A review of ‘Creu Dinasyddiaeth i Gymru’ by Gwennan Higham
This is an important book. Whatever one’s views on immigration in general, whether for or against, it is a fact of life; a large number of immigrants both from within and outside the UK already live in Wales, and nothing is more certain than the fact that many more will arrive in future. How Wales reacts to their presence will have a vital bearing on the country’s economy and culture for years to come.
Gwennan Higham considers mainly the cultural aspects of immigration, most particularly where people’s origins lie outside the British Isles, so that will also be scope of this article.
I’ll begin by declaring a personal interest: I have never met Gwennan Higham, but in Wales there are never many degrees of separation and my wife – who is herself the daughter of a refugee, and who spent her early childhood in Cardiff and returned there to study at the University – knew her grandfather very well. Vernon Higham was the minister of Heath Evangelical Church for over 40 years. My wife attended the church with her family when a child, and returned to it as a student in the 1990s when it was the city’s pre-eminent student church with a congregation of over 1000. Though I attended the Eglwys Efengylaidd Gymraeg across town, I’d visit the Heath from time to time, and there was something special about being crammed into this very traditional chapel building which was always so packed that there were cushions for people to sit on the window sills and still people having to stand at the back. They were there to hear Vernon Higham’s preaching. My wife still listens to recordings of his sermons on the train to work.
Needless to say, it was a very multi-racial congregation.
The illusion of purity
To set the scene, we need to be absolutely clear that the idea of an ‘ethnically pure Wales’ is for the birds. Wales has experienced wave upon wave of immigration for thousands of years, and in DNA terms is already the most diverse part of the British Isles. Many men with North-East Wales ancestry, in particular, carry a genetic marker indicating an origin in the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps originating in Phoenician copper traders in the pre-Roman era. If trying to define who is Welsh and who isn’t, then trying to do it by ethnicity or by features or by the colour of skin, hair or eyes is a complete non-starter.
The whole viability of Wales as a nation rests not on its ability to maintain any sort of ethnic purity, but on its ability to assimilate new arrivals and make them transfer their allegiance to their new homeland while both adopting and enriching our culture.
British or Welsh?
That takes us straight to the nub of Higham’s argument, which is essentially: how do we ensure that immigrants who arrive in Wales become Welsh, and not just ‘British’?
This is a vital question, since as might be expected the emphasis of the UK government is entirely upon promoting ‘British values’ and insisting that immigrants from outside the UK learn English as their first priority. This is an agenda that the Labour government in Cardiff Bay has adopted enthusiastically, as we’ve written about here before, but it carries an obvious danger: unless counteracted by a deliberate effort to present Wales and its culture to new arrivals, immigration simply becomes a tool by which ‘Britishness’ is promoted at the expense of ‘Welshness’ and the idea of ‘Welsh identity’ is further diluted.
Of course this is exactly what the UK government wants.
So Higham’s quest is to investigate how best to counteract this, and to find a way that new arrivals in Wales can adopt an identity that is fully Welsh – and so become fully assimilated into their adopted country.
Naturally this takes for granted that assimilation is the appropriate outcome to strive for. To give her credit (she is, after all, a professional academic), Higham begins her book with a lengthy discussion about the rise and fall of ‘multiculturalism’ – the idea that actually immigrants into a country shouldn’t assimilate at all – and contrasts it with ‘interculturalism’, namely the idea that different cultures within a nation should interact with and enrich one another. If I’m honest my eyes glazed over a bit while reading this section, which is quite technical in its approach, but as a helpful case study she directs our attention to Quebec. Here, the state government has made serious efforts to persuade immigrants to adopt French language and culture, despite being part of a country – indeed a continent – where the English language and North American culture sweeps all before it. They have been partially successful, at best.
A receptive audience
However, Higham rightly concludes that Quebec doesn’t provide a template that Wales can blindly follow. Unlike Wales, where despite its rapid recent growth Welsh remains a minority language, French is in fact the majority language in Quebec. Also unlike Wales, though, Quebec is not the cradle of French language and culture, but merely an outpost of it; so to that extent French is no more ‘indigenous’ in Quebec than English is.
Yet many people who arrive in Wales from overseas, especially those who come as refugees, come themselves from minority ethnic and linguistic groups within their countries of origin (e.g. Kurds from Iran, Iraq or Turkey, Berbers from Algeria or Morocco etc.) and can therefore identify very readily with the plight of Wales and its language. Even where this is not the case, bilingualism and even multilingualism is the norm in so many areas of the world that many overseas immigrants are far less fazed by it than an immigrant from England would be.
