Being Welsh in 2016

Dylan Moore returns to the question of Welsh identity in the light of Cairnsgate and #WeAreWales

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.

Dylan Moore is Comment & Analysis Editor at the IWA. He writes this in a personal capacity.

10 thoughts on “Being Welsh in 2016

  1. The burning cottages of other people’s cottages here in Wales was an act of monstrous criminality, pure and simple. In time the perpetrators will be apprehended and charged accordingly. Until the Plaid Cymru leadership acknowledge such it will always be assumed that certain sympathies exist, perhaps with good reason.

    As for all this talk of ‘inclusiveness’, complete nonsense. Wales is as divided as anywhere else. Divided by religion, by custom, by culture and by language. The only thing ‘inclusive’ here in Wales is the rule of law. And the general agreement of the populous to abide by such.

    Now please re-read my first paragraph.

  2. Interesting that Dylan Moore should write this piece in the week that the BBC Reith Lectures happen to be addressing “Identity: What is it that makes us who we are? Our country, our colour, our religion or our culture? Is it none or is it all of these things?” Whilst I’m sure the BBC has had these scheduled since before the Brexit referendum they could not be better timed. By reflecting on “….how ugly identity politics in Wales has once again become…” he cannot but invite us to reflect on how ugly British identity politics are becoming.

    One of the things that shapes and is shaped by our culture is our relationships with other cultures at greater or lesser proximity. Has Wales remade itself over the generations based on free choice or the need to respond to neighbouring influences? Scotland’s response to the referendum result certainly feeds off the result south of the border. The problem is that post-referendum (and the vote in Wales notwithstanding; Wales IS as divided as anywhere else) it is a Tory minority in England, not Britain that will call the shots in the negotiations, should there be any following the PM’s seemingly deliberate declaration of intent last night to re-arrange the European furniture before sending in the removal vans for our own stuff in a couple of years.

    Now you might argue that these are short term political issues and nothing to do with cultural identy but the rise of Irish Nationalism prompted Yeats to write of the Easter rising in 1916 :

    “All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.”

    Pace John Harris, is Theresa May the midwife to England’s “terrible beauty”, and how will Wales, Scotland and Ireland respond to that?

  3. This is a good article.

    While there are divisions in Wales, as there are across Britain, this is a sign of a modern pluralist society. Having been outside Wales for many years, but having lived across different parts of Wales in my youth, I am always astounded by how much things have changed when I return.

    The growth of interest in Cymraeg for example, especially in a places like Monmouthshire, Torfaen and Caerphilly, represents a huge sea change since the days of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Back then, I was repeatedly fed the myth that Welsh was a ‘dead’ language. It was not even taught in schools. Yet what we have seen is a huge growth in adult learner courses from local people reclaiming something denied to them as children.

    Furthermore, the recent Abergavenny Eisteddfod showed many English-only speakers making efforts to welcome people from Y Fro Gymraeg.

    S4C have also realised that subtitling their Welsh language output in English might actually get them more viewers. It’s not detrimental to the status of Welsh, it broadens their viewers and frankly, makes good business sense.

    Politically, the people of Wales have also voted for more devolution on each occasion they have been consulted. This does represent more inclusivity.

    Not all parts of Wales voted for Brexit. But it is understandable in many areas why people did. When a rich Tory Prime Minister is trying to convince people up the Valleys that complicated EU trade deals have benefitted them, these people are not stupid. Places like Mountain Ash are some of the poorest in Europe. The case for Remain was dreadful in reality. Labour should have done more in these areas. Whether a post-Brexit Westminster government will make anything better, watch this space.

    In response to the comment above, linking Plaid Cymru to cottage burning, a party that has pretty much opposed violence and war since 1925, this is simply false. Plaid Cymru is not Meibion Glyndwr and never was.

    And even if people like Alun Cairns continue to propagate such fantasy, consider, just briefly, how many people Labour and Conservative governments at Westminster have killed in foreign wars. Does that make every single one of their voters terrorists and murderers? I don’t think it does. I can still respect my political opponents, even if I disagree with their policies. Alun Cairns should do the same.

