October 24, 2006

English Socialists and Welsh Nationalists

At the beginning of the chapter, Thomas complains: ‘The Welsh language community does not have defenders in England among those educated, liberal English people who sympathize with minorities everywhere, from the Nagas to the Basques’ (20). Thomas believes that the reason behind such attitudes is the image of Wales as, ‘provincial, unglamorous and comic’ (20). The English who do not have access to the language and literature of Wales fall back on stereotypes such as ‘the trousered eisteddfod druids invented in the nineteenth century’ (20).

Thomas is particularly hard on Anglo-Welsh literature and its representation of Wales:

A special kind of Anglo-Welsh literature grew up. now mercifully on the decline, which lent support to the stereotypes by presenting rich fruity characters speaking a fantastic dialect of English and spilling over with words and emotion. This is the sort of synthetic identity that always arises when a minority nation has to make its way in conditions of social dominance. The same ersatz approach to nationhood is found in the Scotland of tartan and haggis. If this is what the other cultures of Britain are like, the educated English have every reason to despise them.

I assume that here Thomas refers to novels like Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, and he is right to note that books like these are full of emotion and sentiment. Yet there is something disquieting about his vitriol, which, I think, has everything to do with linguistic purity. Thomas despises the ‘fantastic dialect of English’ perceived by the Anglo-Welsh and sees it as the English might as a substandard version of another language rather than a language remade for the purposes of the Welsh. This is a flaw in Thomas’ commentary.

Thomas also describes a representation of the Welsh as two-faced. The first face ‘turned towards England and concerned with getting on (again like the Scots)’, while the second face turns away, ‘having to look away to survive’ (21).

Yet the Welsh literature that represents these issues and problems is under-represented, especially that in Cymraeg. Thus the issues of Wales are not represented, but as Thomas states, ‘no Welsh issue can be a major conflict in Britain because only 2½ million people are involved’ (23).

Thomas now proceeds to challenge some Welsh stereotypes. The first is of pettiness, that the issues of concern to the Welsh are petty in the prospect of a world picture. However, Thomas states: ‘People subject to petty oppression do nurse petty grievances’ (25). He denies any belief in ‘irreducible national categories’ and he admits that, ‘Britain in her world role has offered generations of educated Welsh scope for their talents and a freer atmosphere in some respects than was tolerated by the Non-conformist sects at home’ (26). However, Thomas is adamant that: ‘People must be given enough power to negotiate with other groups and to set their own priorities’ (28). Wales is provincial in its own way and does not have the same economic drive as England, but it cannot continue to exist in ‘a picturesque and geographical sense’ only (30).

For Thomas, young Welsh have two choices:
1. To give in to the demands of capitalism and desert their home and culture;
2. Or (the better choice according to Thomas) to stay in Wales.
Thomas relies on the rather false proposition that if the young Welsh leave Wales, the culture will collapse. In any case, Thomas concludes in a sympathetic note: ‘So we salute the Czechs and the Anguilans and the Bretons and the Basques—there are degrees of oppression far worse than we know’ (31).

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