Simon Brooks has a tendency to make me feel uncomfortable. I should probably add that this comment does not relate to him as an individual – indeed, he is remarkably entertaining and irreverent given the intensity of his prose, and his unforgiving political directness. It relates instead to the content of his social and political arguments and their capacity to give rise to troublesome and unsettling tensions.
As someone born into the Labour Party, his unabashed political nationalism (Welsh, rather than British, should that need clarifying) is a direct enough challenge to contend with. The fact that he articulates this nationalism through a brand of conservatism makes it even more of a test. Yet in reading his latest work, Pam Na Fu Cymru it is impossible not be impressed, if not taken, with a number of his key arguments.
Indeed, the experience of reading the second in Daniel Williams’ UWP series ‘Syniadau’ was in many ways akin to reading Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. That book, and in particular the eponymous essay, has the ‘progressive’ reader fighting every fibre in their intellect to resist the allure of its arguments, but to no avail. In spite of Oakeshott’s apparent desire to return to the middle ages, his critique of modern politics – and its tendency to claim all problems can be addressed and resolved through technocratic expertise – is all too persuasive (we are bearing witness today to its most perverted and masochistic tendencies, in the unrelenting and sickening attack on the poor and vulnerable).
For the left-leaning reader there are similar tensions involved in reading Brooks’ work. He presents a less esoteric conservatism but it is conservatism nevertheless, whilst he puts forward a powerful critique of the ideology of progressive politics. Indeed, it is the tendency of liberalism to promote the cause of the dominant, whilst claiming neutrality, which is the central motif of his work. In the case of Wales, he claims it has been the progressive narrative of the Liberal and latterly the Labour movement that have justified the debasement of Welsh culture and language – and ultimately the Welsh nation.
This is the key normative claim in the work, but Brooks puts the case to us on the basis of a historical study of Wales in the 19th century, taking the year 1848 as the central launch pad for the argument. This of course was the year of the revolutions in Europe where small nations, in the Habsburg Empire in particular, began to flex their muscles and lay the basis for their claims of nationalism that would be realised in years to come. Brooks encourages us to ask why the same process did not occur in Wales. He reminds us that we are a historical anomaly in the sense that many key preconditions – such as industrialisation – applied in the same way, but that it did not result in the same powerful political movement towards nationhood.
This is why he asks ‘Why Wasn’t Wales?’, and his argument is fascinating. Essentially he blames the bulk of the Welsh establishment, namely the liberal non-conformists – the famed ‘Welsh radicals’. Their desire to accept the liberal, progressive British narrative of the time, and readiness to capitulate to the racism of the Blue Books, put pay to Welsh self-respect and integrity at a time when other small nations began a process of self-realisation. Rather than promote a Welsh political identity, they preferred to cleave to the purportedly universalist and general claims of the liberal movement. And here’s the crux: rather than British liberalism being genuinely tolerant and accepting of difference and supportive of all its constituent members, it did in fact mask a cultural superiority that regarded the assimilation of the inferior Celts by the English as the only way to guarantee progress.
It is fascinating in one respect because Brooks is able to show how the liberal narrative was actively embraced by many Welsh radicals – and many Welsh speakers amongst them. It is interesting in another respect because of course the Welsh Chapel has in the popular mind been the mainstay of Welsh language and culture. For these paragons of Welsh progress to be painted as the ones who betrayed their nation is an equally powerful story to tell (and it is one that has much credibility, especially if you speak to others knowledgeable about the period – I was particularly amused to hear one academic talking about ‘Homer Simpson’ theories of language acquisition in the Victorian era that held that English had to replace Welsh because there is only so much room in the human mind).
It is an open question, however, whether Brooks is justified in being quite so harsh in his judgment and to characterise them as such active agents in the sublimation of Wales and Welsh culture within Britishness, given the ideological, social and economic forces at play. In particular, a separatist project within the world’s foremost economic power would not have been a straightforward argument to make given the prosperity it offered to the upwardly mobile. Fittingly, given that it is the 150th anniversary of the Welsh landing in Patagonia, it is one of this project’s prime instigators, Michael D Jones, who offers the counter narrative that Brooks extols.
Along with Lady Llanover and Emrys ap Iwan, he was one of the key figures who defended the integrity and potential of Welsh nationhood and culture and crucially, he was from the non-conformist mainstream. Brooks’ account alerts us to the insight and foresight of Jones’ thought and demonstrates how he was ahead of his time. His critique of mainstream British liberalism, and his ability to recognise its deleterious effects for minorities, foreshadows the arguments that would develop against universal liberalism both in the post-colonial literature and the identity politics of modern greats such as Miriam Iris Young.
The aim of the book, however, is as much to force us to reflect on our current situation as it is to provide a provocative and revealing account of our past. Given our collective amnesia as a nation any contribution to historical debate is to be welcomed, but it is the way it sheds light on our contemporary thought-world in Wales, and the considerations it suggests that are perhaps most significant. It is no coincidence, claims Brooks, that Welsh nationalism in the 1920s should arise in the conservative figure of Saunders Lewis who – like the central and eastern Europeans of yore – rejected the progressive liberal narrative, in keeping with Jones’ project. Brooks wants to suggest that in providing ballast for the contemporary Welsh project this critique of the British establishment must be embraced.
The book represents a fascinating combination of social history, intellectual history and political theory that perhaps only a figure such Brooks could produce – it is to the detriment of Welsh academia that he is not in one of our Universities, but perhaps this allows the freedom to produce work that cuts across disciplines in a way that is less natural for those of us more entrenched in our positions. He raises many difficult questions for people across the political spectrum and in our current state of flux and confusion this is a priceless piece of work. For me it represents the most challenging and significant work on Wales since devolution – although I have yet to read Daniel Williams’ Wales Unchained!
Certainly those such as Williams who see the future of Wales tied to left-leaning politics will have plenty to say, and will no doubt baulk at the implication that contemporary Welsh nationalism (both cultural and political) cannot be tied to a broader emancipatory and progressive movement. The two of them will have had plenty of time to discuss these ideas over this last month during a speaking tour across Wales. Whatever one’s political colours (and innate aversions) this is a conversation you should be involved in.
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