Why attacks on Anglo-Welsh Tory MPs show the dark side of civic nationalism
Recent criticism on Nation.Cymru that Aberconwy MP Robin Millar took eight months to move to his constituency from Suffolk was perhaps a little unfair given the pandemic.
It also resurrected a nationalist trope from the 2019 General Election, namely that Welsh people living outside Wales are at best peripheral, and at worst alien, to the nation.
The trope emerged initially from within the Plaid Cymru campaign and then span out of control developing a life of its own. Nevertheless, Plaid must accept its share of the blame. After all one very senior Plaid Cymru politician commented on social media above a list of candidates domiciled in England, “Sometimes they even seek to do us harm”.
That list included Tomos Dafydd, a Welsh speaker from west Wales living in Wimbledon and a trustee of the London Welsh Centre. It also included Robin Millar, who is from Bangor. Another name on the list was Virginia Crosbie, now MP for Ynys Môn. She was born in Essex into an Anglo-Welsh family.
The entire election in north-west Wales seemed to consist of attacks on these candidates because of their background. The attacks on Tomos Dafydd for his supposed Englishness petered out quite soon.
Perhaps people realised that criticising someone so obviously Welsh for not being Welsh was just silly. The attacks on Robin Millar’s Welsh credentials were nasty but peripheral. Everybody expected him to win Aberconwy anyway.
Where the trope really took off though was with Virginia Crosbie. Here was a woman born in England. Her link to Wales seemed to be a family connection via her father, educated in Monmouth, and her grandfather, a miner in the Rhondda.
She is English, but proud too of her Welsh working-class family background. During the campaign, she described herself as feeling partially Welsh.
To feel ‘partially Welsh’ is a fairly typical description of the identity of children born in England to Welsh or Anglo-Welsh parents. Duality of this type is typical too of the identity of the children and grandchildren of migrants in general.
There is an attachment to the country where you were born, but also to your parents’ homeland. The nature and intensity of this duality can vary from individual to individual.
I can see this in my own family. For me growing up in a Welsh household in Hounslow and Kingston in London, the London Welsh community was central. For my sisters, it was far more incidental.
For my cousins, the duality meant support for London Welsh RFC and the Welsh rugby team. With my aunt, it meant that despite her traditional London Welsh chapel upbringing she was quite suspicious of my nascent teenage nationalism.
All of us were born in England. We all have English accents, even me when I try. Two of us understand some Welsh. Five of us have some form of Welsh identity. But I am the only one who has ever lived in Wales.
I thought of this often during the 2019 General Election campaign.
During that campaign, Virginia Crosbie was abused over a six-week period for her gender, and also for her nationality. In the attacks on her, these two things merged. Intersectional feminists have shown us how discrimination can often double up in this way.
The misogyny was appalling but for me at least, it was the attack on her Anglo-Welsh identity that was most disturbing. We come from quite a similar background after all.
Her English accent was mocked. Her Welsh pronunciation was made fun of. Her love for her grandfather from the Rhondda Valley was held up as proof she was pretending to be Welsh.
Mocking family links to Wales of people born in England is a technique people use to undermine the dual identities of the children of Welsh migrants. It promotes the idea that we are little more than ‘Plastic Taffies’.
Whatever you do, you can never get rid of the shame. People will always tell you your Welshness is ‘made up’. To hear supporters of the political party of which I am a member actually campaign against a second-generation woman on this basis has changed quite radically how I think about nationalism.
The campaign against Virginia Crosbie on Anglesey disgraced the national movement. It must have been a traumatic experience for her. Speaking personally, I found it to be humiliating. Every trope used about me during my childhood to belittle both my Welsh and my English identity – my accent, my language, my family – was seen as little more than a cheap way to have a go at a Tory.
In the attacks on Tomos Dafydd, Robin Millar and Virginia Crosbie we saw the dark side of civic nationalism.
Civic nationalism came into existence in order to promote inclusivity. It doesn’t matter where you come from. As long as you live in Wales, you are Welsh. With this I agree. Everybody who lives on the territory of Wales is a Welsh citizen, and all have Welsh nationality if they want.
But it does not follow that the obverse is true. Civic nationalism should not mean that those who feel Welsh and live in England should be denied their Welsh identity. It does not mean that they should be mocked because of their national or family identity.
If civic nationalism becomes a way to attack Welsh people living in England, then for someone from my background this is a good reason to reject nationalism all together. For whatever one might say about Britishness, it is inclusive in a way in which civic nationalism is not.
Many people from a London Welsh background feeling neither English nor Welsh put their faith in a British identity. People could deny us our Englishness and deny us our Welshness. It was harder to deny we were British.
The trope that Welsh people living in England are not fully Welsh, and that second generation people are not Welsh at all, is both ugly and dehumanizing.
The trope does not increase support for Welsh nationalism. It undermines it. It drives people away from Welshness and towards Britishness.
In my case, it has made me think about whether I wish to support independence at all.
The national movement needs to abandon this trope, and it needs to do so completely.