On the @ShaziaAwan Question

In a New Statesman article of 9 December Shazia Awan asks: ‘I’m a Welsh Asian – so why doesn’t the Welsh Assembly have a box for me to tick’ on their equalities form? The sub-heading states that a ‘bureaucrat’s form clumsily equates being Welsh with being White’. But as Shazia Awan indicates in her article, this is more than ‘clumsiness’. The equation of ‘Welshness’ with ‘whiteness’ foregrounds the tendency to view ‘the Welsh’ as a racial group and underlines the fragility of a nascent multicultural Welsh citizenship within Brexit Britain.

Awan notes that:

There are options on the form for ‘Asian or Asian British Indian’ and ‘Black or Black British Carribean’, to give but two examples. And also for ‘White British’, ‘White Irish’ and ‘White Welsh’. But not for ‘Asian Welsh’, or ‘Black Welsh’. Did it not occur to anyone there was something wrong?

She traces the oversight to the ‘Brexit advisory group’ that First Minister Carwyn Jones ‘clumsily’ assembled over the summer: ‘This group was made up of predominantly white, middle aged men, and not a single person from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background’. Jones’s criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s immigration policy this week suggests that Awan is right to detect an intolerant underside to the Welsh Labour Government’s response to Brexit. But her initial question takes us to the heart of cultural debates about Welshness in this age of UKIP and Trump.

Two common metaphors are deployed in the contemporary debates on multiculturalism. The first is the ‘melting pot’. The term, traced to the writings of the Zionist from England, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), quickly gained traction in the United States. The melting pot is a symbol of the assimilationist ideal in which peoples come together, throwing away their particularities and blending into one culture. Against this assimilationist metaphor, some have suggested the ‘salad bowl’. This is preferred by contemporary multiculturalists for it is not based on assimilation, but rather on the co-existence of different cultures. The ingredients within the salad can cohabit within the same space, but can also retain their distinctiveness. This is the multi-cultural ideal.


Both symbols speak to significant strains within liberal and progressive cultural thought. Both are under threat from the exclusionary racism on the rise today. But there is a more fundamental question: what constitutes the ‘pot’ or the ‘bowl’ itself?

In British forms of multiculturalism, Britain is the answer. Liberal forms of Britishness emphasize the hybridity and multi-cultural nature of the cosmopolitan centre. But this multi-cultural centre relies on defining the peripheries in static, mono-cultural and even racial terms. As Stephen Kinnock has been good enough to remind us recently, Britishness is quite comfortable with assimilating ethnic others, and tends to see any challenge to it in racial and backward terms. We might trace this structure of thought back to Matthew Arnold writing about the Celts in the 1860s, or to the amalgamation of the Celts into the English ‘band of brothers’ in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In each case a seemingly plural, liberal, hybrid Britishness relies on racialised subgroups to function as the ingredients in its melting pot.

If we adopt Werner Sollors’ influential distinction between notions of identity based on ‘consent and descent’, we see that Britain, in its liberal guises, is conceived in consensual terms, while the Celtic peoples and other minorities are envisaged in terms of descent. In a revisionist account of nineteenth-century British culture, the historian Peter Mandler suggests that a ‘civilisational’ rather than ‘racial’ perspective characterised the thought of the Victorian era. The problem is that he concentrates wholly on how the English conceived of England and Englishness. Matthew Arnold’s writings indicate that a ‘civilisationist’ view of England can happily co-exist with, indeed may actually be predicated upon, a racial view of the Celts. This is certainly preferable to the belief that the ‘British people’ should think of themselves in the racial terms advocated by the intolerant Right. But ‘the Welsh’ are ultimately conceived to be an ethnic sub-group whether we adopt Kinnockian assimilationist liberalism or Faragist cultural fascism.

While the intolerance of UKIPian Britain is clear enough, it is quite difficult to explain – whether to open-minded liberal Englishmen or some Welsh Labourist historians – what is wrong with the assimilationist vision of Britishness. It might be useful to transpose the debate to a different context. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the problem that Slavoj Žižek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales. Žižek states that he is ‘often accused of being a Slovene ant-Serb nationalist’, and notes that

when I converse with members of the so-called Serb democratic opposition, they say they are in favour of a cosmopolitan democratic Serbia whose defining quality is citizenship and not national belonging. OK, I accept this. But this is where the problems begin, because if you speak with them a little bit longer, you discover a certain political vision that tries to disguise cultural particularity as democratic universalism. For example, if you ask them about Slovene autonomy, they will argue that Slovenia is a small self-enclosed nation and that they, by contrast, are in favour of an anti-nationalist democratic society which is not self-enclosed.

Žižek claims that the Serbs practice a ‘kind of two-level nationalism’ in which Serbia is the only nation in the old Yugoslavia that can sustain an open principle of multicultural and democratic citizenship. This results in a ‘double logic’, for while Serbs are seen to be fundamentally democratic, modern and evolving, the Slovenes are viewed as an inherently closed, traditional, ‘primitive Alpine tribe’. This, he argues, is often the basis for contemporary racism. ‘We should be careful when people emphasize their democratic credentials’, warns Žižek, for the key question is whether ‘these same people allow the Other to have the same credentials?’

The problem that Slavoj Žižek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales. British nationalists employ the same ‘double logic’, espousing the progressive potential of their own national identity, while denying it to the minority nations who may wish to decide the forms of governance suitable to their own, always evolving, interests and identities.

On the Left, ‘Britain’ has been separated from its connections with empire and racial superiority, and is espoused as the multicultural face of Englishness. The debate regarding ‘cultural nationalism’ in Britain today is a debate about the frames, or crucibles, within which a multicultural society is allowed and able to develop. The true British democrat, following Žižek’s astute analysis, is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space that we call Great Britain. To develop the political autonomy of Wales and Scotland is not to reject British multiculturalism, but is to deepen multicultural citizenship. It is surely time to move beyond the ‘double logic’ by which ‘my nation is progressive and cosmopolitan’ while ‘your nation is separatist and divisive’. For it is only when we fully embrace the idea of independent Welsh citizenship that we will see ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘Black Welsh’ as established tick boxes on our census forms.


[Ceir fersiwn Cymraeg o hyn ar y blogiad blaenorol yma]

Dyma fi’n cyflwyno’r un ddadl mewn cyfweliad byr gyda Alun Rhys Chivers, Golwg, yn Rali Yes Cymru, Abertawe at Dachwedd 19, 2016.