The controversy in 2018 surrounding the renaming of the second Severn crossing to “The Prince of Wales Bridge” had died down until recently a new sign on the structure was erected. Gary Raymond asks if that sign might not become a powerful symbol for the Welsh independence movement.
You may or may not have noticed that one of the bridges stretching across the mouth of Severn estuary connecting south Wales to England has recently undergone a name change. If this seismic controversy passed you by, here’s what happened:
With the dismantling of the tollbooths on the second Severn crossing (as most called it when trying to differentiate it from the “old bridge”) came the opportunity for the powers-that-be to reclaim ownership of a structure that since it’s opening in 1996 had been owned by a consortium consisting of a London-based development and management company (35%), a French constructions firm (35%), an American bank (15%), and Barclays Capital (15%). The original deal stipulated that the hundred million pound outlay for the building of the bridge would be made back through the tolls, and once they had been, then the ownership of the bridge would revert to government, specifically in this case Highways England. So in April of 2018, with the handing over of a bridge owned by a English-French-American consortium to an English authority, it was left to Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, to announce that the bridge would be renamed in honour of the man who opened it in 1996, HRH Prince Charles.
The renaming has been controversial in some circles in Wales. Particularly in the anti-monarchist, nationalist movements, who saw skulduggery not only in the symbolism of the renaming of the bridge, but the way Cairns – a deeply unpopular figure in Wales (and, you may guess, beyond Wales), who is known in political circles as the “grim reaper of Welsh politics” – seemed to sneak the entire process through cracks in the national masonry. Within three days of the announcement of the renaming, a petition of protest garnered more than 30,000 signatures (presumably from the Welsh side of the bridge). On July 2nd 2018, a ceremony was held without any press release sent out before or after, where a plaque was unveiled with Charles and his wife present, officially naming the bridge in his honour. (Reports of the entire ceremony being carried out by moonlight, with all attendants in black robes, and the ritual sacrifice of several sheep, have remained unsubstantiated at the time of writing this).
So, let’s get some things out on the table, and briefly explore why the renaming has proved a problem for some. It mainly comes down to this: that the main route in and out of Wales for many (and particularly to and from London) will now be shadowed with a name that refers to the servitude of the Welsh people to the English crown, and helps reiterate the impression that Wales is a region of England rather than a nation in its own right; it is a reminder to all who pass over the bridge that Wales has to suffer the indignity (unlike Scotland or Ireland) of having had a member of the English royal family sit in place of a Welsh king since 1284.
The renaming of the bridge is an act of insensitivity, at best. But also it is an act pretty much in-keeping with two statements of fact: that the Welsh people live in servitude to the English royal family, and that Wales is regarded not as a country at all, but rather it is seen by the ruling powers of England in much the same way as they view “the north” or Cornwall – a place to buy a holiday home.
So, there we are – or were. The bridge took the name of the Prince of Wales in the dead of night, Welsh nationalist twitter was apoplectic for a little while, and then all was forgotten. And if only politicians of this day and age had the intelligence to realise they can get away with anything they want nowadays, if they just let things play out. The renaming of the bridge might have become a symbol of all that is tied up in the nationalist impetus. Things move fast, and it’s difficult to make things stick in the age of twitter-feed attention spans.
Where does that leave us?
Re-enter stage left, Alun Cairns, who you may remember was originally tasked, as Welsh Secretary, on making an announcement relating to a Highways England project. Why would that fall under his purview, you may ask? It’s difficult to figure out, really, unless you count for his reputation of being a bit of a bagman for Theresa May, the “bearer of bad news”. In fact Cairns, less a politician, more a medieval minstrel charged with walking a few steps behind Theresa May singing songs about her legendary battles and scented aroma, has been in many ways the ideal figure to head this latest Tory iteration of Project Putting the Welsh in Their Place. Aside from his preening undignified sycophancy toward May, best exemplified in his recent voting record on her European Withdrawal Agreement, where, instructed not to abstain, he voted for and against, Cairns seems to be known best for two things: firstly, being one of 72 Tories who voted against a bill ensuring private landlords must provide homes that are “fit for human habitation” whilst at the same time himself being a private landlord; and secondly, for being the seventh fastest Marathon running MP of all time. That second point is often referred to, and was even cited by May herself in a recent speech in Wales, with Cairns grinning front row like a head prefect being praised by the head mistress during school assembly.
Cairns, you have to feel, has been of more use to the prime minister than he has been to Wales, and in that regard he is precisely in the strongest traditions of Tories who have filled that office. His dedication to ensuring landlords have no obligation to provide environments fit for human habitation is a project he has boldly taken on to the national stage, as his statesmanship in Wales has overseen a dramatic increase in poverty.
News that the cost of renaming the bridge, a process that most sentient human beings could have had done over a coffee, cost the taxpayer around £40,000 has been dramatically underplayed, be it by Cairns’ political opponents or just those who have the interests of the 200,000 children living in poverty in Wales. And yet still, the inhumane attitudes of the government for which Cairns is a representative in our country have not quite managed to stoke people into grasping the naming of this bridge as the ultimate symbol for the movements for an Independent Wales – not because the new name is insulting, or out-of-step, or insensitive – but because the new name stands for something that is true.
And so at some point over the last week some of the thousands of daily traversers of the Prince of Wales Bridge have noticed a new ornament. A gantry plaque has emerged on both ends of the bridge. There was no press release, but now there is an enormous sign that declares the name of the bridge, and spits triumphantly in the faces of every driver and passenger of all that it symbolises. Wales belongs to the English crown. You are now entering the land of subservient subjects. (I don’t think Cairns for a moment either had the creative impulse or the requisite balls to have thought of this himself, but if he had done, I would have to have admitted a snicker of admiration for an act of trolling an entire country).
So what next? How can Welsh people who care about this stuff find recourse? Criminal damage is obviously ill-advised – unless anyone can get hold of Banksy, the world’s richest and most revered vandal. No, there seems to be only two ways to address the issue symbolised in that plaque. First would be for Wales to infiltrate the Conservative Party in time for the upcoming leadership contest, and somehow get Alain Cairns elected as prime minister. Historically, being a Tory prime minister is the only sure-fire way of making sure that person stops paying attention to Wales.
The second is to campaign for Welsh Independence. This is an English bridge, run by an English roads department, and it seems the only way to get the name of our country off that bridge, (and then off the name of the Duke of Cornwall), is to release us from the oversight of Westminster.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.