We must fight back against a popular culture that depicts the Welsh as idiots

Promo Pic for MTV’s The Valleys

Samuel Parry

Everyone in Wales is familiar with the British stereotypes about their language and culture.

We’ve all probably been told at some point that our language is pointless as ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ or that we should go home to copulate with a sheep.

These aren’t just the opinions of some bigoted trolls – they’re ingrained in popular culture.

Blackadder said that you need “half a pint of phlegm in your throat just to pronounce the place names” in Wales, and Gwen from Gavin and Stacey was called a “leek-munching sheep shagger”.

In Notting Hill, the stupid Welshman, Spike (Rhys Ifans), is juxtaposed with the wonderfully bourgeois, quintessentially English Hugh Grant.

In ‘The Thick of It’, there is only one Welsh voice throughout; a woman that asks the Secretary of State if he knows what it’s like to clean up his own mother’s piss.

This scene wasn’t even based in Wales, yet the accent was used to accentuate the comedic effect.

Another example is MTV’s show ‘The Valleys’ where every commercial and poster included at least one sheep, not to mention the fact that the South Wales Valleys is a conglomerate of around 1 million people, made up of over 20 Valleys, all with distinct histories.

The opening sequence is heartbreaking as one of the cast states “there are no jobs and nothing going on. There are no opportunities for us at all”.

These are real, material issues and concerns of people that live in these regions yet this is unimportant for the viewer; economic impoverishment coupled with a strong, regional, accent (which is often used to convey unintelligence) equals comedic viewing.

If we complain about these jokes and stereotypes we’re told that we have a chip on our shoulder, and that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

But there is no such thing as ‘just a joke’. These barbs have a completely serious purpose.

Comedy perpetuates the myth of the Welsh clown; the Welsh are portrayed as simple, poor, indolent and unable to cope on their own.

R.S. Thomas explains the effect that popular culture has had on the Welsh psyche; “We are second-class citizens. And that status creates a very real feeling of inferiority among us”.

Popular culture is crucial in understanding mechanisms of domination and hegemony.

By imposing on us an inferior Welsh identity the aim is to put pressure on us to adopt a ‘superior’ British identity.

Assimilation

This has not been a recent development. In fact, the way Wales and the Welsh have been depicted has been a deliberate strategy by the English and then British state for hundreds of years.

It began when Wales was annexed by England in 1536. Political annexation was coupled with a campaign of cultural homogenisation; the Welsh language, the language of the peasantry, was banned from any job that had high status – that is, administrative and legal circles.

If the Welsh gentry wanted to maintain their status they had to assimilate into the world-view of the dominant group. They were born Welsh but had to become culturally British.

This led to a cultural division being superimposed on the class division; Welsh culture was identified as inferior and associated with the ‘backward’ peasantry and working classes.

The gentry were also the patrons of the Welsh bards. The Welsh bards were the early modern period equivalent of a national news service. They roamed Wales, spreading news, entertainment, and keeping Wales’ history and mythology alive.

In other words, preserving a sense of Welsh national identity as something that wasn’t inferior to Englishness.

When the gentry turned their backs on Welsh culture they also stopped giving these bards money. This would be the modern equivalent of every Welsh newspaper, TV and radio station, or news website suddenly finding its funding cut.

Lacking a printing press until the late 18th century, the Welsh become dependent on English and then British sources of information.

These sources of information associated Britishness with the middle class and the bourgeoisie. Welsh culture, meanwhile, became the reason that people were poor and ‘less intelligent’.

The most notable example of this was the Treachery of the Blue Books (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision); a Parliamentary report published by William Williams, the MP for Coventry in 1847.

The report stated that education provision in Wales was extremely poor (which was probably correct). However, the commissioners concluded that the Welsh were also ignorant, lazy and immoral.

But they were stupid, ignorant, lazy and immoral because of the Welsh language and culture. If they became British they would be ‘just as good’ as everyone else!

Economic exploitation

But why do this? Because hand in hand with the cultural domination of Wales has come political domination and economic exploitation.

Wales is a country rich in natural resources. The aim was and still is to extract these resources while keeping the country underdeveloped and dependent.

This is the main reason as to why all major rail and road links in Wales flow from West to East, rather than South to North; infrastructure is for extraction, not to create an indigenous Welsh economy.

