to grips with the debate at all.

The reluctance stems from a problem in Welsh political ideology. There is a political consensus in Wales that we should be civic nationalists and this is defined against that which is called, incorrectly in my view, ethnic nationalism. The Welsh political establishment has put the Welsh language in the ethnic box, although via the creation of a concept of Welsh citizenship it could easily be placed in the civic category. Since they believe that language belongs in the ethnic box, politicians are not willing to tell immigrants to Wales that they are expected to do anything in relation to the Welsh language.

Politicians feel that this would not be welcoming, and perhaps it might be unfair too, and that we in Wales stand apart from this sort of politics. Yet it’s false to argue that learning a language is an ethnic imposition. In England, English is taught for civic reasons, in order for the citizen to be able to speak the language of the country and to access civic privileges without being disadvantaged. But the viewpoint in Wales is that the Welsh state cannot place particular obligations upon anyone.

Though this appears quite tolerant, it is a policy which ignores the reality of social power. In Britain and Wales, this always leans heavily in favour of the English language and British identity and is likely to do so even more heavily in the future. A policy not to define Welsh citizenship is a laissez-faire policy. The trouble with laissez-faire policies in the field of language or nationality, as in the field of economics, is that the strong are always likely to come out on top. There is a massive irony in all this. The practical outcome of adopting a policy of not defining Welsh citizenship is to do Ukip’s work for it as immigrants will be compelled to profess British civic values alone.

We have a responsibility to respond to the political situation in Britain as it develops. The way to do this is to develop a concept of inclusive Welsh citizenship.

I now wish to show how attempts were made to build an inclusive concept of citizenship at one point in our history by comparing the attitudes of nationalists and liberals towards nationhood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Citizenship was not an intellectual problem for British Liberals and nonconformists at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Welsh Liberals tended to define the nation on the basis of religion and saw the Welsh people as chapel-going Welsh speakers, and everyone else, the non-Welsh speaking, along too with Anglicans, Catholics and Jews, as foreigners. They had no interest in integrating these people by making them somehow Welsh. The reason for this is that they did not seek the establishment of a Welsh state. Since they did not covet a Welsh state, the question of Welsh citizenship, and who belonged to the Welsh nation, was not important.

Welsh nationalists on the other hand wished to establish a Welsh state and therefore had to define Welsh citizens. This could not be done without discussing the relationship of all the residents of Wales with the country. There was no way of having a Welsh state without having Welsh citizens.

Saunders Lewis’ answer was to base citizenship on language. In part he did so because Wales at the time was a country with a different linguistic composition to Wales today. But nationalists were also keen to do this because a language could be learned, whilst changing someone’s place of birth would be impossible, and changing religion would not only be impossible but also unfair. In changing your religion, you surrender your old identity, but in learning a language you add to a new identity without giving up the old one. In learning Welsh, one does not have to lose one’s grasp of English.

Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru’s  decision to place an emphasis on the Welsh language was not an attempt to exclude people from the nation as has been assumed, but rather it was an attempt to include them.

In Plaid’s seminal first publication, Egwyddorion Cenedlaetholdeb (1926) (The Principles of Nationalism), Saunders Lewis emphasised that immigrants could become Welsh. This was essentially an argument in favour of releasing the Welsh language from its ethnic definition as a tongue used by the ethnic Welsh alone, on ‘the hearths of the Welsh Speakers’, and turning it into a civic language that would be the property of all people from all sorts of different backgrounds:

If the Welsh language and culture are only to be preserved on the hearths of Welsh speakers, then the language and culture will be dead before the end of this century. Because foreigners will come in greater numbers to Wales, to the countryside in the North and to the populous towns and villages in the South; and by their intrusion and multiplicity, they are fast turning the tide of Welsh life into an English one. Only a political movement can save us. We must turn the foreigners – if I were Greek I would say, the barbarians, – they must be turned into Welsh people, and should be given a Welsh way of thinking, the Welsh culture, and the Welsh language. That is what will make safe the only civilisation that is traditional in Wales.

Despite the use of the unwelcoming word ‘barbarians’, this argument turns on the duties and responsibilities of the immigrant; in brief, it is a theory of Welsh citizenship. It is significant that Saunders Lewis did not expect immigrants to Wales to set aside their own ethnicity. A Frenchman could remain a Frenchman so long as he became a ‘Welshman’ as well, by learning Welsh. In an article, ‘Cymreigio Cymru’ (‘Making Wales Welsh’), published in Y Faner in 1925, Lewis elaborated on this by stating:

The Englishman, Scotsman, Frenchman can each one of them, according to this definition, live and thrive in Wales, hold responsible and important jobs, and be a teacher and head teacher, a mayor or alderman or town clerk, and take a full part in the social and political life of the country, – on one simple, fair, appropriate, just   condition, that in his official work – that alone, but in that, totally and without deviation – he uses the Welsh language, the language that has always been the medium of civilisation in Wales.

There is an attempt in all of this to create a civic concept of equal citizenship based on language. Now, let’s be completely clear. We cannot base Welsh citizenship on language today. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru desired the creation of a monolingual, Welsh-speaking Wales, and in that context, making linguistic integration a cornerstone of Welsh citizenship made perfect sense. That is not the aim today, and if a political system does not insist that the native-born learn Welsh, how on earth can it insist that immigrants do so? On what basis could one insist that a man from Poland who moves to Llanelli should learn Welsh, when we know that English is the choice of language for the vast majority of the local population? But the attitude that we shouldn’t expect immigrants to learn Welsh is less fair, and more problematic, in other parts of Wales where the Welsh language has a stronger presence.

What then do we mean by Welsh citizenship in today’s Wales? Welsh citizenship would, as a matter of course, include citizenship in its legal sense, but it would also promote policies concerned with the integration of immigrants into local communities.

