When I wrote ‘Becoming Welsh in ‘99’ (2005), it was a piece of autobiography. Now, writing about elective Welshness and inclusive identity calls for social commentary. What was personal has become political, for me – and for everyone else. What was simply a case of what I felt – namely, that Welshness is not a birth certificate or even a heritage but, for want of a better description, a state of mind – has become an urgent question of community cohesion.
When Alun Cairns made his assertion on Question Time a fortnight ago that Plaid Cymru somehow represents narrow-minded Welsh-language communities hostile to English incomers, supporting his ‘point’ with a ludicrous reference to the erstwhile activities of Meibion Glyndwr, he revealed just how ugly identity politics in Wales has once again become. The incredulous reaction from Plaid leader Leanne Wood was understandable, and Cairns’ misstep is certainly made worse by his position as Secretary of State for Wales in the UK Government and his subsequent refusal to apologise, despite the intervention of the First Minister.
The public response to Cairns’ attempt to deflect attention from the debate about his own party’s rhetoric on immigration was the heartening #WeAreWales/NiYwCymru hashtag and the widespread sharing on social media of an excerpt from a speech made by the Plaid Cymru leader in 2012: ‘We are one Wales. Not immigrant versus local. One Wales. Not rural versus urban. One Wales. Not North versus South. Friends, we stand together in the face of division as one Wales. More than ever, our nation needs to pull together. Our communities need to pull together.’
Reminiscent of outgoing President Obama’s famous ‘blue states and red states’ speech in 2008, the irony contained within this idealistic vision of the nation is the fact that each of the statements it contains would be redundant if true. ‘Not urban versus rural’ needs emphasising precisely because there is a huge cultural divide between what will be the Cardiff Capital Region and the rest of the country. ‘Not local versus immigrant’, sadly, needs emphasising because this is precisely the wedge that UKIP and others have used to gain political capital, fracturing our communities along nationalistic and racial lines.
Reading back over ‘Becoming Welsh in ’99’, the one line that stands out as heavily ironic is my assertion that ‘once, in a fit of stupidity and rage, I voted for Plaid Cymru’. The vote to which I refer was my very first, in the Assembly election of 1999. I was 18. I had already become sceptical about New Labour, and Tony Blair, who had so enthused me – and so many others – just a couple of years earlier, and I had bought into the narrative that Alun Michael was a London ‘plant’; devolution had simply been Labour’s way of securing permanent hegemony in Wales (and, so they thought at the time, Scotland). I was too young to vote in the devolution referendum, but I reasoned – quite logically I think, looking back – that if we were going to have a Welsh Assembly, it needed to count for something. And in 1999, that meant voting Plaid.
What I find funny about my phrase about ‘stupidity and rage’ is that, despite voting Labour in Assembly elections under Rhodri Morgan’s administration and flirting briefly, after the Iraq war, with voting for the Liberal Democrats at UK level, I have since voted Plaid Cymru enough times and with enough consistency in recent Wales and UK elections that one might now refer to me, I suppose, as ‘a Plaid voter’.
But it is not my own personal history of putting crosses in particular boxes that is of interest. What is interesting is the perception I must previously have held about Plaid Cymru, which aligns on some level with that of Alun Cairns today. The Secretary of State was tapping into this outmoded perception when he made his slur about burning holiday homes, and the reaction in the Question Time studio was mixed enough to suggest that this view of Plaid still holds weight in some parts of Wales.
Nationalism is regarded, quite rightly in many instances, as a narrow-minded, sometimes vindictive ideology. Its Irish incarnation, whatever the rights, wrongs and injustices, sustained a bloody war within the borders of the British state, right up until the advent of Celtic devolution. The Good Friday Agreement was, to an extent, part of the package of devolutions that reshaped the United Kingdom in the dying years of the old millennium. Elsewhere in the world, nationalisms are sometimes associated with liberation struggles – but more often than not with (often violent) reactionaries.