The only way to justify this is to convince Wales that she was ‘backwards’ and could not look after herself. For Wales, this is a vicious circle:

  • the periphery is poor partly due to extraction by the core.
  • the core asserts the reason the periphery is poor is due to its distinct culture.
  • this justifies the core’s presence in the periphery and allows it to extract raw materials.

There was nothing nuanced about the propaganda that supported this process. Here is the Times on the subject in 1866:

“It is true [that Wales] possesses valuable minerals, but these have been chiefly developed by English energy and for the supply of English wants. A rare existence on the most primitive food of a mountainous race is all that the Welsh could enjoy if left to themselves…

“All the progress and civilization of Wales has come from England, and a sensible Welshman would direct all his endeavours towards inducing his countrymen to appreciate their neighbours instead of themselves.”

How do you stop other cultures and nationalities from asking for independence? You make them think that they are unable to be independent due to flaws inherent in their nationality.

It is a much stronger, and cheaper, tool than weapons and coercion.

Today, Independence is deemed impossible because Wales is ‘too poor’ to be independent, without grasping the role of the British state in this dependency and poverty.

Independence is also impossible due to the character of the Welsh, usually due to our indolent nature; there isn’t even a Welsh word for ‘entrepreneur’.

We are poor, we are unintelligent. And it remains the case that, as in the days of the Blue Books, we are poor and unintelligent because we’re Welsh.

Counter-narrative

So what can be done to challenge the ‘common sense’ orthodoxy that surrounds Wales in popular culture?

The reality is that Wales cannot change how other identities choose to depict them, but Wales can create a counter-narrative against these depictions.

Current attempts are failing. Wales’ reliance on British media outlets create problems across civil society; political knowledge is poor in Wales, including the knowledge of what is devolved and what isn’t.

Wales is almost wholly reliant on the British Broadcasting Corporation for much of its political information as well as its understanding of who the Welsh are and what part they play in society.

A number of the BBC’s shows are now #MadeinWales but very few of them are actually set in Wales.

Dr.Who is not a Welsh show. It does not show the peculiarities of modern Welsh life. It is rather a British show that is filmed in Cardiff.

So how shall we create these counter-narratives? Much of it starts with education.

I was left horrified after watching the BBC’s 6 Nations trailer for the 2017 competition where people were asked to name famous people and inventions from their nation.

The majority of the answers were stereotypes and caricatures yet the differences in the answers between nations was staggering.

England had Horatio Nelson and the internet, Scotland Robert the Bruce and the television, and Wales? Tom Jones and the invention of “red dragons”.

Wales hs much more to offer than an ageing pop star and an imaginary animal, yet in Wales, we are never taught about Welsh history.

We have no idea that the equals sign (=) was invented by a Welshman or that the theory of natural selection was published by a Welshman before Darwin.

The Assembly should put a more concrete focus on Welsh, rather than British history in order that Welsh people be able to place themselves within the narrative of the nation.

We need to move away tired clichés of leeks and sheep and move towards the concrete reality of life in modern Wales and the past that has led to it.

We need to reform education in Wales, as well as devolve the Welsh media, and start making TV shows that truly reflect the Welsh nation.

Perhaps then, when asked about famous Welsh people we will answer: Raymond Williams, the father of the theory of cultural materialism. Robert Recorde, the creator of the equals sign. Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the theory of natural selection.

Perhaps it’s time that we take ourselves just a little more seriously.

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Tal Mac
Guest
Tal Mac

Agree with the sentiment. Not sure if you were being mischievous with ‘entrepreneur’ – but the Cymraeg is ‘Mentrwr’, but as it’s French you can use it – of course George Bush famously said ‘ the problem with the French is that they haven’t got a word for entrepreneur..’ Kids growing up in Wales should know how influential Welsh men and women have been in the World. From the majority Welsh signatories of the Declaration of Independence (not sure if that was a good thing), 6 of the first US presidents being of Welsh descent (again, good or not..?), but… Read more »

Essex Havard
Guest
Essex Havard

Clywch clywch! Very strong argument for Welsh schools to teach Welsh history. Couple of other “firsts” for you: the world’s first secret ballot box is in a museum in Merthyr (birth of democracy) as is the world’s first steam whistle (birth of er, Thomas the Tank Engine?). Wales was also the first industrial nation (defined as having a larger proportion of the population working in industry than in agriculture).

