An account of an afternoon in the ‘crucible of protest’
Saturday 7th September marked Wales’ third march for independence, the second I’d attended myself, and the first in the valleys of the south Wales coalfields. Having been born and raised twenty minutes and a mountain or two away, I confess that during the build up I felt as if I had something of a personal stake in its success; I was apprehensive. The second march in Caernarfon had more than doubled the figure of the inaugural effort in the capital, and while the optimist in me wanted to continue the trend, the pessimist had other ideas. Independence has long been a political dream for many in the Welsh speaking heartlands of Gwynedd but the same is not necessarily true for Merthyr Tudful. For me to consider the day a success in terms of turnout I felt it had to surpass that of our capital city, back all those weeks ago when the less confident may have stayed away for fear of being the only ones to turn up (they needn’t have worried.)
I spoke with a friend who was also uneasy about the location of the march, uncomfortable with the idea that all of Merthyr’s passionate Welsh people would be imports for the day — he himself was from Aberystwyth. Was the march somehow imposing itself on a place that wasn’t willing to welcome it? He was wrong about everyone being imports, of course; I was there, along with my family and a number of friends. Throughout the day I bumped into local faces I hadn’t expected to see — some of whom I never would have expected to harbour hopes of independence. There were people on doorsteps with flags (and one with a water bowl for the marching dogs!) and banners and accents from towns and villages close enough to consider Cyfarthfa their local retail park. But I understood his point. There were so many wonderful groups from all over Wales that the local ones were hard to spot. There were the travelling football fans from all over the country, stopping by on the way home as they looked to regain some optimism after the previous night’s victory that felt like a defeat. Many, if not most people there were Welsh speaking, increasing the value of the experience for those of us who rarely get to hear it spoken as a community language, but ensuring the march did not feel like a ‘local’ event.
But then for me it wasn’t supposed to. Everywhere you looked there were banners celebrating Glyndŵr, advocating a republic or expressing solidarity with Catalonia or Scotland. Seeing the myriad flags, the town flooded with red, hearing the language, the language that belongs to every one of us — Merthyr has never felt so Welsh and rarely so positive. Of course there are many Welsh speakers in the valleys and I do not mean to dismiss them (my children, and to some extent myself, are among their ranks), but this was more than just an increase in numbers: its prevalence transformed the sensation of what it is to be Welsh in Merthyr. Acting as an unsubtle metaphor for Welshness in general, for one day it wasn’t a private thing, hidden away in the subconscious, rarely spoke of in public. It was expressed openly, proudly and with intent, and — above all — naturally. This was Welsh in Merthyr, as it should be; the language, the sense of identity. And it was great.
Trying to put myself in the position of someone outside the movement with little interest in politics, it’s still hard to image how such an event could emit anything other than a positive ethos. How could having such a vocally inclusive event, right on my doorstep, make me feel anything other than involved? And when the media refuses to amplify the voices of those who challenge the status quo, what better way to advertise your aims than by putting the streets of your audience on the telly and in the papers? It was never going to get the coverage it deserved but it couldn’t be ignored: Merthyr was in the news and for once it wasn’t in relation to deprivation or austerity. Merthyr is a town bustling with potential and for once the whole country got to see it; for me that can only be a good thing for the hopes of the movement locally.
The sun shone as the march concluded with some wonderful speeches, hosted by with humour Phyl Griffiths . Delyth Jewell showed impressive oratory skills, Catrin Dafydd spoke as always with passion and ambition, while Ian Black offered much appreciated support from our Celtic cousins in Scotland. We were treated to poems by Patrick Jones and Mike Jenkins, each expressing the inclusivity that for me this movement is all about. (All of the speeches are available on the Nation.Cymru website here.) But regrettably (and with no disrespect intended) these are not names that are likely to draw an interest from people hitherto uninterested in the cause. One of the most powerful aids in recruiting those who pay little attention to politics (precisely those who we need to convince if we want the movement to achieve anything) is the endorsement of a celebrity. Unfortunately, this is the reality we live in. Fortunately, we had two of them in the shape of Welsh sporting legends.
Neville Southall, one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation, has long been a supporter of charitable causes and has amassed a bit of a cult following on Twitter. He is also a vocal supporter of Welsh independence. ‘Big Nev’ opened by referring to Boris Johnson as the ‘complete homophobic, racist, sexist idiot in Westminster’; the cheers from the crowd reassured me that I was surrounded by politically like-minded people. His words were laced with the theme of an independent Wales needing to look after those positioned ‘lowest’ in society, along with more general praise for Wales littered with hyperbole, all received approvingly by the crowd. This wasn’t just anyone talking, it was Big Nev, a man whose posters once adorned walls all over the country.
But the highlight for me and many others was Eddie Butler. I’ll write that one more time, because it’s still hard to believe: Eddie Butler. Welsh rugby captain in the early eighties, his career perhaps didn’t reach the heights of his footballing counterpart but he has a constant contemporary presence on the BBC’s rugby coverage. His voice, deep and benign, is instantly recognisable, his always carefully chosen words delivered with authority. But the Cambridge educated man is also, for many, one of the last Welsh celebrities likely to come out in support of independence; and that’s why his advocacy is such an important gain. I’ve watched rugby with more than a few fans who have accused him of being anti-Welsh in his commentary, particularly when offering over-enthusiastic compliments to impressive English play or agreeing with his English colleagues. Personally I have always thought that, in addition to a healthy ability to be objective, there are often sarcastic tones that go unnoticed (particularly when conceding points to Brian Moore, who incidentally supports his decision to back independence.) In any case the effort he puts into writing a montage should be enough to convince anyone he loves Wales. But for him to go as far as coming out in favour of independence? I was as shocked and thrilled as everyone else within the movement.
He opened by describing Merthyr as a ‘crucible of protest’, solidifying what was by now my opinion that this was a perfect setting. He was ‘amazed and dismayed’ that the spirit of defiance he experienced during his playing career had been confined to the sports field. His was one of the more grounded speeches, recalling his family’s affinity for the union during the war, before declaring that ‘the United Kingdom that made my parents proud to call themselves British no longer exists’.
He spoke of the dangers of the kind of rhetoric being normalised by UK politics, warning that anyone looking ‘for extreme ideologies’ should ‘look no further than Westminster.’ The solution cannot be timid; ‘devolution is no revolution’, he said, as he again celebrated Merthyr as the ‘birthplace of an uprising’.
Towards the end of the speeches we heard a beautiful rendition of Calon Lân by two local and incredibly talented artists in the form of Kizzy and Eädyth Crawford. They returned to lead us in singing the national anthem to round off a successful afternoon.
Of course it could have gone better. The valleys may have outdone their city rivals but we can no longer say support is growing exponentially with each march; I can only imagine what it would have been like to have 20,000 attendees as they did in Perth. In terms of celebrities we could have gone bigger — had Gareth Bale led the march we’d be independent by the end of the week. More seriously there has been criticism that little action has been taken to actively prevent any potentially racist or fascist factions from attending the marches. All of the (beautiful, poetic) talk of equality and inclusivity cannot be allowed to be seen as mere virtue signalling — practical steps need to be taken to ensure that any independent Wales will be intolerant of intolerance.
But the movement is young, and the space exists to continue improving for as long as there is will. As everyone dissipated into the surrounding Merthyr streets the positive energy remained. It remains too when Welsh independence is examined in juxtaposition with the increasingly racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic rule of a seemingly perpetual Tory Westminster elite. For many in attendance this was a rally against the right. And Merthyr was the right place to do it.