Why Corbyn’s troubles could boost Welsh nationalism

Ifan Morgan Jones looks at the effect of Labour’s UK fortunes on Wales.


I have no idea what Corbyn’s exact views on Welsh devolution are. And at the moment, with a botched reshuffle and front-bench resignations, Wales might well be the least of his concerns.

Despite this, and with one eye on the devolved elections in May, I do believe that his leadership could lead to an upsurge of nationalism in Wales. Why?

To answer that question, let us turn to Benedict Anderson, one of the most influential academics on the subject of nationalism, who died in Indonesia last month.

Even though his seminal 1983 book Imagined Communities does not deal specifically with Wales, he does contrast the lack of an independence movement in Scotland with other parts of the British Empire.

One of the main reasons he suggests is that the middle-class in Scotland had access to power at the heart of the British Empire in London, while for the natives of other countries such as the United States, India and Australia, the “the looping upward path” was closed. (Anderson, 1991, pp. 90-3)

The alternative, when power at the centre of the Empire is not on offer, is to win independence in order to govern yourselves at home.

At this point we fast-forward to Philip Roeder’s pioneering study on nationalism, Where Nation States Come From, published in 2008.

According to his thesis – although, again, the book makes little mention of Wales specifically – our country since 1999 has been what he would call a ‘segment state’.

That is, a state with its own institutions which exists within another nation-state.

Roader turns our understanding of nationalism on its head. Rather than an ethnic people demanding the creation of political institutions that identify with their ethic culture, he suggests that it is institutions that promote nationalism in order to expand their own influence.

His research shows that segment-states, which have their own powerful institutions, are much more likely to nurture nationalist movements than states where no such institutions exist.

His theory explains why many countries in Africa have retained their overall cohesiveness despite a multitude of ethnic groups, while a country like Scotland which is culturally very similar to the rest of the UK now seeks to leave it only 15 years after restoring its own parliament.

In short, anyone claiming that devolution kills nationalism stone dead, should read Philip Roeder’s book first. The opposite would seem to be the case – nationalist movements almost always sprouts from such segment states, and almost never from ethnic groups which don’t have their own institutions.

“Indeed,” he summarises, “for the past century it would have been safe to bet a considerable sum with the rule of thumb, ‘no segment-state, no nation state’.” (Roeder, 2007, p. 10)

But nationalist movements are not inevitable – there needs to be a certain incentive before these segment states will seek to increase their own power at the expense of the nation-state. Such as, as Anderson noted, that their access to power at the centre is blocked.

So, what does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn?

Many now predict that Labour could be out of power at Westminster for as many as 10 years. So-called moderate Labour MPs have little chance of being in government any time soon, or even of keeping a place in the shadow cabinet.

This is the first time since the formation of the Welsh assembly that Labour has not only been out of power, but with little chance of being in power again for the foreseeable future.

The “looping upward path” to government is, for them, closed, at least for the time being.

The effect has already been quite pronounced. For talented individuals such as MP Huw Irranca-Davies, Baroness Eluned Morgan, and the IWA Director Lee Waters, the Welsh Assembly, not Westminster, suddenly becomes the more enticing prospect.

Conservative AMs such as Alun Cairns, Byron Davies and Antoinette Sandbach have been moving in the other direction – from opposition to government.

Meanwhile, First Minister Carwyn Jones’ response to the General Election loss and Corbyn’s win has been to emphasise his party’s Welsh credentials and independence from Westminster.

Speaking in October, he stressed that the “biggest change I’ve seen in this country in my political lifetime” is “[a] Welsh pride and identity that was once a bit chippy, and yes, sometimes language based, now fits comfortably and confidently on the shoulders of all.” [My italics]

Here he articulates a newly acceptable form of Welsh nationalism, which everyone in Wales can safely subscribe to. One taken out of Plaid Cymru’s ‘chippy, language-obsessed’ grasp and refitted for Labour’s own purposes. Nationalism is nothing if not malleable!

(Eagle-eyed readers will also notice that he’s even changed his Twitter logo to a little Welsh dragon.)

What possible motive could Labour have for attempting to accentuate nationalism at this time?

This isn’t an attempt to spike Plaid Cymru’s Nationalist guns, as it was following the 1999 Assembly Election. It is, rather, a response to continued Conservative dominance at Westminster.

Locked out of power at Westminster by their own members, Labour is unlikely to be satisfied with the range of powers on offer in the one national institution it does control. In order to ‘Sefyll Cornel Cymru’, more devolution will be required, and that will require the public’s support.

Roeder’s thesis suggests that we could see a greater emphasis on Welsh nationalism as a means of winning public support to that end.

Ifan Morgan Jones is a lecturer in Journalism at the School of Creative Studies and Media at Bangor University.