  4. I think it’s time for a reality check.

    However much Unionist Nationalists blame Plaid Cymru for burning holiday cottages in Wales it was actual Meibion Glyndŵr who were responsible. Plaid did not condone burning holiday homes but are not expected to knock on every door in Wales and personally apologise.

    I am reminded of the English Democrats, when one of their English candidates, parachuted into Monmouth to campaign for the illegal annexation of Gwent, actually came to Monmothshire then ran back to England crying the local people were anti-English and Plaid Cymru had set up a hit squad to kill her. A claim only slightly more fantasy than Alun Cairns.

    It seems Unionist Nationalists want to constantly run Wales down and rubbish everything about Wales and then cry we don’t like them.

  5. “Divided by religion…’
    Is it in IWA’s own interest and reputation to set the bar on knowledge about Wales so low that comments like this make it over. Surely the BBC news website comments section already offers a more than adequate service for the reality challenged amongst us to broadcast our “wisdom”.

  6. My God. Are you for real Dylan Moore? Where in Wales have you lived?
    I moved here as a child in 1957 and have never left. I have lived in Gwynedd or, for a few years, in Ceredigion and I can tell you that anti English bigotry is not just ever present but virulent and endemic.
    I remember the investiture and the attempts at bombing government offices in Abergele and, seriously, does anyone really believe that the burning of English owned cottages was NOT the work of Welsh nationalists?
    More recently there was Cymuned with its “English Colonists out” slogan, an organisation headed by the, at that time Plaid councillor Seimon Glyn:-
    “”We are faced with a situation now where we are getting tidal waves of migration, inward migration into our rural areas from England, and these people are coming here to live to establish themselves here, and to influence our communities and our culture with their own.”
    The anti-English tirade was taken up by Barn editor Dr Simon Brooks who re emerged last year in Gwynedd demanding that he should be able to question a UKIP politician in Welsh.
    Another Plaid politician, Gwylym ab Iago, referred to English people in Wales as “oddballs and misfits” and called Ieuan Wyn Jones a Coward for not dealing with the problem of English immigration. And, no, Dylan, don’t try to tell me it’s not racist if you just say that you are “protecting your language and culture”. The BNP claimed to be protecting the language and culture of the UK. They, like Plaid in the Fro Cymraeg, claimed that our NHS couldn’t cope with all those immigrants and, of course, all those immigrants take up “our” housing stock…”our” jobs.
    Now Plaid might like to forget all this and pretend that they are something different down there in the valleys where there is no immigration from England or anywhere else but scratch the surface of this unlovely party’s wholesome love of all things liberal and socialist and you will always find that bitter, nasty loathing for anyone not “really” Welsh.

  7. @J.Jones
    Perhaps Mr Jones as you’ve lived in Wales for nearly 60 years you could provide a few examples of what it is about the unique language and culture of the country that inspires and enthuses you.

  8. I don’t usually vote Paid, though I have done so once or twice when terminally exasperated by other parties’ supine attitudes. I have voted for all the non-Tory parties, Labour most often. I have quite a few Plaid-supporting friends though and not one of them harbours a “bitter, nasty loathing for anyone not really Welsh”. I think J.Jones perception of Plaid is seriously skewed and can only suppose he had a nasty experience at a formative age to so colour his view. If a culture and identity is really and genuinely threatened with extinction, nationalism is a rational response. A fierce desire to preserve does not entail hating anyone. People who insist on taking defensive attitudes personally and getting paranoid about being hated should understand that it’s not all about them.

  9. @ R.Tredwyn

    J.Jones provided referenced and documented events…. you are not going to be particularly successful in pouring cold water on the issue by simply saying that ‘his perception is likely skewed due to probably having a nasty experience’. As I said, he provided evidence- fully referenced and documented…. what have you provided?! speculation about his perception!

    His perception doesn’t matter one bit if his argument is referenced and evidenced…. You could learn a lot from that!

  10. Seamore.

    He did nothing of the sort. He provided a couple of quotes of individuals known to be on the extreme wing of a movement and used them to blacken a whole Party.. He also described reasoned argument by Simon Brooks about social issues raised by immigration as a “tirade”. I don’t know how many people in Plaid Cymru really have a “nasty loathing” of English people but Mr Jones certainly has a “nasty loathing” of Plaid Cymru.

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