Cairns’ comment, in the context in which it was made, was an attempt to put Plaid in this box, depicting the Party of Wales as simply the other side of the coin to UKIP’s British nationalism, thereby allowing his colleague Amber Rudd and the Conservative party’s increasingly toxic anti-immigration rhetoric off the hook.
The fact is, in modern Britain, Welsh and Scottish national parties are leading progressivism. This episode of Question Time may have been a ‘dogfight’, but the lineup (L-R) of Leanne Wood, Chukka Umunna, Alun Cairns and Neil Hamilton certainly demonstrates the breadth of the political spectrum and polarisation of opinion since those Blair days when it seemed politicians might fall over each other to claim the centre ground. John Harris’ article in The Guardian, ‘Don’t Let England be rebranded as a nation of bigots’ is as much a call for the English Left to be more like that in Scotland and Wales as it is for a ‘21st century version’ of grassroots movements such as Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League.
Harris’ main point was that you can’t leave culture out of politics. My own self-described ‘nationality transplant’ and subsequent reappraisal of what nationalism might be is predicated on culture, not politics. I feel Welsh – and have actively chosen Welshness – precisely because of the idea Wales has created for itself: an ancient nation, rooted in tradition, but which has survived against the odds not because of dogma but rather because of its willingness to (in Gwyn Alf Wiliams’ famous phrase) ‘make and remake itself generation after generation.’
Wales is a combination of the now and the then, of the here and the there; it is also, to use a cliché that applies to most countries, a nation built on immigration. And, far from limiting ourselves to seeing only the current waves of economic migrants from central and eastern Europe and refugees from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, perhaps we need a reminder that Wales’ nineteenth century population surge was fuelled by in-migration from England and Ireland, Italy and Spain. Perhaps – to counter any propensity toward a nationalism based on race – we also need reminding that Wales has Roman and Norman histories as well as a Celtic one.
We Welsh are not a race – we are a people. Wales – if it exists, and surely it does – is a cultural entity: ‘ideas, customs and social behaviour; the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively’. For me, a Plaid voter not a Plaid member, total political independence is moot. Culture is where the nation exists – in the lives of its people. Whether we have an Assembly, a Parliament or a Nation State is a by-product of our democracy, not the point of it.
Nation is, as I concluded back in 2005, more about heart than blood. It is place and it is heritage – but it’s about sharing that place and sharing that heritage. As Jeremy Corbyn argued recently, you can’t stop the world. As soon as you try to set a culture in aspic, not only does it go stale, but it but it grows problems. Stagnant water gives rise to all manner of unsavoury pondlife.
England’s problem, as John Harris implies, is that some people try to freeze history – there is a strain in the culture that is always backward-looking, hankering for a past that is always just out of reach (because it never existed). It would be dangerous to pretend that such an impulse doesn’t exist within Wales too – there will always be those who are ‘More Cymric than Thou’ – and dangerous too to ignore the current upsurge of narrow, nasty sentiment that threatens to undermine the general consensus we have had in Wales for some time that ours is a nation where the individual (not some external arbiter) gets to make and remake identity, where someone like me – born in Cornwall to parents from Liverpool and Bristol – can opt in to a Welshness every bit as proud as that of a fifteenth generation sheep-farmer from Snowdonia.
A healthy culture is a dynamic culture, combining tradition with innovation, the old with the new, longstanding residents with newcomers. The reason Alun Cairns’ comments reach far beyond the ‘cut and thrust’ of politics is because they are deliberately designed to turn people against each other. It is easy to make cheap and easy political gains from such damaging nonsense – as UKIP have consistently shown – but the cost of mainstream political parties following that line will be counted in a diminished culture of petty division.
All nations are, in the words of Benedict Anderson, simply ‘imagined communities’; as history proves, borders are arbitrary and ever-changing. We can, therefore, only ever enact nationhood in our actual communities, in our interactions with other people where we live. And as our generation is faced with the task of remaking Wales once again, it is vital that those interactions are made in an inclusive, communal spirit #WeAreWales.