Racial prejudice is common among many English people settled in Wales. This is rarely discussed publicly but it needs to be if relations between the two communities are to improve.
As Kevin Williams wrote in the last issue of Planet ('Living in Room 101' - Planet 147), there has been much soul-searching in recent months about Welsh identity, especially in relation to the perceived attitude of the neighbours across Offa's Dyke. This, of course, is nothing new. The last thousand years are littered with cross-border spats and 2001 has already proved a vintage year for this evergreen genre.
TV quiz show dominatrix Anne Robinson's much-chewed over comments came hard on the heels of yet another Welsh-English controversy. Plaid Cymru councillor Seimon Glyn, Chair of Gwynedd County Council's Housing Committee, had given an interview to a BBC Radio Wales (English language) phone-in show. In the discussion, he had bemoaned the ceaseless influx of inmigrants into rural Gwynedd. His observations — about the colonising effect of monoglot English incomers, and how retired English people, in particular, were a drain on the community' who brought little of value into their new surroundings — hit the political g-spot. With the general election looming large on every politician's horizon, Plaid Cymru's opponents wasted no time in tearing into Councillor Glyn with all the speed and finesse of unleashed rottweilers.
The resulting controversy was a magnificent example of much sound and fury signifying nothing. Just as with the Anne Robinson débâcle, any pertinent discussion of issues that actually mattered was quickly swept aside by yah-boo mud-slinging, with complex and emotive topics boiled down to soundbites and bullet-points. Most frustrating, perhaps, was the swift reduction of the arguments into yet another perceived dust-up between 'the Welsh' and 'the English', each portrayed as a one-dimensional cartoon grouping (especially, it should be sadly noted, in the Welsh media). Although Seimon Glyn's remarks touched on it, there has been little serious discussion about what seems, to me, to be a fundamental core to the debate: simply, pa fath, what kind, of English incomers are making Wales their home?
Around a quarter of the Welsh population hail from outside Wales. The vast majority of this sizeable chunk of the country come from England. Among any grouping that numbers between half and three-quarters of a million people, you will find a huge variety of ideals, beliefs, sympathies and understanding. There are many English people in Wales who are wholly sensitive to their adopted country and its traditions, culture and differences — in fact, it is those very ingredients that have attracted them here in the first place. There are, however, very, very many who are not. Two of the most obvious constituencies in this latter category are, to put it bluntly, racists and liberals. And contrary to conventional thinking, both groups display some startlingly similar characteristics.
It is a sad truth that many English inmigrants into rural Wales are out-and-out racists. In the north of the country, they have usually moved from the urban sprawls of Liverpool and Manchester, in mid Wales their provenance is usually the West Midlands and in the west and south it is often London. The common defining feature is that their principal reason for leaving the English cities was to get away from multi-cultural society, from black and Asian people in particular, and they see rural Wales, with its largely white population, as a safe haven. It is a simple matter of colour: there is little sophisticated understanding of racial issues going on. The irony here, of course, is that these people themselves become the immigrants that they have grown to hate and sought an escape from. But they don't see it like that. Such is their 'majority culture' arrogance that they see, and treat, the host Welsh culture as just another 'minority' to be ridden roughshod over, to be treated with disdain and scoffed at behind closed doors.
This realisation has been one of the biggest shocks to me since moving to rural Wales. As another English inmigrant myself, racists have assumed me to be on 'their' side, before I've had the chance to say any more than where I originate from. Such hubris is often the preserve of bigots — so steadfast are they in their views that they assume anyone and everyone sharing their provenance will agree with them. Just as in the stereotype of a prejudiced taxi driver assuming that any white passenger in the back of his cab is fair game for racist views, so many of these fellow inmigrants have poured out their unreconstructed racism to me within a minute of first meeting. I am getting increasingly fed up of finding myself in a deeply unpleasant argument when all I wanted was a quiet pint or a packet of fags.
These people are everywhere in rural Wales. They import their Blimpish views and their siege mentality, neither of which add one single jot of value to vulnerable, fragmented rural communities. At their worst, they can have seriously detrimental effects. As an illustration, it's worth taking some time to examine one particular instance. The most notorious English race-warrior in rural, Welsh-speaking Wales is Nick Griffin, UK leader of the avowedly fascist British National Party (BNP) and full-time campaigner for its offshoot, an organisation called Rights for Whites. Griffin has lived near the village of Llanerfyl, in the Dyffryn Banwy in Montgomeryshire since the mid-1990s. In a Guardian interview in May 2000, he acknowledged that he had 'specifically moved to the Welsh countryside to escape multi-racial Britain'.
