South By Southwest

Guest contribution by Nick Xylas, WR Council member and prospective candidate for Bristol City Council, Eastville Ward

As someone who has lived in both Wessex and the American South, I can’t help but be struck by certain similarities between the two.  Both are primarily rural and agricultural regions.  Both have low-status accents that provide a lazy comedic shorthand for ignorance and backwardness.  And both have areas that have been hurt economically by the loss of their textile industries, whether it’s the Cotswolds or South Carolina, where I lived for 6 years.
There is, however, one major difference in their regionalist traditions.  The main regionalist / Celtic nationalist parties in the Disunited Kingdom are all on the Centre Left.  The Southern patriot movement, on the other hand, is a creature of the fringe far Right.  That master of the political dog whistle, Ronald Reagan, used “states’ rights” as a euphemism for segregation: an extension of Nixon’s Southern strategy to woo mostly (though not exclusively) Southern racists, who had abandoned the Democratic Party over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, into the Republican fold.  The success of this strategy can be seen today in the current popularity of Donald Trump, who has become the Republican front runner by proposing to deport Mexican immigrants en masse and to strip American Muslims of their constitutional rights (though it should be pointed out that Trump leads a very crowded field, and only enjoys the support of some 25-30% of Republican primary voters). 

As a result of this, support for the right of the federal government to override the will of individual states has become a totem of liberal orthodoxy, and there is no left-of-centre decentralist tradition to speak of.  Anyone on the Left supporting states’ rights in a literal, rather than a euphemistic sense, is an aberration: an isolated phenomenon like the handful of monarchists that exist in the USA, in defiance of that country’s entire history.

Like Wessex Regionalists and Celtic nationalists, the Southern patriots identify themselves through the use of a flag.  In this case, they use the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, commonly (though incorrectly) referred to as the Confederate Flag.  Based on the Scottish saltire, to reflect the Scots-Irish heritage of many Southerners, it was incorporated into the state flag of Georgia in 1956, two years after the Brown v Board of Education court decision that led to the desegregation of American schools and, since then, has become a symbol of defiance against Yankee destruction of “traditional Southern values”.  The flag was still flying outside the South Carolina Statehouse in the state capital, Columbia, when I lived there, but public protests have since forced its removal.
There have been attempts to forge a Southern identity that isn’t entirely based on racism.  Some revisionist historians have suggested that the “recent unpleasantness” (the tongue-in-cheek way that Southerners refer to the American Civil War, aka the War of Northern Aggression) wasn’t really about slavery at all, but about supporting a confederal over a federal form of government.  This seems to be based on wishful thinking, however, as it completely ignores the fact that every single Confederate state included a clause in its constitution protecting the institution of slavery and prohibiting its abolition.
Demographics in the South are changing.  Whilst de facto segregation continued long after its de jure abolition, the old racial barriers are breaking down, and the younger generation are far more accepting of a diversity of races, religions, nationalities, genders and sexual identities.  The current Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, is a woman of Indian extraction, elected by the general public against stiff opposition from the good ole boy network within the state party.  The challenge will be to reflect this new reality without erasing the South’s identity and heritage altogether.