Harry Waveney, English Welsh For Indy
For independence to be successful it must have the support of the English. Or at least the English people who live in Wales.
I’m one of them. I grew up in Lowestoft, the most easterly town in England, sat on the edge of Suffolk just south of Great Yarmouth (where I was born) and a forty minute train ride from Norwich, the home of Alan Partridge, Colman’s Mustard and where Ed Sheeran used to play gigs when he was still selling CDs out of his backpack.
Lowestoft is the birthplace of Lil Chris, Tim Westwood, The Darkness and a pervading sense of hopelessness about the future. I made my home in Wales after leaving home hoping I’d find somewhere better.
Lowestoft is a lot like many parts of Wales. The industries upon which most of the town was built (fishing and some manufacturing) have disappeared and, although it still gets a bit of footfall in the summer, tourism is nothing like it was at its peak during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The town and the people who live there have suffered as you’d expect. Lowestoft voted in the EU referendum similarly to many towns in Wales with a comparable history. Suffolk and Norfolk have a distinctive sounding accent which I miss dearly and lament that I’ve lost the twang.
But Wales has something that East Anglia does not. It has an identity. It has a richly articulated history, shared symbols, stories, and cultural iconography. It has its own language. It has (albeit not enough) institutions which exalt its distinctiveness.
From Owain Glyndŵr to Charlotte Church, Wales has icons who exemplify in some way what it means to be Welsh. Wales has an impressive amount of internal diversity also; it is a “community of communities”. Wales is many things whilst also being a unifying reference point which means so much to so many people.
The best East Anglia has is Boadicea who led the Iceni tribe in a rebellion against the Romans sometime around AD 60. But I’m not sure many of the people I grew up with would know much about her or even begin to identify with her in the same way many Welsh people do with Owain Glyndŵr or Llywelyn Fawr. Nor do we have our own Saunders Lewis or Leanne Wood. Not even a Rhodri Morgan.
Why Lowestoft and East Anglia do not have the same sense of identity as Wales is beyond this article and me (I haven’t lived there for almost a decade, so the place is now alien to me). But it is worth emphatically reiterating that Wales has something special. Wales is something special.
On a shallow reading, many places in Wales are very similar to many places in England. But looking the tiniest bit deeper the distinctiveness shines through.
Boudicea – despite being a Celt; her name in Welsh is Buddug – became an important British cultural symbol in the Victorian period after interest in her legacy peaked. This is the story of many English regions: cultural and historical shrapnel which could form the basis of a more localised identity are often subsumed under the umbrella of “British”.
There are some notable exceptions (many people in Liverpool, for example, would declare they are “Scouse not English” and, of course, many people in Cornwall are doing their best to assert their Celticness) but nowhere in England has a sense of identity and distinctiveness at the level of Wales.
Not that no one in England is proud of where they’re from but this pride is often found on the peripheries of England, often in poorer regions (such as the North) and it has no way of expressing itself politically outside of a few mayorships.
But Wales is different. And that, I think, is what has attracted many Englishfolk like myself to the Welsh independence movement.
We’re all born somewhere against our will but many of us choose where we live thereafter. Many English people live in Wales because they chose to. Wales offers them something special which they cannot get in England.
I have English friends in Wales who have never flirted with the idea of independence but who still proudly say, “I can’t imagine living back in England now. Wales is so much better.”
For the independence movement to be successful it needs to speak to these English people. As Richard Wyn Jones notes in his recent piece for Nation.Cymru, there are simply not enough people who identify as Welsh only in Wales to form the demographic base for a successful independence campaign.
The independence movement must make its case to those people who identify as other mixtures of Welsh and British or English, including those who may not identify with Wales at all.
The Welsh nationalist movement has often been accused of being anti-English, and I think few would disagree that those elements exist. In many ways it’s not surprising that some Welsh people would lash out at the country which has drowned their homes and built expensive holiday homes in their stead, among other crimes.
Sometimes points are seized upon which reinforce this narrative, such as the recent Oxford University research that suggests English retirees in Wales swung the Brexit referendum for Wales. (There are those who would argue this is an overly simplistic interpretation.)
No matter the history between England and Wales, if the Welsh independence movement is to be successful it needs to sell itself to the English people who live in Wales. That includes fresh graduates in Cardiff as well as retirees on the Llŷn Peninsula.
Many English people in Wales – and also many Wales-born people who identify as British – do not think the independence movement is for them. I am active in the movement and can tell you this is wrong but it is nonetheless a failing of the movement that it has not been able to make that point strongly enough.
At one of the first organising meetings for an independence related group I attended I distinctly remember someone saying, “If you are in Wales, you are Welsh. If you live in Wales, Welsh independence is for you”. This is the message which every English person in Wales needs to hear.
Welsh independence is not anti-English. Welsh independence is anti-Westminster. It is anti the anti-democracy of Boris’ proroguing of parliament. It is anti an entrenched British ruling class who come from the same private schools and prestigious universities and always seem to rule over us in one way or another.
It is anti a political and economic system which routinely sidelines Wales and its people.
Whether you are Welsh, English, Bengali, Kurdish or Catalan, if you live in Wales the political settlement under which Wales suffers is of your concern.
And you are part of the solution. There has gladly been a strong pro-immigrant message within the indy movement of late and let us not forget that includes English immigrants.
When I was in Merthyr Tudful for the march earlier this month I had the fortune of bumping into a pair of Scottish lads who had come down for the day. We had all been at the Stand Up For Wales comedy show which took place in Caffi Soar.
It turns out I was the only English person in there, which I let slip to the MC leading to me being the reference point for every joke about the English for the next three comedians (all in good spirit; I loved it). Afterwards one of the Scottish guys told me about English Scots For Yes, an organisation of English people living in Scotland supporting independence. He told me the organisation had been vital in making the case to English people in Scotland that independence is in their interest too.
I discussed this idea with some indy supporting English friends and it seemed there was an appetite for it but I sat on the idea until Richard Wyn Jones’ article once again highlighted the importance of getting those who might identify more with Britishness or Englishness on the side of independence. Our movement simply cannot succeed without them.
I like to joke sometimes that English people make the most emphatic Welsh nationalists because it is only us who can get away with saying, “fuck the English!”
But, really, if the movement is to progress we need to make it a very welcoming place for those who identify as English or British. We must celebrate whenever someone goes against the status quo and chooses to identify with this plucky little nation trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps despite not being born here.
The same goes for all other immigrants living in Wales (for example, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster candidate for Cardiff Central is an indy supporting Kurdish man).
We need to make the case for the indy movement to Welsh and British people. We also need a place for those people to amass around once they have decided that they are in support of Welsh independence. For this reason, I have started English Welsh For Indy, an organisation which I hope will fulfill these roles.
My vision for the group is that it will have a visible presence at demos and distribute things like stickers to help English people take ownership over their place in the movement. I also hope that the group can be responsible for producing educational materials aimed at English people in Wales to argue why they should support independence.
Furthermore, it would be great if we could become an established voice speaking on behalf of English people in the movement, such as if the media ever wants to interview us (get in touch!). But any collection of people is only the sum of its parts so the way the group operates will adapt as it hopefully grows.