Articulating a Welsh multiculturalism

Huw Williams reviews ‘Wales Unchained’ by Daniel G. Williams.

Review: Wales Unchained – Daniel G. Williams

This UWP publication is the latest in a series of rich and provocative contributions from the Swansea Professor.  This summer it has provided the backdrop to a stimulating debate between himself and Simon Brooks, author of the previously reviewed Pam Na Fu Cymru. The book provides a powerful if indirect challenge to Brooks’ critique of progressive politics, and its capacity to buttress the Welsh language and Welsh nationalism. They are two very different texts, and if Brooks tears up one’s mental picture of the Welsh radical tradition with swingeing cuts and thrusts, reading Wales Unchained is akin to a series of fizzing explosions in one’s head.  Lucid commentaries and insights around the question of Welsh identity flow thick and fast. Both books achieve what good academic work ought to: they leave you with a fresh appreciation and new perception of the subject matter.  Wales will never seem the same again.

Williams presents us with a collection of comparative essays that takes Welsh and American literary figures as its main focus.  In discussing ideas of Welsh identity through concepts such as race, class, ethnicity, language and gender he endeavours to bring our attention to the ‘diversity and complexities of Welshness’ and unchain us from our hackneyed self-perceptions of ourselves as a people.  Part of this process unfolds through allowing us a glimpse of ourselves from stateside, in particular the American response to Dylan Thomas.

More broadly, and more politically, he situates his writing as a response to both the “assimilationist” tendencies of Dai Smith’s writing that have worked to marginalise a ‘still-living Welsh language culture’, and latter day attempts to envisage a ‘post-national’ Wales.  This more recent tendency rejects the possibility of Welsh nation-state in place of ‘a partially autonomous Wales that has a liberating effect for all its people’ – as proposed by the historian Chris Williams.

Whilst challenging and criticizing such perspectives is his primary purpose, Williams asserts there is reason to be wary of the possible homogenizing and discriminating effects of the nationalist project. In this respect he provides implicit and explicit criticisms against a narrowly defined account of cultural Welsh nationalism that can create boundaries.  It is his aim to elicit the possibility of a multicultural, multiethnic Welsh nationalism that is able to sustain its linguistic and cultural particularity whilst remaining dynamic, tolerant and open.

In turning to literature and the ‘testimony of art’ he shows us how Welsh identity has perpetually been in such a state of flux during the ‘American century’ and is open to negotiation in the future. In so doing he demonstrates that – for better and for worse – we inhabit a far more complex and variegated culture than is often recognized. The writing of Rhys Davies and literary representations of boxing expose racial tensions behind our internationalist veneer, whilst Williams’ account of Bevan and Paul Robeson shows this same attraction to internationalism amongst Welsh historians elides the more ethnic elements of Robeson’s thought – and his admiration for the Welsh culture and language, still prevalent in interwar South Wales.

In the most contemporary chapter, Gwyneth Lewis and Menna Elfyn’s poetry serves to suggest how a forward-thinking bilingualism can both conserve and promote Welsh language and culture in a dynamic, transnational manner.   This is accompanied, however, by an anxious recognition that bilingualism may be a stepping stone to a monolingual, Anglicised Wales, and this is where the tensions with some of Brooks’ more conservative tendencies are less profound.  Imagining a multicultural, autonomous Wales where the Welsh language takes pride of place entails the same move that Brooks covets, namely the establishment of English and Welsh as the languages of our civic identity – and a bilingualism that entails the ownership of both languages by the many and not the few.

However, Williams presents a less obvious target for critics of Welsh nationalism and the Welsh language, because his vision explicitly embraces the progressive left and so recourse to the accusations of narrow-mindedness and solipsism is forestalled. In this respect, it is no surprise that the ‘Welsh European’ and New Left figurehead, Raymond Williams, is the primary source of inspiration (warning: the chapter on Williams needs to be read in the morning with a strong cup of coffee, as Williams shifts gear from the original and engaging to a weighty and robust defence of Pandy’s finest against his scholarly critics).