There is a well of sympathy which, rightly approached, can make new arrivals genuinely enthusiastic to learn more about Wales, and to go beyond that to learn Welsh for themselves and integrate fully into Welsh society.
Many stumbling blocks
Yet many things prevent new immigrants from even having Wales’s history presented to them in these terms, let alone being encouraged to pursue Welsh identity further.
To begin with there is the whole approach, already mentioned, of promoting the English language and ‘British values’ first and foremost. English lessons are provided free-of-charge, but Welsh lessons must be paid for – immediately contradicting the official line that Welsh and English have equal status in Wales.
Higham has done a great deal of original research for this book, not just reading other people’s studies but going out and speaking to recent immigrants for herself, to learn of their experiences first-hand. Themes that came up again and again when speaking to people were that:
- Many teachers of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) intentionally or unintentionally conveyed negative impressions of Welsh. Some who didn’t speak Welsh were openly dismissive of it; some who did, used it for ‘private’ conversations among themselves (in class, not even in the pub), which gave it a negative and exclusive connotation.
- Where Welsh lessons were made available, they were taught through the medium of English and assumed a high level of English proficiency, thus reinforcing the notion that Welsh was a subservient language to English.
- Despite being told that by learning Welsh they could become eligible to apply for jobs (for example, with Gwynedd County Council) that stated Welsh as a requirement, many immigrants doubted that they would be able to reach the required proficiency and started to perceive the Welsh language as a way of reserving opportunities for middle-class white people.
- Fluent Welsh speakers were often reluctant to engage with learners, preferring to switch to English at the earliest possible opportunity rather than to bear with the learner as they tried out their Welsh [this is of course not only a problem for immigrants, and not only for Welsh – I had very similar experiences when learning German in Germany – but again some people perceived that the reluctance was greater with immigrant learners]
- Some immigrants, who had attained workable fluency in Welsh, still found that they weren’t welcomed openly into the community by other Welsh speakers [though once again I can sympathise with this, having briefly moved to Ruthin from Wrexham as a fluent learner in my mid-20s and still found it very hard to fit in, even after joining the choir!]
Frankly, a lot of this made difficult reading: Higham doesn’t pull her punches, and makes it clear that the issues she’s discussing can’t be solved by government action alone but require a change of attitude on the part of Welsh people themselves – particularly those who already speak Welsh, and particularly those in rural areas.
That said, she makes no suggestion that existing negative attitudes derive from racism, even unconscious racism. My own experience suggests that Welsh communities are often rather defensive and may be more open to embrace and assimilate outsiders if they were more self-confident in themselves.
A way forward
Despite her frankness in telling things as they are, Higham is able to tell of numerous people who have successfully arrived at the destination of being fully Welsh rather than just British, and she can cite some glowing examples of best practice. One such example is the 10-week introductory Welsh course targeted specifically at the large Portuguese community in Wrexham, provided by Coleg Cambria.
And Higham herself has gone further than most when it comes to assimilation: her husband is a Persian Christian who came to Wales as a refugee. Married in 2018, they now have a baby boy who is being raised in both Welsh and Farsi.
A Gwlad perspective
Sadly, there are those in the independence movement who sometimes paint Gwlad as an anti-immigration party or even a racist party, citing our social conservatism, our centre-right approach to matters of economics, our scepticism towards movements such as Black Lives Matter, and our questioning of the tendency for organisations (including Yes Cymru) to appoint Diversity and Inclusion Officers at the drop of a hat.
But in fact we’ll yield to no-one in our belief that Wales should be open to anyone who is prepared to fit in to Welsh society, make their contribution to our national life and give Wales their allegiance. “You don’t have to be white to be Welsh” has been a rallying-cry for us from our early days. Our scepticism towards BLM and the ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ agenda is based on a disagreement about the effectiveness of their methods, not the desirability of their aims.
We wholeheartedly welcome those from any and every background that are prepared to take Wales as it is, and find their place within it – rather than trying to re-create it in their own image and make it more like the places they came from.
With this book, Higham has made an enormous contribution by stating boldly and plainly what the challenges are if we are to achieve that ideal. There is a lot to do. There are many things that must be done much, much better at government level. But everyone in Wales, especially those who are already fluent Welsh speakers, has a part to play if we are to assimilate the recent waves of immigration successfully, and ensure that there is a distinctive, ethnically diverse but culturally confident Wales to pass on to future generations.