We associate legal citizenship mostly with the nation-state, represented in the popular mind by our passports which denote, in the case of most of us, that we are citizens of the United Kingdom. It is also worth noting that legal citizenship can exist on more than one level; indeed some academics talk of multi-level citizenship. All of us who are citizens of the United Kingdom are European citizens, for example. Multi-level citizenship also raises the possibility of Welsh citizenship without necessarily denying the concept of British citizenship. Therefore it would be wholly appropriate for us to try and develop a meaningful concept of Welsh citizenship before or indeed in the absence of independence.

Such sub-state citizenship has been developed in other stateless nations, specifically in Quebec and to some degree in Catalonia. We could follow their example and make establishing citizenship at the Welsh level a part of the devolution project in Wales. Not the least of the reasons to do this would be that it answers an ethnic question in a civic fashion.

How does one go about it? Instead of the ‘British Values’ that come from England, the reference point of Welsh citizenship would be ‘Welsh Values’. These could be defined via a national debate.

Some of the likely characteristics of Welsh citizenship are already fairly evident. In matters regarding race, religion, ethnic background, place of birth and so on, Wales would adopt a very civic type of citizenship. Indeed, this emphasis on the civic is one of the main characteristics of fifteen years of devolution, and it is very different to the emphasis being made in the current debate in England.

But citizenship would also offer a sensible answer in the context of the language problem, as long as one thinks of language as a civic rather than an ethnic characteristic. Citizenship could suggest how to integrate immigrants into Welsh speaking communities. Wales is a bilingual country and it has two equal languages, and two equal linguistic communities too. Concepts of citizenship could be used in order to put some meat on the bones of this theoretical equality. Bilingualism should not be interpreted to mean the unfettered right of non-Welsh speakers to move to Welsh speaking communities and not learn Welsh, thereby forcing the local community to change their language. Responsibility for social integration should not be shouldered in Welsh speaking communities by the indigenous population alone. The responsibility to nurture social cohesion in Welsh speaking communities should be a joint responsibility, and creating civic ideas on how to do this would be a shrewd way of moving forward.

Theoretically at least, it would be fair to expect immigrants to integrate into the Welsh speaking community as well as the English speaking community, and we should aim at giving immigrants some bilingual skills so that they can undertake some basic bilingual tasks at least. It would be great to have a simple statement by the Welsh Government that it would be desirable for people who move to Welsh speaking communities to learn Welsh. I do not foresee that enforcement would follow this, and in the case of immigrants from England we could not introduce compulsion even if we wished. However, such a statement would be of great help in terms of promoting Welsh as a community language in Welsh speaking areas as it would emphasise that learning Welsh was the social expectation, and the psychological pressure on the indigenous population to turn everything Welsh bilingual, and everything bilingual English, would be considerably reduced.

In a perceptive article on citizenship and the Welsh language for the British Council, Gwennan Higham recently noted that the debate concerning language in Wales brings to English all the advantages that stem from being the language of social inclusion. This in turn rebuffs the right of the Welsh language to be a civic language, and downgrades it to the language of an ethnic group, which there is no expectancy of immigrants to learn. This unfairness is reflected by public policy in the field of immigration. Lessons to learn English as a second language, English for Speakers of Other Languages, are provided by the Welsh Government free of charge for all non-English speaking immigrants in Wales who wish to take them, yet no classes exist that are tailored for immigrants who wish to learn Welsh in order to qualify for citizenship. This situation must change. British citizenship in Wales should not be a version of English citizenship. It is true that Welsh for Adults classes exist. But these must be paid for, which highlights the inequity still further.

To make things worse, it appears as if the Welsh Government is placing even less emphasis on this field today than ever before. What other way is there to interpret the government’s recent announcement that it wishes to cut 15% of the Welsh for Adults’ budget? This is money that exists, partially at least, in order to integrate immigrants who move to Welsh speaking areas. What message is conveyed by the fact that this expenditure is being reduced at the same time that the British State is forcing every immigrant to learn English?

The attitude in a country like Quebec is different. A specific policy is followed in order to enable and motivate immigrants to learn French. In Catalonia too, the government in Barcelona attempts to ensure that immigrants who move to Catalonia are integrated through the medium of Catalan instead of Castilian. Of course, the linguistic composition of Wales is different to that in both of these countries. It would be better for us to think of integrating immigrants to both of our country’s linguistic communities, as opposed as to the Welsh-language community or the English-language community alone.

In stateless nations such as Catalonia and Quebec something fairly unique in the Western world is afoot, which provides another reason for creating Welsh citizenship. In the debate over immigration in large countries such as England and France, immigrants are seen in very negative terms as a burden on local society. But in stateless nations, the nature of the struggle between the state and the stateless nation creates a more positive situation from the point of view of the immigrant. Immigrants are often seen as a means of strengthening the minority community, and indeed as a resource, since they add to the numbers of the minority community in question, and they identify too the minority language as multi-ethnic and civic. In Quebec, nationalists are delighted that immigrants are learning French. This strengthens Quebec. This is a far more positive discourse than the negativity which currently exists in England and which unfortunately has spilled over the border into Wales.

Therefore on every level – the defence of the Welsh language and of Welsh culture, giving skills to immigrants, promoting social inclusion, shaping a thriving, multi-ethnic society, developing civic models of belonging in a Welsh polity, developing a different discourse to the more xenophobic one of English nationalism, and also in order to ensure that Wales can remain Welsh within a Britain that could become far more English in the future – establishing Welsh citizenship would be hugely beneficial.

This would be a citizenship that is inclusive of everyone in Wales, but which would also be distinctly Welsh.

Simon Brooks is an academic, author and a journalist.