In my last blog post I suggested that the future prospects for Welsh nationalism weren’t as bleak as some suggested. This wasn’t however to suggest that things are perfect as they are.
For instance, Labour will only continue to support further devolution while it serves their own interests to do so. If they were to lose power, and if the Conservatives or UKIP were to form a Welsh government, it’s fair to say that devolution would probably stop dead in its tracks.
Also, it’s clear that Labour will only take devolution so far. They aren’t ever likely to support any kind of split between Wales and the rest of the UK, apart perhaps for a federal solution. We aren’t there yet, but eventually we’re going to hit that buffer.
However, I’d like to use this blog post to concentrate on how devolution could be turbo-charged, starting with the media.
Nationalism needs two things: Firstly, political institutions that want to expand their own power, and use nationalism as a means to do so. And secondly, a national media which serves as a medium through which that message can reach the masses.
The only thing every kind of nationalism truly has in common is the discourse of nationalism. This discourse basically boils down to there being an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. It is further reinforced with frequent but unnoticed reminders that the ‘us’ all belong to the same imagined community - whenever you read about the Prime Minister, the Queen, the weather, the lack of context (i.e. we know it’s referring to the Prime Minister of the UK, rather than the Prime Minister of France) reminds us that these things belong to our group but not the other.
Needless to say that the Welsh people are mostly exposed to a British rather than Welsh discourse of nationalism. Most people read or watch British media that refers to the entirety of the UK as one national community, and make almost no mention of Wales at all.
The only group that are heavily exposed to media that treats Wales as an imagined community in its own right are Welsh speakers (through Newyddion 9, Golwg, Barn, etc.), which is one reason why they represent the bulk of Plaid Cymru’s support.
Institutions play a very important role in shaping the discourse of nationalism, as they have something that is referred to in academic circles as ‘news access’. This is the ability to shape the content of the news.
Journalists are increasingly low on both time and money, and so they tend to depend for their content on institutions that can give them a lot of news without much effort. So they tend to corral around political institutions, like Westminster, the courts, football clubs, and so on.
We saw this at work during Scotland’s Independence Referendum. The BBC wasn’t biased per se, but the fact that most political journalists were based in London, and were used to depending on London’s political institutions for their news content, meant that those institutions had something of an advantage over Scottish political institutions in terms of controlling the news agenda.
Historically, Wales has lacked either, or both, a national media or national institutions.
In the 19th century Wales had something akin to a national media. However, it had very few political institutions, and so that media (even the Welsh-language newspapers) were in large part dependent on British political institutions for their news content. So they reproduced the discourse of British nationalism. The few quasi-national political institutions they did have (the dissenting chapels) did the bulk of the work in setting up the first proper Welsh national institutions.
In the 20th century, Wales neither had a media (conglomeration meant that the media had largely centralised in London) nor very many political institutions. Welsh nationalism was largely driven by a nucleus of intellectuals within the few national institutions set up at the end of the previous century.
Today, Wales has a number of national institutions (although they remain very much weaker than those in London), but still virtually no English-language national media.
BBC Wales is a branch of a much larger British media organisation, and the newspapers and news websites are largely regional (Western Mail/Wales Online for the south, Daily Post for the north, and a smattering of Cambrian Newses and Cwmsgwt Journals in between). The regional north/south divide in the media accentuates the impression that north and south Wales are two separate imagined communities.
The lack of a national media is a big problem for Welsh nationalists. It means that they lack a medium through which the masses can come into contact with the discourse of Welsh nationalism.
It means that come every election, institutions that support an unionist perspective have the ‘news access’, while Plaid Cymru struggle to get their message out there at all.
Welsh nationalist could turn to social media. This proved very effective in Scotland. However, there’s always a danger that social media becomes an echo chamber. You get the impression of being part of a mass national movement, while actually speaking to a small number of hard-core activists (see Trump or Corbyn for more details). But it’s better than nothing.
Despite the internet, television remains the best medium for mass-communication. Newspapers are also effective, despite the fall in sales, because cash-strapped television remains dependent on them for their news-content.
Setting up a TV station or a newspaper is a very expensive business, of course. Wales lacks a national media for two reasons: first, a small population. Secondly, a poor population. It’s advertising rather than circulation that drives the media’s profits, so the second is the bigger issue.
If it is to stand any chance of success, finding a way around this problem needs to be goal #1 for the Welsh national movement. It’s more important than winning power at the Welsh Assembly – in fact it’s probably a prerequisite to winning power.
Even if it didn’t explicitly support Plaid Cymru, a Welsh national media would, by virtue of its very existence, emphasise the existence of a Welsh imagined community.
I was very much pro setting up the Y Byd newspaper in 2008. However, the Welsh-language is by now rather well served by media, with Newyddion 9, Golwg 360 and Cymru Fyw offering what is in effect a daily news service.
The need now is for an English-language national newspaper/TV news station/website. How we do that is the main conversation we need to be having.
Without an effective means to communicate the discourse of nationalism to the masses, Welsh nationalism won’t get off the starting blocks, while British nationalism will continue to reinforce an imagined community in which Wales is best run from Westminster.