Comment | The Severn Bridge to Nowhere

Comment | The Severn Bridge to Nowhere

After Alun Cairns MP announced that the second Severn Bridge will be named the “Prince of Wales Bridge”, Fedor Tot looks at the debate surrounding the renaming of the second Severn Crossing.

The decision to rename the Severn Bridge as the Prince of Wales Bridge to is by all means a silly and empty one, one designed purely as a meaningless PR exercise for Tory powers in Westminster, who have no interest in Wales other than as a resource for cheap sheep jokes and the occasional seat. It is a vacuous symbol of valueless political power.

But I am surprised, shocked, and more than a little amused by the reaction to it here in Wales. The renaming of the bridge is purely empty symbolism; to quote the US comedian George Carlin, “I leave symbols to the symbol-minded”. By coalescing around the perceived value of a political symbol, we are dumbing-down mainstream discourse (as if it isn’t already dumbed-down enough), because the fact is, all political symbols are entirely meaningless. Symbols flatten narratives, they misrepresent stories and they run roughshod over nuance, because their purpose is to take complex subjects – in this case the historical ignorance of Wales, Welsh culture and the political control exerted on Wales by the powers that be in London – and dispense them into small, easily regurgitated motifs.

This politics of symbolism is rooted not in the belief that actual political change needs to be affected, but by the need to be seen to believe that actual political change needs to be affected. Or to put it another way, for a lot of people in our superficial democracies, it’s more important to be seen to be correct, than to actually be correct. It’s a far greater challenge to develop inclusive, fair and well-thought-out policies and then implement them than it is to just attack the naming of a bridge. For parallels elsewhere, witness the furious avalanche of criticism directed at members of Labour who criticise Corbyn, or the anger hurled by the pro-Brexit newspapers at anyone who dares question the referendum. This is a politics based not on debate, but on symbolism and in-group/out-group activity, always affirming one’s status within your political community.

When this coalesces around such a meaningless and ultimately pointless symbol as the name of a bridge, then it play into the hands of the worst elements of nationalism, whether British or Welsh. Nationalism is the simplest and stupidest of all political ideologies – at heart it states that my country is better than your country, my town better than your town, my family better than yours, I am better than you.

I would like to clarify for a second here: I do not consider the majority of Plaid Cymru to be a nationalist party, and neither should it consider calling itself a nationalist party, despite the common usage of the term “civic nationalism”. Rather what Plaid calls for is something that’s better off being called regionalism or autonomism, as it promotes economic and political independence based on the existence of a region traditionally ignored by centralised powers, a response I very much respect and agree with.

As a committed Yugoslav, I know more than most about what nationalism can do to a country. Nationalism promises nothing but symbolism, symbolism predicated on the idea that a few motifs and national myths can give “freedom” to a people. It does not promise the equality of socialism. Even capitalism at least supposes that the rising tide will lift all boats, however flawed its practice actually is. Nationalism promises none of this.

Of what nationalists promised the various ethnicities of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, none of it materialised. National sovereignty has not provided Croatia much other than a far-right government content to subsist on regurgitating the fascists symbols of World War II, as well as a steady stream of drunk British tourists currently pissing on Croatian beaches now that the good folk in Magaluf have had enough, and Croatia is doing comparatively well. Nationalism has given Serbia international isolation, a victim obsession, and another dictatorship in the form of Aleksandar Vučić, with media freedoms at least as bad as they were under Milošević’s time. Bosnia and Kosovo are two of the poorest countries in Europe, despite the fact that surveys suggest that Kosovars believe they benefited more than any other group that they benefited from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The Titoist era at least saw jobs, healthcare and education proliferate in Kosovo, all of which has stagnated or backtracked since; sometimes it seems nationalist symbols are better at feeding people than bread.

All of these nationalist groups found legitimacy primarily through the use of symbolism – the most obvious and damning is Milošević’s use of the historic battle of Kosovo in 1389, where the medieval Serb state fought against Ottomans and…lost? Drew? Nobody actually knows. But the legend behind produced the founding myth of the Serbian nation, and Milošević pounced on that and used it to build support, stoking fear and anxiety for Kosovan Albanians. The Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was quite happy to use the Nazi-supported Ustaša state as an symbolic exemplar of Croatian statehood, appealing to Croats frustrated by Belgrade centralism, and again stoking fear amongst Serbs.

I’ve only applied this logic to nationalism in Yugoslavia – but you can apply it anywhere it festers. Putin and his he-man shenanigans. Hungary’s Orban and his fanatical pseudo-Christianity. The Confederacy flag amongst white supremacists in the US.

By letting ourselves get sucked into this furore over the naming of a bridge, we are giving into the politics of symbolism. Wales certainly won’t find itself in a genocidal war here. But by engaging with this, we become cheaper as political animals and we devalue the arguments for Welsh autonomy. We should instead be looking to destroy political symbols in favour of building a more in-depth, thoughtful political debate, rather than the polarising, black-and-white emotion that often accompanies the use of symbols.

The name of a bridge is a meaningless gesture that can be changed tomorrow. What will be much harder to erase is decades of structurally unequal growth, and the questions and issues that will bring up in terms of policy, concrete political action and change. Ironically, by writing this damn thing, I’ve only contributed to the collective cheapening of political discourse, but there we go.