Warburton’s Welshness and the national game

As Wales meets England at Twickenham today John Winterson Richards reflects on competing visions of identity

It is a safe bet that Jonathan Edwards, the Honourable Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, is not exactly the most popular man in his own party at the moment. The more thoughtful members of Plaid Cymru have been striving for years to build it into a true ‘Party of Wales’ – all of Wales – and to get rid of its image as a refuge for Welsh language monomaniacs.

They look north to Scotland, to the SNP of Alex Salmond with its majority at Holyrood, and they know it can be done. Then along comes Mr Edwards with his ill-considered ‘tweet’:

“I really find it difficult to understand how someone does not consider themselves to be Welsh can be captain of the national rugby side.”

Mr Edwards is perfectly within his rights to criticise a rugby player. Most of us do it all the time. Yet it was a huge mistake to pick on the current captain, Sam Warburton, a highly respected player and an excellent ambassador for Wales off the pitch. His gentlemanly acceptance of a grossly disproportionate red card in the World Cup won him admirers all over the world and made us all proud to be Welsh.

This is not good enough for Mr Edwards. The fact that Mr Warburton has English parents and describes himself as British is apparently enough to exclude him from being Welsh in Mr Edwards’ eyes.

Plaid strategists will be appalled by this. They can read the statistics. A very large number of people now living in Wales were born outside Wales, or have one or more non-Welsh parents, or are descended from people in those categories. These people have votes. Many have often wondered if Plaid secretly believes in a narrow definition of ‘Welshness’ that somehow excludes them. Mr Edwards’ words will fuel those fears.

However, Mr Edwards has at least given us the opportunity to ask a broader question: what does it mean to be Welsh? More specifically, what unites us as Welsh people and what differentiates us from other people?

Definitions of nationality based on race are now very unfashionable, but, to be honest, they were always pretty dodgy. Waves of invaders and economic immigration have left us as much a ‘mongrel nation’ as the English. This is, incidentally, true of most nations.

Nor can we really boast a common culture, at least not one that is radically different from the Anglo-American culture that dominates much of the developed world. There is, of course, a separate Welsh-language culture, but the key word here is ‘separate’ – it means absolutely nothing to 80 per cent of the population of Wales. There is no equivalent Anglo-Welsh culture among the English-speaking majority of Welsh people that compares with the Anglo-Scots and Anglo-Irish traditions that have made such a huge impact on world literature. There are regional or sub-regional cultures, like that of the south Wales Valleys – Max Boyce, Gren, rugby, eand so on – but they mean very little in other parts of Wales. They are no more a national culture than the regional cultures of Yorkshire or Devon.

The language itself cannot be quoted as a defining feature of Welshness, since it is spoken, even on a part-time basis, by less than a fifth of Welsh people. It is certainly distinctive, but, judging by the fierce comments on both sides whenever the subject is raised on this website, it divides far more than it unites.

Wales undoubtedly exists as a geographical entity, but it i an artificial one. An economic geographer designing local government regions purely from the point of view of practicality would be unlikely to unite north and south Wales in the same entity. The current borders of Wales were drawn by the English Parliament entirely on the basis of historic political factors.

Wales existed as a united country under a Welsh ruler only very briefly, under Gruffydd ap Llewelyn for about six years in the 11th Century. Otherwise, Wales seems to have existed for most of its history only as an idea or an ideal.

All that having been said, this particular Welsh-born son of a Welsh-born, Welsh-speaking father, and an English-born, English-speaking Welsh mother – her parents were in the Midlands, like many Welsh people, because that was where the work was – is proud to call himself Welsh.

In the end, it is perhaps a mistake to try to define ‘Welshness’ – like Gordon Brown’s clumsy attempt to define ‘Britishness’. It is either something you feel or you do not. There is no point those who feel it trying to impose it on those who lack that feeling.

From this it also follows that it is a mistake to try to give ‘Welshness’ a political significance it is too nebulous to sustain.

In particular, people need not be forced to choose between being Welsh and being British. Most of us have no problem combining both. There is no contradiction between cheering when the Welsh snatched the Six Nations from the English last year, and cheering when the Scot Andy Murray won Wimbledon, when the Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy won the US Open, and the Englishman Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France – or taking satisfaction in the above-their-weight performance of the combined British team in the Olympics and Paralympics.

Nor is there a contradiction between believing passionately that Wales is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom and also loving the different beauties of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and our offshore islands. A pride in the history of Wales, and of one’s own ancestors, does not prohibit a similar pride in being able to call oneself a compatriot of Churchill, Shakespeare, Constable, Wordsworth, Nelson, Conan Doyle, Faraday, Smith, Marlborough, Locke, Newton, Mill, Lister, Buchan, Turner, Austen, Boyle, Drake, Boulton and Watt, and the rest of the greatest gallery of worthies that any nation can boast.

Nor should patriotism be considered dependant on support for a particular political agenda or constitutional arrangement. The point is coming very clearly out of the Scottish referendum debate that a unionist is just as much a patriotic Scot as a nationalist. The same is true in Wales.

If some feel that their own Welshness requires having a nation-state to express it, then that is their feeling and it must be respected as such. But those of us who feel so confident in our Welsh identity that we feel no need for a nation-state to express it are surely entitled to demand the same respect for our feelings in return. After all, the Welsh nation existed for centuries without separate political organisations and was, if anything, closer then to having a distinctive unifying culture than it is now.

Finally, let us agree that there is no place for racism in these debates, even the ‘mild’ anti-English strain. Let us even admit that many of us are privately rather fond of England and the English – but we trust that will not prevent Sam and the boys crushing them mercilessly into the mud of Twickenham today. Cymru am byth!

John Winterson Richards is the author of The Xenophobes Guide to the Welsh.

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