Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no unbelievers in the crowd as the anthem’s crescendo “GWLAD!!” ricochets off the roof of the Principality Stadium to launch this year’s Six Nations Rugby Championship. It is the unambiguous and unbridled plea of a nation, beseeching with every iota of hwyl in its collective soul to draw dragon’s breath from its team.
Perhaps the emotion is too much for the players. Because, as we all know, the Irish score soon and ruthlessly and often to complete an emphatic victory.
There is of course plenty of pantomime in all this Welshness, as we squint through the smoke from the pre-match pyrotechnics at all the boozy supporters in their daffodil hats. But for some, rugby comes closer to a religion than a game. And for those of us living in Europe, vicariously in the moment on choppy internet connections, it’s as if we’ve never left home. We are true believers too.
Welsh in Europe
For the Welsh diaspora, unlike the Irish or the Scots, there aren’t many home comforts abroad. I can’t find a Welsh bar in Amsterdam to watch the game, but there are dozens of Irish pubs overflowing with Guinness and craic. And it’s hardly a rarity to find a Scotsman swaying in a kilt playing the bagpipes in the Dam Square. All credit to the Irish and Scottish marketing boards, but let’s face it, our culture is largely invisible, at least in non-rugby playing European countries.
Invariably, as a Welshman living in the Netherlands, I am simply een Brit – although Dutch people generally realise Wales exists, they usually see it subsumed as a region of Britain, or even as part of England. Just as they see Friesland, which also has its own language, as a component of the Netherlands.
On reflection, this is hardly surprising. Throughout Europe the norm, rather than the exception, is that the provinces provide an underlying cultural armature in a continent of historically fluid borders.
Our borders were fixed long ago, but as the Football Association of Wales recently reminded us, the word Wales derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ’foreigners’. Equally, Britannia is simply a Latinisation of the Brythonic word Pretani and, until relatively recently, the term Briton referred exclusively to the Celtic speaking peoples of Britain.
In that light, the imperial usage of Britannia, as in “Rule Britannia”, could simply be seen as an early and outrageous form of cultural appropriation. Perhaps the time has come for Wales to reclaim its name of Britain? Those on the other side of the Severn Bridge might then like to rename themselves the Welsh, with due diligence to historical accuracy. At least it would bring us a bit of clarity to our back-story, even if it would lead to utter confusion for everyone else.
No longer counted
But more seriously, if we, the Welsh in Europe, feel our identity is seen as translucent to those in our host countries, then that is mirrored in our diaphanous status as British people living in the EU. With that in mind I called the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to find out what the current numbers are for the British living in Europe.
The most recent ONS figures were published in 2018, during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, and much has changed since then. At the time they estimated that 784,900 British citizens lived in Europe, but this number was disputed by the concurrent and significantly greater figure of 1.22mn produced by the UN. So even when the numbers seemed to matter, there was a certain fuzziness to the count.
But the ONS response to my question was that the updating of the data has been discontinued. This is politically relevant because the ‘15 years rule’, which disenfranchises long term emigrants, including a significant proportion of British Europeans, is due to change shortly. If so, one wonders: why would they stop counting us now?
I used to see my disenfranchisement as a fair price to pay for living abroad, but discovered the hard way that not having a vote matters. Many British Europeans have no voting rights whatsoever, anywhere. Which meant that we became politically invisible in the eyes of the negotiators on both sides during the UK’s exit from the EU. Already ignored by Theresa May, who had earlier othered us as “citizens of nowhere”, we became an irrelevance as she set out her red lines during the withdrawal negotiations.
Only a game
If we were irrelevant to May, there were those on the Commission’s side who ceased to see us as Europeans; we who, in normal circumstances, they might be expected to protect, rather than to negotiate against. Particularly as we were only in that position precisely because we had exercised our right to free movement.
Ironically, to the British we’d morphed into Europeans, but to the Europeans our European-ness had evaporated. When in truth, as all British Europeans understood, we were both. Stripping the rights from people who had organised their lives around those rights, after a referendum in which they had no vote, should leave any democrat feeling distinctly queasy.
But at least, as Welsh people, we know who we are. And because rugby is sometimes the way we express that, it brings to mind a story from Wales’ golden age in 1975.
The team had just defeated France in Paris at Parc des Princes, and Orly airport thronged with jubilant Welsh supporters on their way back to Rhoose. At that same moment the PFLP, led by Carlos the Jackal, chose to launch an attack on an El Al plane, tossing grenades into the airport terminal as they went. Everyone flung themselves under whatever available cover they could find. In the stunned silence that followed, a reedy Welsh voice indignantly exclaimed from under a table, “It’s only a game mun!”
Only, it really isn’t only a game, is it?