Welsh football, Brexit and the future of British national identity

Wales' performance in the European Cup helped build a cross-racial national identity. But more must be done if everyone from Wales is to feel accepted as Welsh.

Geraint Rhys
29 July 2016
fa wales.jpg

Image: FA Wales, fair use.

The achievements of the Welsh national football team in the Euro 2016 tournament in France this summer have been remarkable for many reasons. Not only did the team reach the semi-finals, the best performance in Welsh football history, but the players managed to whip up the type of national engagement that those working in the Welsh government could only dream of. Thirty-three thousand people packed inside the Principality stadium in the capital Cardiff to watch the game being beamed on a giant screen live from Lyon.

The football team’s simple hashtag of #togetherstronger urged fans that if we, as Welsh supporters, stick together, we can achieve great things. Such is the power of national identity that strangers can imagine themselves as belonging to each other because of where they call home. Notably, the Welsh football team represented the nation’s diversity: from Neil Taylor, whose mother is from Calcutta to Hal-Robson Kanu and captain Ashley Williams who are both from mixed-race heritages. Around Wales, people of different backgrounds – including many who do not follow football – felt united. We all felt that this journey belonged to all of us.  

It was also during the Euro tournament that UK voters decided to leave the European Union, with majorities in England and Wales voting in favour of Brexit and majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland against. In many ways, even as Wales felt most united, the whole of the UK has looked anything but cohesive or together.

Worryingly, post-Brexit hate crime has seen a surge. Tell MAMA, an organisation that measures anti-Muslim attacks, received 33 reports within 48-72 hours of the vote, whereas they usually receive around 40-45 a month. Shocking videos and images continue to emerge of racist attacks against those perceived as being foreign or supposedly out of place.

With some attributing the rise in post-Brexit hate crime to an increase in the number of xenophobic versions of British nationalism (and their followers), we must address what kind of society we want to be and what national identity means in an increasingly diverse age.

Now is as important time as ever for us in Wales (as well as the rest of the home nations), to recognise the potential of a more plural, diverse and inclusive sense of national identity.

My research on how Welsh Muslims negotiate their faith with their Welsh and British identity in their everyday lives shows that Welshness and Britishness matters regardless of faith. Having a strong sense of place is integral to how everyone constructs a sense of home. And contrary to political rhetoric on the far right, there is no contradiction between feeling both Muslim and Welsh or Muslim and British.

The attachments that people have to where they grow up are immensely important to feelings of wellbeing and belonging. For the people I talked to, being Welsh is a salient part of their identities and mattered in both profound and banal ways. Whether it’s the feeling of longing for Wales when visiting the homeland of their parents, taking part in the national holiday St David’s Day or identifying as Welsh when in England because of their strong Welsh accents, there are many ways in which Welsh identity is reinforced in the daily lives of Muslims.

A major challenge for our society is how much others can accept that Welsh, English and Scottish identities can be multifaceted. A white Welsh non-Muslim hearing an ethnic minority Muslim speaking with a strong Welsh accent might understand that she grew up in Wales, but might not accept that she can be Welsh.

Such attitudes can have a deeply negative impact, not only on the way Muslims are perceived and treated in public, but upon how they self-identify. Those in my research who experienced racism or Islamophobia, stressed to me that this made them feel like they didn’t belong and questioned if they ever will be able to be considered Welsh or British by the wider community.

The challenge is therefore to ensure that a diverse nation is not something which is only reflected sporadically – when there is an Eid al-Fitr celebration or when a politician wants a quick photo op hugging someone who isn’t white. Rather, we as a society, including politicians, the media and people in the street, must continuously acknowledge the positive contributions that ethnic and religious minorities have long been making and continue to make to Wales and to the United Kingdom as a whole.

These contributions are many and span many different fields – from sports to business to the arts, and they are becoming more prominent in the Welsh national narrative. The football team at the Euros was reflective of the participation of ethnic cultural and religious minorities in local and national sporting teams. The Welsh Yemeni fashion designer Haifa Shamsan, who started her fashion label Maysmode from her flat in Butetown Cardiff Bay, is making her mark on Islamic fashion, and has her models confidentially model Maysmode designs at the Senedd Building, the house of the Welsh Assembly. Welsh language songwriter Kizzy Crawford sings about her Welsh and Barbadian heritages.

An increasing number of different third sector organizations and charities in the field of diversity and race relations, have mobilised around the Welsh Assembly since devolution. One of these organisations, a Swansea-based youth charity called the Ethnic Youth Support Team, responding to a planned White Pride demonstration, launched a ‘we too are Welsh’ campaign that argued you don’t have to be white to be Welsh.

Today, Welsh identity is being embraced by ethnic and religious minorities in creative ways, and Wales is stronger because of this. For a more inclusive national identity to develop, people of different backgrounds must feel like they can contribute to how Wales and Welshness is constructed, so they can claim ownership over their own identities. Government institutions, third sector organisations and ordinary people must create opportunities where meaningful contact and dialogue across faith and culture can develop every day. And we must as a society work to foster a sense of belonging and attachment that can be harnessed in an inclusive way, binding people in a common community, regardless of faith or ethnicity. If this happens in Wales, Scotland and England, only then will we become stronger together.

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