The furore over TrawsCymru’s union jack bus shows we need to pick our battles
The vast majority of Nation.Cymru readers will be familiar with that infamous slogan on the side of that bus: “We send the EU £350 Million a Week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”.
The slogan, used by the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum, has of course come to represent so much of the current angst and turmoil in UK politics.
Last week, another symbol, on a different bus, caused a smaller but no less energetic debate in one corner of Wales. This time, it was the iconic Trans-Wales bus service TrawsCymru (formerly Traws Cambria), who found themselves in the eye of the twitterstorm.
Their tweet on June 11th promoted the trial of a new split-level coach, which would go “back to the future” in terms of restoring a National Express-style service to the Aberystwyth – Cardiff route.
The point of contention, however, is that the trial coach they had borrowed, also carried a large logo of a panther in the design of the Union flag.
At the time of writing, TrawsCymru’s tweet had attracted 65 written replies, almost all of them hostile to the logo. For the sake of balance, it should be noted that their tweet also attracted 9 “Retweets” and 35 “Likes”.
Among those questioning the use of the Union flag was Elin Jones, AM for Ceredigion. Elsewhere, Siôn Jobbins (@Marchglas), Chair of Yes Cymru protested that he “Won’t go on a bus with a big Union Jack – flag of Colonialism, Welsh Not, Empire and continued subservience of Wales to corrupt Westminster”, although he did welcome the return of the coach to TrawsCymru’s route in principle.
On the following day, June 12th, TrawsCymru felt compelled to issue the following clarification on Twitter:
“Following our post yesterday, we would just like to confirm that the vehicle being used on the T1C is only for a trial period. This is a vehicle that has been loaned to us to test whether a vehicle like this would work on the TrawsCymru network. Thanks!”
On June 13th, Ceri John Davies (@ceritheviking) took to Twitter to defend TrawsCymru. Ceri was recently a Green party candidate in Wales at the recent European Elections.
He has also played a prominent role in the recent wave of protest and awareness-raising about the deliberate damage to the Cofiwch Dryweryn mural at Llanrhystud, a few miles south of Aberystwyth.
On this occasion, however, he argued that TrawsCymru’s British-branded bus was harmless and that the negative response could even harm the national movement:
“This bus is borrowed for a trial period. It looks a major step up for this journey. It has a Union Jack panther on the side. It’s for a trial. Fingers crossed it goes well and increased comfort bus with Welsh logo will follow. We need to be more realistic. It’s a two week loan of a bus to check on improving a transport Corridor…the stick they are getting for trying to improve things is ridiculous. It’s silly and it hits indywales… We have to realise that next door is england. They will have things branded with the Union Jack. Maybe even St. George’s Cross. If we want to and we do want to borrow things, buses, trains, all sorts it may have a brand”
As someone who spent my formative political years in Aberystwyth and frequented the Traws Cambria on a regular basis, I instinctively feel the sensitivities that are raised when an emblematically Welsh company, such as TrawsCymru, parades a Union Jack emblem across hard-fought Plaid Cymru territory in west Wales.
The cultural pressure on these areas is far greater than was the case back in my youth. The Welsh language is losing ground by one street and one smallholding at a time, whilst the Brexit Party is able to leapfrog to the top the European Election poll in Carmarthenshire, after just 6 weeks’ existence.
Never mind the century of devoted activism and personal sacrifice by members of Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr iaith Gymraeg.
It should be asked, therefore: did anyone in TrawsCymru’s PR team not anticipate that a Union flag emblem might be problematic in this particular part of Wales?
If not, then TrawsCymru’s PR operation is either somewhat naïve, or badly informed, or deliberately insensitive. In the words of @Smoky_and_I on Twitter, this was “a PR cock-up, I’m afraid”.
Whatever the rationale for their tweet, it is probably a blessing that TrawsCymru is not responsible for public transport in Derry or West Belfast.
However, a distinction should be made between an insensitive Tweet on the one hand, and the mundane operational issue of trialling a piece of hardwear. If pro-independence policy-makers are seriously opposed to the short-term loan of a bus because of its colours and branding, then TrawsCymruGate raises a far more fundamental issue for the national movement in Wales.
Namely, what is our vision for the future economic and social relationship between Wales and England? Do we have one at all?
As Ceri Davies suggests, the Wales-England relationship is integral to the livelyhoods of hundreds of thousands of Welsh citizens every day. Physical components of that relationship will come with various brandings – Welsh, English, and British – including the appearance of some rogue Welsh (and Welsh-language) branding in the English border counties.
That would still be the case even if Wales voted for independence next Thursday, and it cannot be wished away.
If we are serious about independence, then we are going to have to view the Wales-England link in far more dispassionate terms than at present. Many transactions between England and Wales are conducted invisibly, electronically and impersonally in the context of wider economic and technological globalisation.
Other, smaller transactions, such as catching a bus from Chepstow to Gloucester, or having treatment at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, are deeply personal, even at the most mundane level.
At the micro level, the millions of daily individual transactions between “England” and “Wales” offer a combination of good, bad and – probably overwhelmingly – neutral outcomes to individuals and places in Wales. To use Twitter parlance, #itscomplicated.
If our vision is of a more independent Wales that is fully integrated into Europe, then that will – for better or for worse – involve a high level of transport and infrastructure integration across these isles, and a sharing of technical resources such as TrawsCymru’s trial bus.
Our proximity to England means that we will inevitably see residual English / British branding on our roads and rails, alongside other non-Welsh companies such as Deustche Bahn – Schenker which run daily rail freight services in Wales.
In my view, TrawsCymru has made an error of judgement and has misunderstood the power of national symbolism in rural west Wales.
However, I would not put it in the same category as the deliberate UK government branding of “Prince of Wales Bridge”, or the substantively far more serious rebranding of Welsh Meat as “British”.
TrawsCymruGate suggests that in these confusing and upsetting times, it can be hard to pick our battles.
Dr. Carwyn Tywyn currently works as a caseworker for a UK disability charity, and also performs across Wales as a folk harpist. Previously, Carwyn studied at the Welsh Governance Centre under the supervision of the Centre’s founder, the late Barry Jones. He was Political Correspondent for Golwg magazine from 2006-07. He is the co-author of Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism (2008) (With Prof. Rhys Jones).