Magazine article The Spectator

Mocking the Welsh Is the Last Permitted Bigotry

Magazine article The Spectator

Mocking the Welsh Is the Last Permitted Bigotry

Article excerpt

On the eve of the Eisteddfod, Jan Morris says that, much as the English might enjoy their personal experiences of Wales, ancient suspicion of their neighbours always kicks in

'Don't let's be beastly to the Germans' went a sarcastic lyric of Noel Coward's at the end of the second world war, and nowadays nobody of civilised instinct is beastly to them. Quite right too. Political correctness, so often stultifying to free expression, has at least ensured that racial bigotry is recognised as the cruellest kind of yobbery, distantly but recognisably related to genocide. Few of us now blame 'the Germans' for the evils of the war, and generalised mockery of Jews, blacks, wogs, frogs, Micks, Poles or Eyeties, let alone Muslims, has to be witty indeed to raise even a guilty laugh.

One class of person, though, one race, one nationality, is evidently exempt from this taboo. In England it is open-season still for Welsh-baiting. The Welsh joke flourishes. The Welsh language is still an object of derision. Scoundrels still 'welsh' upon their creditors, and to this day Lord Kinnock is calumnied as the old Welsh windbag. Who has not heard the English tourist complaining that the moment he and his family walked into a Welsh pub, 'they all started jabbering in Welsh'?

So what? Yes, well, except that these adolescent attitudes are rooted in sadness.

Nobody in all England lives further than 100 miles from a Welsh border, yet the public ignorance of the English about this intimate and ultimate neighbour is sad to contemplate. It is not simply geographic - every London taxi-driver, every other waitress in Leeds has been to Prestatyn or had a caravan holiday in Gwynedd. For that matter half the English middle-classes have either had a Welsh great-grandmother, or have spent their childhood holidays in their cottage near Harlech. But as to understanding anything more profound about the history, the existence and the meaning of Wales, their minds are blank and their responses generally weasly.

They squirm, that is to say, because their feelings are ambivalent. They enjoyed Prestatyn well enough, they still fondly remember old Miss Davies at the sweet shop, but they have been conditioned by history to steer clear of Wales, to stand back as it were, and mask their discomfort in ribaldry. Taffy the thief was a Welshman, after all. Who knows what those jabbering Welshmen in the pub were jabbering about? For centuries the English were open enemies of the Welsh, and I suspect they are innately suspicious still of their often obdurate and sometimes boring neighbours (for one has to admit that, as Shakespeare's Hotspur said of their national hero, Owain Glyndwr, Welshmen can sometimes be 'more tedious than a smoky house').

So it is probably an inherited national instinct that allows today's English columnists and tap-room jokers to be as beastly as they please about the Welsh. The contact between the two peoples has been essentially inimical from the start, and because the Welshman was always a wily kind of enemy, a guerrilla more than a stand-and-fight man, given to ruses and deceits, boasting of supernatural advantages - because the Welsh wars of the English were never quite like their other wars, and never did end in a Plassey, a Waterloo, an Omdurman or an Alamein, a brooding sense of dissatisfied resentment was perhaps left behind in the English subconscious. …

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