It's too easy to deride the pathetic policies and aspirations of the BNP. Electorally, they have not made much of a mark, having only ever secured one elected representative, a local councillor in a 1993 by-election in London's Isle of Dogs, and even he lost his seat a few months later. However, they are easily the largest and best-financed fascist party in Britain. The recent UK general election showed them for the malevolent opportunists that they are. In the months running up to the poll, there had been serious racial unrest in the old Lancashire mill town of Oldham. Griffin, as the party's leader, immediately parachuted himself in as the BNP parliamentary candidate in the Oldham West constituency and the party campaigned furiously there and in Oldham East. Their work was rewarded with votes of 11.2 per cent in Oldham East and 16.4 per cent — just 500 votes behind the second-placed Conservatives — for Griffin in Oldham West.
It is worth taking a look at the Oldham campaign to get a measure of this resident of bucolic mid Wales. The electoral literature of Nick Griffin — a man from Suffolk, living in Montgomeryshire — was full of inflammatory language about 'our' town and what 'the Asians' and, in particular, 'the Muslims' were doing to it. As part of their electoral strategy, the BNP launched a Boycott Asian Businesses campaign and advocated the building of 'peace lines', i.e. walls and razor wire, between the Asian and white communities. Griffin talked himself up as a hero of the people. One leaflet declared that 'by voting for the BNP's Nick Griffin, you'll vote for the plain-speaking defender of white rights who has risked prison to tell the truth about the evils of the multicultural experiment'.
This last nod to his own heroism is a reference to Griffin's 1997 arrest at home in Llanerfyl on suspicion of incitement to racial hatred, for which he received a suspended sentence. Part of this was for publishing numerous articles denying the Holocaust, which he calls 'a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie and latter-day witch-hysteria'. For all his Cambridge-educated, sharp-suited respectability, and his efforts to distance himself from the thuggery that accompanies far-right politics, Griffin is still a fascist of the old school. His electoral manager in Oldham, Tony Lecomber, was imprisoned in the 1980s for possession of explosives and again in the 1990s for stabbing a Jewish schoolteacher. In 1995, Griffin himself wrote in his own magazine Rune that the BNP needed to 'back up its slogan Defend Rights for Whites with well-directed boots and fists'. It's not subtle stuff.
Of course, Griffin is careful to play down this violent racism among his neighbours in the Dyffryn Banwy. He has been eager to appear supportive of local campaigns, from worries about the Welsh language evaporating (but not, of course, to the extent of learning it) to exploiting concerns after a succession of crises in farming. To that end, he has used BNP resources to print and distribute leaflets at Welshpool market encouraging disgruntled farmers to organise outside of the mainstream political process, while keeping his own political provenance very quiet. His high-profile arrest in 1997, however, meant that his comparative anonymity was spectacularly blown. In a hastily cobbled-together damage limitation exercise, he put out an emollient epistle headed 'I OWE YOU AN EXPLANATION: an open letter to the people of Dyffryn Banwy from Nick Griffin, Y Gribyn, Llanerfyl'. In this, he attempted to link his ideas with mainstream Welsh nationalism, and made great play about the cost of the police operation, which could, he claimed, have kept a local cottage hospital open, as if public spending operated on such simplistic lines. His patronising tirade concludes with the words 'I won't bother you again'. Would that the people of Montgomeryshire were so lucky.
Nick Griffin's politics are a warning to us all in Wales. He might be the most obvious race-obsessed import in the hills, but he is not, by a long way, the only one. To some extent, rural Wales has become the British equivalent of the American mountains inhabited by a sprinkling of paranoid conspiracy theorists, gun-toting Final Solution crackpots and anti-government obsessives. Add to these the thousands of small-minded Little Englanders who have transferred their phobias from the black and Asian populations of their native cities to 'the Welsh' or 'the Taffia' in their new locales, and there is room for much ill-feeling and even trouble. These are the people who assume that Welsh speakers only ever use the language to spite them or talk about them behind their backs. They are the people moaning about S4C, Welsh-medium education and the perfectly valid desire of communities to conduct themselves in the language that has sustained them for centuries and which comes most naturally to them. They love the beauty and the peace of the Welsh natural environment, but have no interest whatsoever in the cultural factors that are inextricably woven into it.
