One of the most poignant statements from John Hume, who died this week at the age of 83, was on the nature of being different. The former SDLP leader and Nobel Laureate said that difference should never be the source of hatred or conflict, but something we should respect.
Difference is, according to Hume, of the essence of humanity. It’s a message that still resonates across the world, and in Wales we’ve celebrated our difference to others for centuries – mostly through our language – which gifts us a unique identity compared to other parts of Britain.
During the Covid crisis, the different national identities between the nations of the UK has become even more apparent. As expected, most column inches have been dedicated to projecting anxiety over events in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon has cemented her position as the most dangerous woman in Britain (in the eyes of readers of The Sun).
But Wales has experienced its own profound sense of cultural and political rebirth for the first time in the devolved era too, largely due to the policies of the Welsh government during the pandemic. ‘For Wales, See England’ is now increasingly becoming an out-of-date expression.
But not everyone wants to celebrate the difference of Wales – its unique culture, language or identity – and that includes our own people. The unknown known “Megan”, who was quoted in the Financial Times as “a Welsh speaker who grew up in Wales” but “now lives in England”, claimed that Welsh speakers spoke the language in order to exclude and insult tourists. The newspaper edited the article to remove the anonymous anti-Welsh language comments (which some logically believe to be totally fabricated) after the online backlash.
The bizarre and offensive comments are not an anomaly in British media reports. The same old stereotypes have been peddled by well-paid (and intelligent) columnists for years: The Sunday Times’ Rod Liddle, leader of the anti-Welsh SW1 brigade, recently sniped that the Welsh language would cause coronavirus to spread quicker and has previously compared our nation to a Third World country; Zoe Williams at The Guardian also helpfully suggested that the Welsh language was pointless; and The Times threw in a poll at the end of an interview with actress Eve Myles last year, asking readers: “Should Wales continue to support the teaching of Welsh in schools?”.
Are we overexaggerating these complaints? Rod seems to think so; he said in response to criticism that it was “incumbent” for him to “make a joke about Wales in every column I write”. But the reality is that Welsh culture is considered fair game for these people.
Their main target is the Welsh language, a strange phenomenon that they can’t quite understand. Despite the rebuttals that criticising Wales and its people is a way of enacting their freedom of speech, it is worth noting that not many journalists would get away with being so vitriolic to another native language and culture without prompting complaints and investigations.
How the Welsh language has continued to face institutional attacks – and thrive in the face of them – is an important story in Welsh history itself, although it is an incredibly complex and long one too. The treatment of the Welsh language – including the debates over Welsh place names – have been covered by other Nation.Cymru contributors recently, highlighting how there is still great anxiety over the future of the language.
You could argue that for every step forward, there is a step backwards; the government has ambitious targets for Welsh speakers this century, for instance, but then the Urdd, an institution that does more than any other to promote the language among the next generation across Wales, is facing collapse.
The case of “Megan”, however, feels like a turning point in how we promote and defend ourselves. While her comments represent the worst of us, the response of the Welsh people showed the best of us. Welsh and non-native speakers rallied around on social media, often rightly overlooked as a ‘bubble’ in Welsh politics, and defended the prestige of our language and outward-looking culture.
In spite of complaints filed against journalists before, it was arguably the first time in recent years that criticism of anti-Welsh sentiment led to a powerful media outlet backing down, indirectly admitting its mistake, and saying no more. I doubt the FT will make the same mistake again.
The response to the article made me think back to 2015, in particular to a lecture given by Professor Laura McAllister at the Hay Festival about the confidence we were lacking as a nation. For most of this decade, our nation relied on the decades-old surface nationalism that we were able to project at the rugby (or, more recently, the football) to affirm our national identity. Over the last few months, that has clearly changed at a rapid pace.
The response to Megan showed we are able to tackle anti-Welsh sentiment – at home and elsewhere – in a way that demonstrates to ourselves and others the prestige of our culture. There are many more steps needed to create that confident nation we all want for Wales.
But defending our language and culture is necessary for building that tenacity and self-belief that will be crucial in the years to come. Only then will we able to truly weaponise our potential for the future.