anon
Guest
anon

An article that decries portrayals of the Welsh as stupid but then portrays the Welsh in exactly the same way. Rather than see the Welsh of the past as thinking intelligent beings able to make their own decisions, it portrays them as hapless victims of some conspiracy by a selfish, cleverer neighbour. For example, rather than see the energy, sense of national awakening and reforms to Welsh religion and education that came out of the Blue Books, it portrays the Welsh as suddenly fooled into thinking British was better. Rather than allowing that the Welsh of the past might have… Read more »

naturiaethwr
Guest

Da iawn Sam. In relation to the extraction of resources/benefits to England we need only go back to the Silk Commission. “The needs of England in particular” was the reason that energy consenting powers were not recommended for full devolution to Wales. Full story here https://naturiaethwr.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/bil-cymru/

Meic Birtwistle
Guest
Meic Birtwistle

I would point out that much of this is about class rather than as you are always keen to suggest nationality and applies to other parts of the UK. Particularly it relates to the collapse of local press in general and media policies under Thatcher and subsequent governments that have massively undermined public service broadcasting which had been developed to challenge these stereotypes and represent these varied communities in the past. Murdoch and co have no interest in the multi- faceted cultures that get in the way of their profit- driven media enterprises around the world. Having said that Welsh… Read more »

Sam Parry (@SamuelParry94)
Guest

Hi Meic. Fair point, but as I showed in the article, a class structure becomes superimposed on a national character. A real class analysis also looks at race, ethnicity, gender, language and how these ‘compliment’ class structures.

berrydaines
Guest
Carl Morris
Guest

Here’s a classic speech listing Welsh scientists of reknown (page 78), from the late Phil Williams AM.

naturiaethwr
Guest

Mae hwnna’n wirioneddol wych. Wyt ti’n gwybod a ddaeth y rhestr o 200 o enwau gwyddonwyr Cymreig i fodolaeth?

anon
Guest
anon

An article that decries portrayals of the Welsh as stupid but then portrays the Welsh in exactly the same way. Rather than see the Welsh of the past as thinking intelligent beings able to make their own decisions, it portrays them as hapless victims of some conspiracy by a selfish, cleverer neighbour. For example, rather than see the energy, sense of national awakening and reforms to Welsh religion and education that came out of the Blue Books, it portrays the Welsh as suddenly fooled into thinking British was better. Rather than allowing that the Welsh of the past might have… Read more »

Pensaer
Guest
Pensaer

English doesn’t have a word for entrepreneur either; entrepreneur is a French word!

Robin Huw Bowen
Guest

Gwych, Samuel. Mae angen i ni gychwyn ymgyrch o ddifrif i gywiro’r sefyllfa.

Celynen
Guest
Celynen

The English, Scots and Irish will look will always look down on us because we haven’t cultivated a contrived, easily accessible Anglophone identity.

I see this as a blessing. I quite like the fact that our language and accents get under their skin. I don’t want to be associated with them or to be liked by them.

We don’t need an Anglophone counter-narrative, we should reject their culture and media and embrace yr hen iaith.

Toni
Guest
Toni

As an English born Scots person, (name Welch) I had actually been reading this article with recognition. The English have done a great job if you think the Scots and Irish look down on the Welsh. We often speak about the Celtic nations being in bother/sisterhood. The Scots also suffered from having their history suppressed. Having the SNP in government and a strong grassroots independence culture has helped with that in the past decade or so. Be proud of your culture and don’t let anyone tell you that it is inferior. Our differences make us more interesting. I sincerely hope… Read more »

Celynen
Guest
Celynen

I’m proud of the Welsh language and culture and see no need for a ‘Celtic sisterhood’ as you put it. We have our own identity.

Gabrielle
Guest
Gabrielle

who says the English Scots and Irish look down on the Welsh? Is this the drunk, stupid Irish, or the drunk, deep-fried mars bar eating Scots? Or is this the thick dull Brummies, or the fighting drunk people from Newcastle, or the skivving, conniving Liverpudlians, or the drug fuelled layabouts of Manchester…. and on and on and on…. Why are you talking about ‘the English’ as though they are an unpleasant species? People are individuals, the ‘dominant culture’ is London and the South East, where the money and the monied class is. But even there there are plenty of decent… Read more »

Michael Harry Fisher
Guest

Sadly much of this applies to Cornwall and the Cornish also

Anne Parsons
Guest

Cornish and proud.