In engaging with the critique of Raymond Williams by Black British critics, Daniel Williams alludes to a famous study by Paul Gilroy to suggest that ‘mutual lines of communication and solidarity may emerge’ from the realisation that if ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack, Wales ain’t there either’.  And indeed, both Williams’ and Brooks’ concerns about the place of Welsh culture and language have been interestingly reflected in Benjamin Zephanaiah’s thoroughly engaging account of his time at this year’s National Eisteddfod 

Zephanaiah was excited and enthralled, to the point that he advocated teaching elements of Welsh across the UK – yet even he ultimately implies a view of Welsh culture as one minority amongst many in a British Anglophone Civic society.  He does not perceive the difference between such a vision, and a Welsh bilingual civic identity that is itself home to a different kind of multiculturalism.

In his final chapter, Daniel Williams suggests that British ‘multiculturalism’ will always place Welsh culture in a ‘defensive’ position, as an ethnic minority culture fighting for its existence within the British melting pot (which homogenises differences) or the ‘salad bowl’ (in which other identities are allowed to maintain their difference within an Anglophone civic space). In his dialogues with Simon Brooks, Williams asked us to consider a more fundamental question: what’s the make-up of the ‘bowl’ or ‘pot’ itself?

His suggestion is that while Britishness can easily incorporate a Welshness defined in ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ terms, as an ingredient in the pot, it has a problem when ‘Wales’ itself is the crucible of difference in which a multiplicity of hyphenated Welshnesses (Black-Welsh, Jewish-Welsh etc.) might co-exist.  For this multiplicity to flourish we must be emancipated from the bonds of Britishness.  ‘Wales Unchained’ can therefore be read as an attempt at offering a basis for a ‘cultural nationalist’ project for the twenty-first century: a project less engaged in defending a cultural past, but in articulating a distinctive Welsh multiculturalism – built on a bilingual base – for the future.

Huw L Williams is Lecturer in Philosophy for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol.

14 thoughts on “Articulating a Welsh multiculturalism

  1. Many thanks for bringing this book to my attention. It certainly deserves to be read and a pot of Colombian coffee will be strong-brewed in anticipation.

    Sadly, I expect that at ‘hate-o’clock’ today, we will be deluged by those who insist that intellectual and cultural engagement must remain anathema.

  2. I shall also need to buy a copy of this book, though at £85 I’ll need some time to save up the pennies.

    It’s interesting that there is only one comment on this topic which suggests a lack of interest in the subject. Yet if the new Wales is to be a just society, then it will require a detailed understanding of the cultural make-up of Wales to ensure that our different communities get the recognition they deserve and are included in the social fabric of our country. The difficulty is that to do that, certain preconceptions about the nature of Welsh identity would need to change. The population of Wales, which is after all the country, is not defined by the Cymreictod of the Fro nor the working class of the Valleys, though both of these traditions form an important and essential part of our culture. But this view of the Welsh is only partial. Our society is a lot more complex and multi-layered than that but the Welsh media seems to return to the Fro and the Valleys only to reflect the national culture.

    There are two other related books that are relevant to this discussion. The first is “A Tolerant Nation?: Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Wales” by Charlotte Williams et al; and the second is “A Tolerant Nation?: Revisiting Ethnic Diversity in a Devolved Wales” by Charlotte Williams et al.

  3. Nothing wrong with indulging into a highfalutin academic debate on definitions of Welshness via its culture and language but one must not forget the reality and this reality as it stands now is akin to an Orwellian world where there is no outlet to question or debate the wisdom of imposing a minority language and its culture upon the majority.

    There is no question that the Welsh Government is applying a form of Social Engineering and is using education and public employment as the principal tool to achieve the so called ‘bilingual nation’.

    The stranglehold of an open and transparent debate on this very subject is nearly absolute and is done with the full complicity and endorsement of the main Welsh media who ‘just happen’ to be in the hands of Welsh language first speakers.

    Perhaps our distinguished academics can break what it appears to be an impregnable wall at least for now and open up the long overdue debate ‘Can the Social Engineering into a language and culture of the few by compulsion work’ and is it good for Wales?

  4. No Jacques, your world is the Orwellian world which no-one else but yourself inhabits.

    The discussion about multiculturalism is not a debate about Welsh identity but rather how people from different cultural backgrounds can a) live together in a positive fashion and b) enjoy the same life and work opportunities as their fellow citizens.

