Why Labour and Plaid Cymru should support a Welsh independence movement

Wales faces ruin. Picture by Les Haines (CC BY 2.0)

In two or three years, we could be looking at a very different United Kingdom, if it exists at all.

Scotland could be an independent country and Ireland a united one. Corbyn will have led Labour to a cataclysmic defeat, reducing the party to an ineffectual rump of some 150 seats.

Wales will become an economic backwater as Brexit wipes out much of the manufacturing and agricultural industries. The economy will be even more centralised in the South East of England.

This is the bleak future that we face here in Wales. However, both Labour and Plaid Cymru, the small and capital ‘N’ nationalist parties in Wales, have been very slow to adapt to these changes.

If you look at the issues being debated in the Welsh Assembly, it’s as if nothing has changed at all.

Labour and Plaid Cymru’s paralysis is best understood when you realise that nationalism is ultimately driven by self-interest.

Labour’s rugby-nationalism

Labour supported the creation of the National Assembly because they knew that they would be running it. And the kind of nationalism it has nurtured while in office has been carefully calibrated to ensure that this remains the case.

Andy Burnham identified this nationalism while discussing devolution for Manchester last week:

“Compare what happened in Wales and Scotland. In the former, Carwyn Jones pioneered a distinctive, patriotic brand of 'red-shirt Labour' dressed in the national rugby colours. In the latter, following the death of Donald Dewar, no high-profile Labour figure arrived to pick up the devolution torch and a large hole was left for others to fill.”

In other words, Labour has deliberately nurtured a form of nationalism that is ultimately a thin veneer that can be donned where needed to win public support.

This is a brand of nationalism that reminds their core vote of their working-class, industrial, Labour-supporting Welsh identity but at the same time:

a) avoids the cultural nationalism that could make them sympathetic to Plaid Cymru

b) is too ‘banal’ to stir up the kind of ‘hot’ nationalism that could lead to independence, and as such make it harder for Labour to win power at Westminster.

This non-offensive ‘rugby-nationalism’ allows the people of Wales to blow steam for 80 minutes during the Six Nations but does not allow for a broader discussion about Wales’ constitutional predicament.

It’s no coincidence that Shane Williams was the poster boy for Wales’ devolution referendum in 2011, or that WRU chief Roger Lewis was the chairman. Rugby-nationalism is Labour’s favoured brand of nationalism.

Plaid Cymru’s cultural nationalism

Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, have settled for a form of nationalism that embraces the cultural differences between Wales and England but does not call for any radical constitutional change.

This is because it has not ultimately been in their supporters’ interest, either, for Wales to break away from the United Kingdom.

Plaid’s cultural nationalism depends on Wales’ national institutions – be they libraries, museums, TV channels, universities, publishers or theatre groups – for sustenance.

But it is felt (rightly or wrongly) that without the Treasury’s largesse these institutions may not exist at all.

Cultural nationalism can be ‘banal’ too, especially if one has a well-paid job at a cultural institution, or is happy as long as ‘Pobl y Cwm’ is on every night at 8pm. And although Wales’ culture is being slowly eroded, the process has been too slow to shock cultural nationalists into action.

Both these nationalisms, Labour’s rugby nationalism and Plaid’s cultural nationalism, have served both parties well so far.

Plaid’s cultural nationalism has little appeal among the working class in the valleys. And Labour’s rugby-nationalism seems awfully shallow to middle-class Welsh-speakers such as myself. But between them they’ve locked up 52% of the vote and 41 of the 60 seats in the Welsh Assembly.

So far there’s been very little incentive to change and embrace a radical ‘hot’ nationalism that demands constitutional change. But the situation is now fast moving, and they’re going to have to do so or risk losing their grip on power at the Welsh Assembly, and in doing so lose Wales itself.

EnglandandWales

If Scotland and Ireland do leave the UK, Wales is very likely to revert back to its pre-1707 Act of Union role as a constituent part of England.

Wales has since at least the 19th century ridden on Scotland and Northern Ireland’s coat-tails and claimed that it too should be given special status within the United Kingdom.

It’s difficult however to see Wales on its own being able to make a strong case for special treatment. It will soon just be another region of England, like Manchester, that enjoys some devolution.

Labour fully recognise that this scenario is a possibility, but continue to delude themselves that Wales will have special clout within a post-break up England.

Carwyn Jones has over the past few years claimed that the House of Lords could be re-formed in order to give Wales equal representation, or that the UK could be federalised.

This week he seems to be belatedly concluding that a Tory-run UK Government has little interest in Wales.

No one can blame them either. There are only two things that the Conservatives fear – one is that they lose power, and the other is that they lose part of the UK.

Wales can’t threaten the first. The country would make up just 5% of the population of ‘EnglandandWales’. And Wales isn’t a ‘swing seat’ in electoral terms, but a solid Labour one. There are a few seats in the north-east (and Carwyn Jones’ own Bridgend) that the Tories would love to have, but they don’t need them.

If Wales was a US State, it would be somewhere like Georgia. Very few electoral votes, and so solidly partisan that no presidential candidate would ever bother visiting.

