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