  5. This does seem to be a very apt article at the moment . Migration and conflict appear to be the norm and there’s no reason to assume that this won’t go on for quite some time to come. History shows us that we are far from immune to conflicts in Europe and given the right spark, then this is a continent that is just as explosive as the Middle East.

    We need more exposure to other perspectives and cultures in order to prosper as a nation and irrespective of individual views, we are going to get that anyway whether we want it or not. We need to present an overriding vision of our culture that is easy to integrate with, something that overtly discourages blind contempt for minority others as a core principle. This is nothing new to Wales, but how positively we do things going forward will probably define who we are as a nation in the future. If we manage to engage new arrivals in the things we hold most dear, our core traditions and values, then everyone will be a winner.

    Personally I think it would be easier for minority groups to engage with somewhere that encourages a multiplicity of identities and cultures. This would be more appealing than trying to conform to notions of a British one, with strange entrance and loyalty tests, but who knows. Immigration of a diverse range of peoples can only make Wales more vibrant and creative and may even strengthen our existing culture and traditions.

  6. Brilliant response RBJ and in our wonderful ‘multicultural / bilingual’ world of Wales we have language equality where lesser equals the monoglot English speakers are frozen out of public jobs because they can’t communicate with the ‘more equal’ the Welsh speakers should any of them demand to be addressed in Welsh – Where else in the world a tribal minority with a language and a culture of no relevance in the modern world including most of Wales would have the same privileges – Orwellian or not?

  7. What makes one language “tribal” and another not? Is Norwegian or Icelandic “tribal” or are they somehow “relevant to the modern world”? Mr Protic’use of language betrays that beneath a claimed concern for human rights lurks simple anti-Welsh prejudice.

  8. The language was socially engineered out, so why not socially engineer it back in? Can one really be worse than the other? It sounds perfectly reasonable to me!

    I’m sorry, I shouldn’t feed the beast that is J Protic.

  9. J Protic talks of “a tribal minority with a language and culture of no relevance”. What next?: Imperial loyalty? Eugenics? This is not comment for mature debate, it is insulting and dangerous rhetoric.

  10. GT Not surprised with the reliance on personal insults in the absence of any rational argument as to why an irrelevant language to most people of Wales is being imposed with a vicious zeal and to the detriment to everything that matters or should matter to Wales.

    Time for those blinded by bigotry to get a relationship with reason and above all time to protect the future of our children whose education is damaged through unrealistic and often toxic Welsh language imposition – Freedom of choice seems to be missed out from the post devolution Welsh governance!

  11. Being neither particularly ‘articulate’ nor ‘cultured’, I didn’t really understand this article. In fact, it did cause ‘fizzing explosions in one’s head’ – ie. a mild headache. This also, perhaps, illustrates the yawning void that exists between planet ‘academia’ and the rest of us peasants.

  12. Glyn – the language hasn’t really been engineered out, Welsh is still the main language spoken in parts of north and west Wales. No matter how much J.Protic and J.Ruck like to drum on about Welsh being a dead langauge, it’s very much a living langauge.

  13. “Nationalist Project”???

    The only Nationalist Project in Britain is the English Nationalist Project to make all of Britain English.

    The Welsh ARE the British. It is our correct name, and the proper name of the Welsh Language. But, for all his protestations of love for Britain and Britishness you will not get David Cameron demeaning himself to learn any of the native British languages; Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish or Manx.

    A nation is a community and the Welsh, have always been a nation and always will be. This is an uncomfortable truth for Unionist Nationalists who what to rewrite history and redraw the Germanic English as British and seek to destroy the British cultures to create an English uniformity.

    Indeed, if we are all so “British” and “British” is so good and so important let the native British languages be taught all over Britain and particularly England.

    No! There’s no chance is there?

    That, on its own, is proof to any doubters that English Unionism is Unjust, Immoral and Prejudiced. That’s the “Nationalist Project” we need to end, now!

  14. “Diversity is the magic, let unity be the joy”. It is widely accepted that you do not need to speak Cymraeg to be Welsh. Yet, totalitarian, authoritarian government compels people and does not accept the bicultural nature of Wales. Wales was colonised. Unless we accept the colonial past as an acceptable feature of our society we are doomed to continue eulogising our history and seeking to blame.

    If Wales is to become truly ‘multicultural’ it first MUST address its bicultural identity.

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