Contributionism

But Wales can threaten to leave the UK. The Conservatives, staunch British nationalists, fear the continued break-up of the UK more than anything else.

The thought of Wales breaking away, even if they don’t care how Wales gets on the rest of the time, would be enough to make them reconsider their neglect of the country.

The above seeems obvious. But Welsh Labour don't see it because they suffer from a contributionist mindset which has plagued the country for centuries.

It can basically be summed up as the belief that if Wales behaves and contributes to the British Empire it will be rewarded.

This belief had some (mistaken) foundation in the 19th and early 20th century when Wales was booming due to the industrial revolution. Wales desperately wanted to be recognised as an equal partner in the Empire alongside England and Scotland. Minor triumphs such as crowning the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1911 made them think that they were finally being rewarded and recognised for their loyalty.

This delusion continues to this day. In the aftermath of the first Independence Referendum in Scotland, Wales’ former First Minister Rhodri Morgan called for Wales to be rewarded because “the country didn’t put the whole of the UK through the mincer via referendum or civil war” as Scotland had.

It is Scotland of course that has subsequently enjoyed all of Westminster’s attention – and all because that threat of separation hangs over Westminster like the Sword of Damocles.

A grim future

Wales may have only two years before the UK is ripped apart and replaced by EnglandandWales. But it won’t be called EnglandandWales - it will be called England.

If we want to survive as a nation, it’s time to put the contributionist mindset aside and consider how we can stop a dominant Conservative party ignoring Wales culturally and economically.

The Welsh language and culture would be done for. The cultural institutions which nurture the ethnic nationalism that is at the heart of Paid Cymru would be closed.

There would be no justification for a Welsh rugby or football team. The neglected post-industrial Wales which is the bedrock of Labour’s electoral dominance would rapidly de-populate as public investment dries up completely.

The population would age rapidly as the young migrate to the South East of England. Only retirees would move in the other direction. Wales’ seacoast would be a streak of Tory-voting blue.

The core vote Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru rely on would soon cease to exist. Neither rugby-nationalism or cultural nationalism can survive without a rugby team or a culture.

Neither of these parties can sit back and hope for the best. One is a Welsh National Party and the other is only now electable in Wales. If they don’t change, they will quickly face an existential crisis. And so will the country.

Wales needs them to back a radical independence movement.

Comments

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post - diolch. Andy Burnham's rugby comment was both (faintly) patronising and (very) perceptive.

    I would take issue with one point, though. I'm certain that an EnglandandWales would be called 'Britain'. There's enough historical justification, such as the distinction between the Roman province of Britannia and Caledonia. And in medieval Welsh it's often unclear whether 'Prydain' includes Scotland or not.

    It might even be called 'Great Britain', although that's a little harder to argue given that that name was hardly used before James VI of Scotland became James of England. Even so, the 'great' bit was originally to differentiate it from 'Little Britain', i.e. Brittany. So 'Great Britain' could still be justified. (It's harder to justify 'Prydain Fawr' as it's only meaningful when translated back to English; the Welsh name for Brittany, 'Llydaw', having nothing to do with 'Prydain.)

    More importantly, the Welsh people of today wouldn't accept that Wales was a part of England (even though their forebears before 1707 were happy to do so). The rulers of EnglandandWales would also want to keep the adjective 'British'.

    Having said all that, I fear that the Britain of EnglandandWales would be England in all but name.




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    1. Diolch am y neges Dylan. I'm sure you're right that the name 'Britain' will survive. What it's called doesn't worry me as much as the sense that England and Wales are one imagined community united by England's language, culture, history and politics.

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  2. Seem's like Wales is realising,Labour is a busted flush hanging onto the past and when it comes down to it Labour will back the Tories before Wales,like they did in Scotland to their demise,i am not saying you have to go independent but it is a better tool of opposition than Labour will ever have,best of luck from Scotland.

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  3. To get a feel for the position Wales would have, politically and psychologically, within the "New (Little) Britain" of Englandandwhatwastheotherbit? take a look at Cornwall, which in a sense is a bit of Wales that got detached long long ago. You will see the flags flying, the non-English placenames, some anglicised some bilingual, and may even glimpse a message or slogan in the language on the side of a bus or council vehicle. They even play Rugby don't they? Is Cornwall/Kernow part of England? Depends very much who you ask.

    But whilst I agree very much with this article, I must ask the writer this. You've dismissed both Labour and Plaid, so where is your Radical Independence Movement going to come from, who is there with the qualities needed to lead such a movement and bring it to fruition in the short time available? Dwi'n gobeithio mae 'na rhywun!

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    1. Hi Marconatrix. Thanks for the message. I don't think I've quite dismissed Labour or Plaid. My message is that they and their members need to wake up to the danger and act accordingly. I don't see eye to eye with those that argue that we need to set up a new political party. I think there are plenty of people in both Labour and Plaid who want what is best for Wales, it's just a matter of making them realise we need a strong independence movement.

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  4. Plaid should be campaigning for independence NOW! Let the Labour Party go away and die, as it has in Scotland.

