The Welsh national movement (or, don’t worry, be happy)

The National Museum
This is a response to an article, ‘The Welsh Interregnum (or reasons not to be cheerful)’  written by Dan Evans. It’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t had a look at it.

The article bemoans that “many in Plaid Cymru possess a streak of naïve optimism which often seems to cloud their judgement”. I disagree with this, and see instead a self-perpetuating pessimism among Welsh nationalists that is doing them more harm than good.

So here I’m going to present the opposite viewpoint: Reasons to be cheerful.

This is the portion of Evans’ article that I disagree with the most:

“If Scotland goes, Wales will be Labour’s last outpost which it will continue to guard jealously (providing, of course, there is a Labour party then). Therefore, further Welsh devolution makes zero sense for them, especially if it could give succour to nationalists (they will look to Scotland and see what went wrong there).”
On the contrary: If, as seems the case under Corbyn, the Labour party are out of power at Westminster for another decade or more, devolution will make perfect sense to them, as it effectively means transferring power from the Tory-controlled central state to an institution that’s under their control. Remember that Labour pushed for the Welsh Assembly in the first place as a political institution in which they could consolidate their power even if there was a Tory party in charge in London. Devolution may have been slow (we’ll get to that in a minute) but there’s nothing to suggest that Welsh Labour’s appetite for more power is abating. If further devolution makes zero sense, then no-one has told Carwyn Jones.

What we need to appreciate is that this boring, frustrating process if how nation-building actually happens. This is difficult for us nationalist to get to grips with, as we’re wedded to the romantic myth of nationalism as a revolutionary force – that it’s about a people rising up and taking back control for themselves. “Trwy ddulliau chwyldro yn unig y mae llwyddo,” as Saunders Lewis said.

Rather, nationalism is a by-product of political institutions’ effort to expand their own power. To do this they need public support (not a majority, just enough) and so they reproduce the nationalist discourse that will get the job done: Us versus Them. Sefyll cornel Cymru. Standing up against the Tories. Etc. As with anything else that involves large institutions, this is a slow and bureaucratic process that usually lasts decades, if not hundreds of years. The revolution is written in afterwards to convince the people that it was their idea from the start.

Mass movement

I’m a utilitarian nationalist. While I’m very interested in Wales’ history, I don’t consider tales of Owain Glyndwr or Llywelyn Fawr’s derring-do as particularly relevant to 21st century Wales. I’m a nationalist because I feel that there is no reason for the UK Government to particularly care whether Wales is rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy. We’re a backwards, isolated part of the UK that contributes little compared to say, London and the South-East. But I live in Wales, and so I care whether Wales is rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy. Therefore, I want a government which cares about those things too.

However, I have to accept that this kind of interest in Wales’ constitutional arrangements doesn’t go much further than a small band of usually academic, middle-class people. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably one of them. The majority have no interest in discussions about the Wales Bill. It’s the gut instinct, the sense of belonging to one imagined community or another than matters to them. So to convince them you need to reproduce the discourse of nationalism: Us versus Them. Sefyll cornel Cymru. Standing up to the Tories. Land of our Fathers. And so on. This is how the dreams of the middle-class intelligentsia win just enough public support to get into power and force the changes through.

For all their talk of being internationalist, the irony is that Labour are probably better than Plaid Cymru at using the discourse of nationalism when it suits them.

This is partly because they control more institutions that have the funds and news access to reproduce a discourse of nationalism that suits them. But I suspect that it’s also because Plaid Cymru believe in Welsh nationalism. They think nationalism is some primal instinct in all people, which can’t be controlled. Labour don’t, and therefore can see nationalism for what it is and can manipulate it and discard it as it suits them.

If you look at what is said by the Labour party, especially during elections, what you see is a party that is using the discourse of nationalism in order to very slowly expand its own political institutions.

Slow going

This is exactly what we’ve seen happen in Wales over the last 200 years or so. National Welsh institutions have slowly multiplied, one after the other, like mushrooms. A national university, a national library, then a national museum, then a Welsh office, then a Welsh Assembly, law making powers, a Welsh Parliament...

Devolution may seem to be happening much quicker in Scotland, but we must remember that they had many of these institutions to being with. Considering that Wales reached the 19th century with virtually no national institutions, we’ve actually moved further forward.

Dan Evans bemoans that: “The Assembly will limp on, gaining more small, meaningless powers every five years or so.”

Precisely so. This process may seem slow to those of us living through it. But then it always does. When the history is written, when future generations come to consider this time in the history of the nation, it will be presented at warp-speed.

There are a lot of problems with the Welsh national movement. The lack of a Welsh media is an obvious one. A one-and-a-half-party state is another. National movements don’t always lead to independence, and there are reasons to believe that this won’t happen in Wales. I’ll discuss these topics in a future blogpost.

However, there’s nothing at the present moment to suggest that the national movement is stalling in Wales, let alone going backwards. And rather than being indicative of a failing national movement, the slow speed of devolution in Wales is nothing out of the ordinary.

Rather than “Drwy ddulliau chwyldro”, perhaps the motto of a national movement should be “Yn araf bach a bob yn dipyn…”


  1. Good reply, Dan Evans blog is pessimistic, but he’s much closer to reality, you said it yourself Labour will want powers to help the Labour party stay in power, not to benefit anyone in Wales.

    Your argument is essentially accrue powers for another 80 - 100 years and Wales might be in a position to be free, yet Brexit’s changed everything, the relentless unchecked march of Imperial Britishness in the form of UKIP in Wales threatens to swallow the entire welsh political class whole in a matter of years, there’s nothing to check its rise, especially the current weak form of welsh nationalism and certainly not Labour who’ll just triangulate and steal their arguments like they do with Plaid Cymru now.

    I don’t know what the answers are an I’m as frustrated as others, but waiting and hoping for change are the worst things welsh nationalists can do, the SNP didn’t wait and hope (and yes I know the situation are different).

  2. Hi Anon #1 –

    This blog isn’t saying ‘wait and hope’. There are certainly things we could do to easy the nation’s path towards independence, which I’ll explore in a future blog. What I’m saying is that we’re not stuck in the national purgatory that Dan suggests.
    Labour do want more powers to keep themselves in power. As I said, that’s how national movements generally work. But sometimes the rights things happen for the wrong reasons. Labour created the Welsh Assembly to keep themselves in power, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big step forward for the Welsh national movement.

    I think you overstate how much of a threat UKIP is. They’ve already been entangled in the Welsh Assembly, and while it remains a power base they’re unlikely to support abolishing the place. If Brexit does happen (and it’s a big if at the moment) they’ll likely peter off anyway. As long as the other parties keep them at a safe distance they should be quarantined.

    I was personally very disappointed with Brexit, but think it’s likely to galvanise Welsh nationalism. A free Wales in Europe offers a credible alternative to an independent Wales outside the UK and Europe.



  3. This is a gross exaggeration- "the relentless unchecked march of Imperial Britishness in the form of UKIP in Wales". There is no such relentless march from UKIP. Rather they will face collapse. Yet Britishness could be further embedded by cultural forces more generally, and also by the Tories and Labour if they chose to harness Britishness as a weapon in Wales.

    The pace of devolution or nation-building in Wales basically matches the very reluctant (cowardly?!) population. However in Welsh language culture and within Plaid Cymru there is a more enthusiastic desire which is different to the majority of the Welsh public.

    Can that enthusiasm within Welsh culture and Welsh nationalism be used to "drag" an unenthusiastic population towards a position where they want more nationhood, and where it becomes and election issue?


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