It’s been almost impossible to ignore the recent rise of anti-Welsh bigotry in the UK’s popular consciousness. It’s detectable as a ‘structure of feeling’ in post-Brexit discourse, a cultural expression that’s palpable but not fully articulated. As Ifan Morgan Jones has written, ‘it’s clear that in the name of post-Brexit unity the Westminster government is going to be ramming…British symbolism down our throats at every opportunity.’ Yet as with all cultural phenomena, it is essential to understand the material and social impact of this symbolism if we are to combat its underlying function. Yet as with all cultural phenomena, it is essential to understand the material and social impact of this symbolism if we are to combat its underlying function.
In the wake of the EU referendum, it is clear that the British government seeks to homogenise the UK, eliminating the differences between its constituent countries. This is why we see such initiatives as the Unionist equivalent of the Tebbit test and the removal of the Welsh flag from the Wales Office during the recent World Cup; the renaming of the Second Severn Crossing; and, of course, the ever-presence of anti-Cymraeg diatribes. The goal here, in the words of Simon Brooks, is the ‘capitalist integration of Wales into England’.
As these measures accumulate, we must examine the economic reasons for, and societal consequences of, this erasure of Welsh identities, and highlight why exactly this is a specifically capitalist problem, as alluded to by Brooks. To approach a deeper understanding of this, we can look to Newport and wider Gwent, where these symbolic gestures are paving the way for a more socio-economic sea change. In this case, a local transformation is primarily driven by the changing property and employment markets, and the struggle for workers on both sides of the border to find good quality employment and/or affordable housing.
What we are seeing here is the convergence of several overlapping crises. For long-term residents of Wales’ post-industrial south-east, scarcity of local employment and a rising cost of living is forcing them to look further afield for work, with many having to make the often-arduous daily commute over the Severn. Meanwhile, Gwent is being ‘opened up’ to Bristolians as a means of easing the crisis of rising house prices in the city, which is becoming an increasingly unaffordable place to live, especially for young people and families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. While the UK government appears unable and unwilling to tackle the housing crisis, people are forced into looking further afield to find relatively cheaper places to live. For many Bristolians, Newport appears to be the obvious, affordable choice.
Consequently, there is now a near-unmanageable level of road and rail traffic moving between Newport and Bristol. There is thus a growing need, in the eyes of the UK and Welsh governments, to make this flow of people as seamless as possible. However, the proposed measures to solve this, while always framed as an economic necessity by politicians and business owners, will have a potentially devastating impact on Gwent – and the health of its commuting workers – as it becomes a commuter base for displaced Bristolians and underemployed south Walians.
Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the relentless push to build a new M4 relief road right through the heart of Newport. Aside from evidencing the short-termist, growth-obsessed thinking typical of neoliberal governments, it will wreak irreversible damage upon the Gwent Levels, a historically significant natural landscape whose unique beauty deserves far more prominence in Wales’ national consciousness. Campaigners defending the Levels against this development are quite clear in the reasons for their objections, stating that ‘the ecological repercussions on wildlife, on hydrology and on the local communities will be quite devastating’.
In addition to the damaging effect upon the local environment, this alteration in traffic and the movement of people is having a significant effect on housing arrangements and living conditions in the area. Property developers and landlords – never ones to miss an opportunity to extract the greatest possible profit from their tenants – have responded to this increased demand, with house prices and rental rates soaring. Newport’s housing market is now the fastest moving in the UK, making it increasingly unaffordable for local people to keep pace and make a comfortable life for themselves in the city and community they’ve grown up in.
There is something painfully familiar occurring here: transport infrastructure and employment arrangements in industrial Wales have always revolved around aiding the extraction of resources and wealth to other parts of the UK, and so it remains. But now, rather than natural resources being acquired, it is relatively cheaper housing and a close proximity to English border cities. We can still see these historic economic imbalances, only now they manifest in the consequences of workers having to travel vast distances between their home and their place of employment. Welsh residents who work across the border aren’t able to contribute to their own local economy, ensuring that all the wealth and ‘job creation’ stays in England, while much of the poverty-induced social problems remain in Wales.
There are faint hopes of an economic boost for Newport, but only in the form of gentrification: the gradual ‘improvement’ of impoverished areas when slightly more affluent residents move in, initially attracted by cheaper property and more manageable living costs. Unfortunately, poorer residents often eventually have little choice but to leave their longtime homes, or are neglected (willingly or not) by local authorities. As David Madden writes, ‘After gentrification takes hold, neighborhoods are commended for having “bounced back” from poverty, ignoring the fact that poverty has usually only been bounced elsewhere.’ This ‘bouncing elsewhere’ can take many forms, from the aforementioned pricing out of poor residents (potentially to even poorer parts of south Wales outside of Bristol’s commuter range) to more punitive measures, such as the increasing marginalisation and criminalisation of rough sleepers we have recently seen in Newport.
Here we can observe the same problems of gentrification you see all over the UK (and indeed the world), but with the cross-border element necessitating a sublimation of a Welshness that is often seen as an inconvenient political, infrastructural and cultural divide between two mutually-dependent urban areas. Ultimately, it shows that Welsh identity is erased not because the big bad English hate the Welsh, but because it lubricates the flow of capital within the UK.
Frustratingly, the seriousness and immediacy of the ‘anti-Welsh’ element has left many unable to find lasting solutions to this growing crisis. The bigotry around us isn’t occurring for abstract reasons, but to enable economic exploitation of workers and appropriation of resources, and this must be the focus. You can protest a bridge renaming, but this doesn’t go far enough. To solve the true cause, it must be necessary to also protest untenable housing markets, private landlordism and environmentally-damaging infrastructure projects. We must reject any politics that’s predicated on endless, damaging growth, and campaign for the improvement of workers’ rights to live, travel and work in more humane conditions.
The cross-border element can’t cloud our judgment as to what’s happening here. This isn’t primarily about Welsh–English antagonism, but class antagonism resulting from the British state’s paltry attempts to ameliorate key crises of capitalism. It is poor (albeit usually Welsh) residents being neglected so that businesses, property developers and landlords can attract more relatively affluent (albeit often English) ones. This is what happens in a society in which good quality housing is a commodity rather than a human right, and in which there is an overreliance on employment as a means of gaining it. The purpose of a useful Welsh nationalism, therefore, is to push back against this exploitation and appropriation as a matter of urgency, and not merely protest on a symbolic level. We must understand that this is what we are resisting when we are seeking to preserve distinctively Welsh identities and cultures, and that to be an effective Welsh nationalist is to be a committed anti-capitalist.