England’s romanticised Other

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
“Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, looking towards the East Window” (1794) gan J. M. W. Turner

As regards Brexit, we are approaching the end-game. The Establishment view is apocalyptic and framed in terms of an economic collapse. Culturally, it is thought that Brexit will lead to a more British Wales which will be less Welsh.

The economic analysis is correct. Wales has been hugely dependent on European structural funds, and leaving the Single Market will have a devastating effect on Welsh exporters, who are real people in real communities (farmers, for example). It will indeed be an ‘acid rain’, to quote the historian Gwyn Alf Williams in the context of another market rationalisation.

The effect on Welsh identity and culture will be severe. If rural Wales and the post-industrial Valleys become even poorer, the Welsh language may collapse as a community language in the former. A drift to an anti-devolutionary Right could commence properly in the latter. These are the two regions which voted for devolution in 1997. But devolution has failed both areas, and nothing constitutional in Wales has been stress-tested for a bad Brexit.

However, the vision of a post-Brexit Wales in which Welsh identity is wholly displaced by Britishness is misjudged.

Every country needs its Other, its under-side, its dark romantic belly under the waterline above which utilitarian and rational life continues. Every Kingdom needs its subject peoples whom it romanticizes rather than destroys. Every realm requires a place of leisure to act as a counterweight to metropolitan centres of Government and commerce.

In post-Brexit Britain, Wales will become this Other.

Historically, such places were provided in the British mindset by Empire. The Freudian drive of Brexit mourns the loss of colonies with their safe orientalised Other. Latterly, the European Union provided places to retreat and enjoy limited exoticism, at least for the middle class.

It is not the future of car-makers in Sunderland, nor factory workers in Merthyr, which keep the cultured denizens of Liberal England awake at night. It is the loss of freedom of movement; the loss of Avignon and Barcelona and Berlin and the Italian Lakes. These are places in which for evermore the English will be truly foreign.

England has been here before of course. Following the French Revolution, Republicans and then Napoleon conspired to keep the English out of Europe. The Grand Tour of the eighteenth century in which aristocracy went to the Continent to study Italian Art and improve their French and make the company of waifs was sadly curtailed. Its disappearance marks one of the cultural breaking-points of English history.

The idea of the sublime, the Romantic, the seductive and the sexualised was not lost however. It re-emerged in the Highlands of Scotland, and in the Lake District, and in Wales. Of course, the Celtic Fringes had already been romanticized – Samuel Johnson’s 1775 travelogue, A Journal to the Western Islands of Scotland reveals as much.

But the Republican and Napoleonic Brexit gave this fresh emphasis. Would Wordsworth have composed lines ‘a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the Banks of the Wye’ in July 1798 had he been in Naples?

The break was largely psychological as Romantics might still visit the Continent, but it was a break nevertheless.

Nor did this rediscovery of Britain oppress and repress the local populace. Indeed, the period between the French Revolution and the publication of the Blue Books in 1847 represents the high-point of Welsh cultural nationalism, during which truths about the eternal soul of the Welsh language and the Welsh nation were pronounced, sometimes by the natives too. It is only when Britain is properly opened to the World via Victorian Empire that these Romantic dreamings disappear. They fleet over the horizon, to imperial India and Hong Kong and Kenya.

Herein is an important truth. A growth of British nativism often accompanies a growth in Welsh nativism, for at heart they are the same thing. The same flesh, the same movement, the same discourse and the same pattern of discourse.

The closing of borders after Brexit, as much psychological as real, will not make Wales a part of England. Rather Wales will be reinvented as a place for English fancies and fantasies and odyssey. Wales will become England’s rediscovered Other. A site for a new orientalism. An Anatolia of the West.

England will see Wales as ‘not England’. It will be another place; exotic but safe, different but accessible, charming but understood. The view from the Englishman’s seaside room will be neo-colonial and patronising, and a bit depressing. Nevertheless, it will pay the bills. And it might proke the Welsh themselves to promote their own cultural difference.

Will there be social change? The geography of Romanticism means that we can predict the outcome most clearly in rural Wales. There will be more tourism, more imagining Wales from outside, more holiday homes, more in-migration. There will be hill-walking where there were farms.

Already this process is beginning. Consider for example the recent spike in the number of holiday homes purchased in Gwynedd and Anglesey. The spike will become sharper.

How should we respond as the Welsh economy and Welsh society is recalibrated like this? Obvious things like raising revenue through a tourism tax, and developing suitable housing policies as second homes ownership goes through (its own) roof, and developing a proper strategy for the survival of Welsh as a community language should already have been enacted. The Welsh family farm should be defended for social rather than economic reasons.

Energy is the best chance rural Wales has of making money without resort to tourism. But whether anything can prevent the Romanticisation of late-early twenty-first century Wales is doubtful.


A version of this short article was first published on the Morgan Academy blog, https://www.swansea.ac.uk/morganacademy/morgan-academy-blog/, at the School of Management, Swansea University.