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Welsh Rare Bits

Angelsey, Wales.

The battlements of Caernarfon Castle look over the Working Men’s Conservative Club, founded in 1888. It sits on Hole in the Wall Street and looks worse for wear. The front door is tattered and there is no sign of life. This is not conservative country. It is the bastion of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales. Plaid has three seats in Westminster, two of them along northwestern Wales. Welsh dances along in the tearooms and shops. Most people in Wales can no longer speak Welsh, but in the northwest it remains a dominant language. The holdout of Welsh culture takes places in sight of the iron ring of fortresses built by Edward I (1239-1307) to extend Norman dominion over these beautiful lands. Caernarfon was Edward’s central fort – it is where the Prince of Wales is invested. A video in the fort shows a young Charles (yes, there is a young Charles) take up his symbols of office. The republicans of Plaid hold little trust in the royal family. The party’s leader, Leanne Wood, in a debate in the Welsh Assembly in 2004 referred to the Queen as Mrs. Windsor. This was a snub at Edward I.

In the turrets of Caernarfon Castle is a museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the regiment that fought in most of Britain’s imperial wars (from the American Revolution to the Indian Wars of Independence to the wars against the Ashanti). Amongst the gory exhibits sits a picture by the British Army’s main painter, Orlando Norrie. It depicts two Indian sepoys, strapped to a cannon, being blasted by the Bengal Horse Artillery in 1858 as retribution for their mutiny. The Indians became “damned niggers” to the British after the unsuccessful uprising. As Sir George Otto Trevelyan wrote in his book on Kanpur, “That hateful word, which is now constantly on the tongue of all Anglo-Indians [meaning the British in India] except civilians and missionaries, made its first appearance in decent society during the years which immediately preceded the munity.” Race hatred was heightened by the audacity of rebellion. The Welch Fusiliers had relieved the British garrison in Lucknow. This form of violence – being blasted by a cannon – was their revenge. “ISIS,” I say aloud absentmindedly. A man beside me demurs – they were mutineers, he said.

Wales did not take the Norman yoke lying down. A sign inside Conway Castle announces, “Welsh brains outwit English brawn.” It tells of the 1401 rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, whose men broke into the castle pretending to be carpenters. Their comrades seized the town of Conway, which they held for three months. The English returned in force. The Welsh had to surrender, paying a heavy price – the English executed nine of the rebels. There is still a stench of the violence in the dungeons of Conway Castle, which looks out on the Colwyn Bay. There is a debtors’ prison in the tower, a reminder of who was born to rot and who was born to sup.

Down the road from the Caernarfon Castle is the office of the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW). The farmers know a great deal about debt. Two members of the FUW are in the office. They tell me about Mary and Alun Williams, farmers in Snowdonia, who lost their Rhyngddwyafon Farm that had been in their family for a century. A short-term commercial loan ballooned and forced them to take out more loans. “It has been absolutely heart-breaking,” said Mary Williams (age 55), “the worst day of our lives. We have been totally duped by a bank that is asset-stripping farmers of their livelihood.” Over the past decade, the number of dairy cows in Wales has fallen by seventeen per cent. Dairy farmers leave the business every month. An end to the European diary quota and tumbling milk prices “created a perfect storm,” said FUW senior policy advisor Hazel Wright. A combination of an unbridled finance sector, an end to government-managed price supports and a retail war between the supermarket chains weighs heavily on the farmers. These are the social costs of austerity.

The two FUW members in the office are women. It was striking to watch the leaders’ debate for the last parliamentary election, with the bulwark against Austerity being held by the three women on the podium (Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party and Leanne Wood of Plaid). One of the women in the office says that it is women who have to pick up the pieces of a frayed social fabric. Their militancy is both ideological and practical. Liz Saville Roberts of Plaid Cymru laid down the bottom line of the struggle, “We are aware that rural areas are disproportionately affected by cuts to key services due to their remote locations. We reject the austerity agenda and its emphasis on cutting public services in order to remedy the mistakes of London financiers.” She was being polite. Those were not mistakes. They were the outcomes of the precise policies of our governments and their corporate bedfellows. It is the limitation of the UK’s nationalists and greens that while they are decidedly against austerity, they cannot see its roots in the normal function of finance capitalism.

A clearer vision will be on the streets on July 8 in Cardiff, at the protest of the Weapons of Mass Percussion, the 76% that did not vote for the Conservatives. Their gathering on July 8, on Castle Lawn, will take place to protest the expected Bankers’ Budget from the government. They want to protect the “precious fabric of our communities” – a sentiment of old Wales captured well in Raymond Williams’ Border Country (1960). This is not a sentimental nostalgic community, but the community of struggle; not the pastoralism of rural Wales, but the General Strike of 1926. Mandy, a bookseller in Beaumaris, hands me some Megan Glyn and some Dylan Thomas. Her Raymond Williams books are at home. We discuss Rosa Luxemburg. Old roots of socialist culture remain alive and well. This is the culture of the Pots and Pans Big Budget Day Protest. It will draw from old histories – the obstinacy of the miners and the Welsh nationalists – and new realities – the people who work everyday to pick up the pieces of a frayed society.

I walk the bluffs above Penmon Priory, reading Dylan Thomas on the suffering in his Wales;

Remember the procession of the old-young men

From dole queue to corner and back again,

From the pinched, packed streets to the peak of slag

In the bite of the winters with shovel and bag,

With a drooping fag and a turned up collar,

Stamping for the cold at the ill lit corner

Dragging through the squalor with their hearts like lead

Staring at the hunger and the shut pit-head

Nothing in their pockets, nothing home to eat,

Lagging from the slag heap to the pinched, packed street.

Remember the procession of the old-young men.

It shall never happen again.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, No Free Left: the Futures of Indian Communism, is just out in paperback from LeftWord Books. He will be speaking in Dublin, Ireland, on June 30 at Comhlámh, 12 Parliament Street at 630pm.

weapons of mass percussion
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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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