This is our truth, tell us yours
The notion that there is a following for the English Defence League in Wales might seem oxymoronic, especially in a post devolution era where there is a clear narrative about what Wales is, and isn’t. That narrative may be clear, and have political consensus behind it, but it neither compelling nor consented to by all the population of Wales.
A few demographic facts need to be disposed off first. Wales is a nation shaped by migration, and the Costa Geriatricas of the north and west of Wales attract elderly immigrants seeking rural and coastal idylls; the Costa Bureaucratica around Cardiff attracts ambitious civil servants with a certificate to prove they’ve done a Welsh language course, but Wales has been, for the last two hundred years, a nation shaped by migration.
Wales has not always, either, been a nation entirely at ease with migration. In the nineteenth century there were anti Irish riots in Tredegar, in the twentieth century race riots and lynchings in Cardiff. The south Wales ports, at the edge of the Atlantic economy and bustling with the export coal trade, made it a place where Welshness was secondary to the needs of an international trade network. North Wales was no different; where the heart of Scotland, the central belt, is separated from England by debatable border lands, in Wales the coastal strips that hold the bulk of the population were hard wired by road, rail and ferries to English towns and cities, to cosmopolitan ports like Liverpool and Bristol.
The Welshness of Cool Cymru and beyond, the Welshness of a devolved administration and a privileged language that the bulk of the population don’t use in everyday life is deeply contradictory, and deeply troubled. For every community in North and West Wales where Welshness is a deeply cherished everyday practice, there’s a post industrial community in south and north east Wales where Welshness is purely theatrical, a song you sing on feast days and match days.
The point of all this is that in order to understand a Welsh affection for the political Englishness of the ‘Defence Leagues’ you have to understand that it’s possible to be Welsh but to see that Welshness as a subset of Britishness, and even a subset of Englishness.
The EDL has its roots, and its circulatory system, deeply embedded in the culture of English soccer. If you’re a soccer fan in South Wales you, too, are deeply embedded in the culture of English soccer. All the best soccer teams in Wales play in English leagues, and the Welsh League is a late, and unloved innovation. If you live in Newport, Cardiff, Swansea or Wrexham you’re more likely to see your side play Rochdale or Bury than Rhyl or Bangor. And it was always ever thus; Ebbw Vale, Ton Pentre, Merthyr, Aberdare and all chose the English Southern League, not Wales as the place to do their business.
In the new Wales, where a sense of nationhood has been fabricated out of a language campaign in the 60s, there are other secret histories besides the Tredegar and Cardiff riots. The struggle of the Nine Mile Point miners against scab unions and scab workers in the 1930 may have been heroic, but it masks the extent to which it was also a struggle against a fascist undercurrent imported into Welsh politics from England via Oswald Mosley. My favourite anecdote, however, is the story of the 1950 Welsh Eisteddfod, the first at which the rule that only Welsh should be the language of the maes was enforced. The Caerphilly bus drivers, with the support of their MP, Ness Edwards, refused to convey passengers to the maes because they wanted no part of an eisteddfod that was Welsh only. Some were passionate internationalists, as you’d expect of Edwards given his education at the Communist Central College, but just as many, if not more, saw themselves as political and cultural shapeshifters, capable of being Welsh and English.
All this history sets the context in which, in Wales, it is possible to be Welsh but to be culturally indistinguishable from your English friends. The collapse of right wing Welsh nationalism after world war two, when it was easy to accuse the nascent Welsh nationalist party of having backed the wrong side meant that whole generations of Welsh proto fascists spent their time learning from England. In South Wales, where as many TV aerials point to England as to Wales, so they could watch Eastenders rather than Pobol y Cwm, it would be more surprising if Welsh rightwingers didn’t mimic the English, that that they do.