Sadly, such attitudes are not the sole preserve of older and more outwardly conservative inmigrants. Liberal, middle-class English émigrés — from the waves of hippies escaping it all thirty years ago to the uptight Jeremys and Jemimas who live in their own hermetically sealed bubbles in villages almost devoid of local people — are often just as culpable. I have been amazed by some of the views proffered by younger incomers, people of my own age and similar backgrounds in relatively comfortable Middle England. If you have not grown up in such circumstances, you cannot appreciate the certainties and the absolutes with which such an upbringing is imbued. There is much talk in these devolutionary times of the English struggling to establish and understand their own identity, or set of identities. While this may be true on a macro scale, it is still undoubtedly the case that to be born and raised in reasonable comfort in England — even, as I was, less than forty miles from the border — is to be granted a very self-assured hand in the poker game of life. We may no longer have maps of the British Empire gracing the walls of primary schools, but the vestiges of old attitudes linger: it is 'we' and 'us' against the ubiquitous 'them'. 'They' can be just about anyone different: the European Union, new Commonwealth immigrants, 'the enemy within', intellectuals, the Irish or, increasingly these days, the Scots and the Welsh.
The resultant condescension reveals itself in many ways. I have heard, and heard of, many soi-disant liberal-minded English inmigrants who, by an all-too-telling aside when under pressure, have let the mask slip and revealed a latent Cymrophobia. This often shows itself quite subtly: their common assumption, for example, that they have far more to teach the Welsh than the other way around, that they bring into the relationship with their new locale the lion's share of valuable qualities — a certain sophistication, liberal cosmopolitanism, 'progress', a breath (as they see it) of much needed fresh air. By implication, this assumption rubbishes the qualities of the indigenous culture, its spirited survival, its longevity, its rootedness, its emphasis on community over rampant individualism, its creativity, its spirituality, its less strident — but very present, nonetheless — pluralism and tolerance. All too rarely do the more arrogant incomers stay quiet long enough to hear such delicate (and increasingly fragile) qualities breathe. At best, this is supremely patronising, and, at worst, downright hostile.
Although they would shriek in horror at the suggestion, many avowedly liberal-minded English people in Wales can at times sound little different from the racists and fascists. In some ways, it is easier to deal with an explicit bigot like Nick Griffin, for at least his beliefs are there for all to see. Smug metropolitan self-certainty is a far more insidious beast. When I finally decided to move to Wales, dozens of acquaintances — Guardian-readers to the core who would sooner lop off a limb than admit to being racist — thought nothing of trotting out all the sheep-shagging, in-breeding, house-burning, language-switching clichés in the book. Having settled in Ceredigion, where two-thirds of the population speak Welsh, I have still had to entertain open-mouthed incredulity from other English incomers as to why I am bothering to learn the language. One Englishman, who likes to think of himself as a gentle soul, even told me with some considerable pride that he had been here for nearly ten years 'and I still don't have any Welsh friends', before going on to explain that this, of course, was 'their' fault. He is not alone in such an attitude. Too many inmigrants into Wales will not be happy until this country is just western England with sharper contours and better air. These people — petty racists and high-handed liberals alike — are masters in the art of exploiting characteristic Welsh politeness by driving their own monolithic culture through it.
Perhaps now that the general election is out of the way, and politicians are off the short lead, such a debate can continue in a more calm and sober manner. I'm not, however, optimistic about that, given the glaring limitations in media analysis both in Wales and beyond. The supreme irony here is that, being English, I have a much greater freedom to say these things than have Welsh politicians and commentators. While I could only be seen as a small-time 'traitor' to my own, the spectre of racism hangs over people like Seimon Glyn who are watching their culture haemorrhage and die. That, in itself, says much about how loaded the dice are, and in whose favour.
Mike Parker is the author of Neighbours from Hell?, The Map Addict, Wild Rover, Mapping the Roads and others, and he is currently working on a political diary.
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