Sharon morgan
Guest
Sharon morgan

Ardderchog! Clywch clywch!

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Just before Owain Glyndwr revolted the troubles in Wales were being reported to the English parliament who called us “barefooted idiots”. A few years later Henry IV was telling people Owain Glyndwr was setting out to destroy England and the English language. Underestimating Cymry is like putting your hand in a lions mouth thinking it won’t bite it off.

jimnarlene
Guest
jimnarlene

Great article, has echoes of what happened in Scotland and Ireland too.

Hannah
Guest
Hannah

Amazing. Just amazing. Perfectly put.

Only one thing. I dislike the way you use “British” should say English instead. We were British long before the English came. The romans called us British.

Sibrydionmawr
Guest
Sibrydionmawr
Edi
Guest

Good article. The Cornish too receive this abuse and sometimes worse too we should also remember…..yet they keep voting Westminster parties religiously

Celynen
Guest
Celynen

So? The Cornish no longer exist and quite frankly people who LARP as Cornishmen deserve to be ridiculed. I don’t want to be allied with them. Welsh is a living language and culture with a vibrant literature and it is still possible for people to live primarily through the medium of Welsh. It is this identity that needs to be nutured whereas our Anglo-Welsh culture invites mockery due to its parochial, provincial and underdeveloped nature. I don’t want to be an English-speaking Welshman. Pan-Celticism (a primarily Anglo invention) serves no purpose to the Welsh nation. It’s bad enough being a… Read more »

leigh richards
Guest

“The Cornish no longer exist and quite frankly people who LARP as Cornishmen deserve to be ridiculed. I don’t want to be allied with them” well mebyon kernow and a few others battling to maintain cornish national identity in the face of tremendous odds and obstacles constructed by westminster would certainly take issue with that sweeping statement Celynen. And dont forget until very recently it wasnt unusual for wales detractors to dismiss our claims to national identity in the same offhand and ignorant manner. And on the matter of cornish identity there is an ongoing campaign to establish a cornish… Read more »

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

How is relating us to the Romans any better than relating us to England? I’m not the son of Romans. I’m the son of Celts.

Tal Mac
Guest
Tal Mac

I think Celynen is a bot. Be wary of bots.

Rosemary Dempster
Guest
Rosemary Dempster

How do you think the Scots feel? We are called the Whinging Scots, even by the son of a Scottish friend, and he is in the SAS,

Ian Macnaughton
Guest
Ian Macnaughton

As a half Scottish Londoner who spent most his holidays in Wales, with a lot of Welsh friends I have to say that any nation that can only feel strong if belittles it’s neighbours has a problem. I despair that the ‘English’ continue to ridicule and damage whatever credibility they had particularly when they start talking about their values. Brexit is the nail in the coffin. Sadly much of Wales seems to have voted for that. No nation should have to see itself primarily through the eyes of another.

Gwen Pfouts
Guest

American here with probable Welsh and Scottish roots. Please tell us all the history we are missing. I figured out that I may be from the Scottish clearances and that I may be named Gwendolyn because I may be a bit Welsh. I do not know but I can tell you my grandparents were Presbyterians. I just want to know our history. Mahaffeys, from clan MacFie, and we were just along the English, Scots border, Rupert, Blackburn, Baker. Please help. Thank you.

barbosa
Guest
barbosa

The Galicians perceive all this because we suffered it this way from the Spaniards.

Meic Birtwistle
Guest
Meic Birtwistle

Interested to hear how a significant proportion of the above is helping create a better nation! Agweddau o’r Oesoedd Tywyll….. Meic B.

Maeloc
Guest
Maeloc

Galicia is to Spain what Wales is to Britain…Exactly the same…uncanny

Andy Warby
Guest
Andy Warby

As an aside what’s the English for entrepreneur?

mar
Guest
mar

If that’s the case then Galicia should be free in that case…as should Wales. Cymru am byth…. Because it belongs to the Welsh people, to our children, and their children. Not to the English people, or to non Welsh people including the Romans, and most certainly not to the recent “British” immigrants or modern invaders as I prefer to call them, of her “majesty”??England’s lovely foreign fucking policy… Oh, and as extra lovely editorial note, it is true and correct that along with Welsh absent- mindedness, ddim ignorance rather I’d label it as brainwashing rather. It is safe to say… Read more »