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  5. marconatrix - as some who has family from Cornwall.....its been forced to go from a wealthy position to an economic mess over hundreds of years under Westminster
    ....its identity is weak and powerless...most flags I see are Englsih and older people cry in admiration when they see Prince Charles and Camilla....a real cowed colony....only a small minority have any localist backbone

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    1. I wonder where you went. I've lived in the far west, and am now in East Cornwall, and Pyran's Banners outnumber the Butcher's Apron at least 2 : 1. Maybe I've been mixing with the 'wrong' crowd, but most folk I know have nothing but contempt or at least indifference for Dug Kernow, aka 'Skovarneg'. But yes, Cornwall has all the problems that Wales has several times over. Indeed it's remarkable that any feeling of being "not quite England" survives at all. Post Brexit, who knows? "Ha'n mor hedre vo, yn fos dhis adro ..." maybe, maybe not?

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    2. The environmentalist message is only for the English upper-middle classes, down in Cornwall the Duke is building houses and supermarkets for his profit on what was until recently greenfield land, which he is using as a non-renewable resource.

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  6. It would be nice to see Labour in Wales divorcing themselves from the British Labour party and going full speed ahead for a referendum with two options, devo max or independence (... Yes I know it will never happen). In that case Plaid need to have far more radical policies with a "take back control" argument made for Wales. Fight one form of populist message with another more full proof less harmful message. I'm sick and tired of this constant negativity, repeating how poor we are etc. It's true that Brexit will place us in a dire economic position, however it gives us an opportunity to be far more radical in our outlook. I'm still waiting for a big policy announcement on taxing water and electricity that flows over Offa's Dyke each day. The economic argument would be stronger than Scotland's. The saddest thing about Brexit is the lack of response from our Welsh national leaders.

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  7. Diddorol, but why share an agenda with labour? And why is Plaid trying to be more left wing thatn Labour when the electorate is becoming more right wing? All i hear is Plaid moaning about how shortchanged we are, I don;t want to hear that , if i Plaid or Indi supporters want to enourage the conversation about Independence then its about time the they stop pluggin/ tweeting/anouncing how Labour or Tories rip Wales off and offer us the alternative. An alternative which offers a viable future. Plugging how Wales can become an Independent country. Starting with financial viability eg - scrapping free prescriptions a complete sugar pill to buy Labour votes. Now the NHS is in dire straitghts offering free prescriptions is not helping the stiuation in wales. if you are chronically ill, poor or old you get perscription for free anyway. What about tackling chronic under productivity? the knowledge gap so we stop churning out hairdressers and tatoo artists instead of engineers and techies? What about tackling a welfare bill that still seems to support malingerers on long term "sickness" or "disability" or "substance misuse" and thus perpetuating the problems and targetting it so those who deserve help get help? I want to be able to persuade people that Independence is a fiscal possibility not some existential concept, spouted by academics and bloggers who dont; mix with people who live on council estates in south wales.

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  8. You're right about cultural nationalism being dependent on the largesse of the state, with its practitioners fearful that an independent Wales, run by representatives of southern and north eastern electorates, might pull the plug.

    This dependence on England's magnanimity probably explains why these representatives of Welsh language culture remain silent as the heartlands of the language are destroyed. Though once the Fro Gymraeg is gone, where's the justification for funding the elite?

    It's always been a selfish and short-sighted outlook that in reality achieves nothing for Welsh language culture. It would be good to see the back of them.

    Plaid Cymru has been in hock to such people for too long, yet when it sought to change, what direction did it take? Why, it went to the left, trying to outLabour Labour . . . with an electorate that was beginning to lose faith in Labour and socialism. Compounding that misjudgement by getting all flirty with another bunch of charlatans in the environmentalist movement.

    Plaid Cymru does not want independence. Plaid Cymru is happy being a smug but ineffectual left-green regionalist party. Its ambition extends no further than propping up a Labour regime down Cardiff docks.

    There are of course those within the party who understand the position and seek to confront and replace Labour. But the recent example of Neil McEvoy reminded us how Plaid reacts to such threats to the 'consensus'.

    On top of which we are expected to believe that the promised Brexit disaster, its consequences in Scotland and Ireland, the threat of permanent Tory rule, will make 'Welsh' Labour come round to the idea of independence!

    The party of Chris Bryant and Ian Lucas, the party with council candidates currently boasting of their hostility to Welsh language education in Llangennech? If Labour ever does support independence it will be to preserve the crony state it has built up, not for the good of Wales.

    If Wales is to achieve independence, if Wales is to survive, something more than the tried and failed political parties is needed.



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  10. I wonder which state of the USA Cornwall would be. Hawaii possibly, being dominated in the cultural imagination by the tourist 'economy', and with a small number of people who speak the language too small in number to be a political threat. Or of course the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which in fact had a lot of Cornish people go there for the mining, so much so that they still make pasties there.
    I worry that a more appropriate game to play with Wales or Cornwall would be which Union Republic of the USSR is it. Soviet Pravda acknowledged Ukraine and the Baltic states as separate Union Republics in the weather forecast, which is not the case with the BBC and Cornwall. youtu.be/M8bfZnLJkj8?t=43m35s

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