#StandingUpForWales: Labour and Welsh nationalism

Carwyn, not Corbyn, ond a Welsh election poster

I’ve written a little bit about the relationship between Labour and Welsh nationalism on this blog in the past, but it deserves its own blog post, particularly in the middle of an election campaign.

Nations can’t exist without nationalism. But even though national borders seem to be permanent, the nationalism that underpins them is always changing and requires daily renewal.

Welsh nationalism has changed fundamentally over the centuries. If you took a Welsh nationalist in a time machine to the latter half of the 19th century he or she would have very little in common with a Welsh nationalist from that period. Your average member of ‘Cymru Fydd’ in the 19th century would emphasise their religion over language, their support for colonialism, and would likely consider rugby a sin.

Nationalism is fluid. It isn’t an ingrained identity politicians appeal to because it helps them win votes. Rather, politicians play an active role in shaping nationalism for their own political advantage.

Plaid Cymru tend to think of themselves as the party of Welsh nationalism. But Labour have played a very important role when it comes to preserving the phenomenon of Welsh nationalism too.

Welsh nationalism is politically advantageous for Labour for two reasons:
  • It preserves devolution, which gives them a power base in Wales even when they lose power at the UK Parliament.
  • It allows them to distance themselves from UK Labour when the latter becomes electorally unappealing to a Welsh audience.
Wales’ fist First Minister*, Rhodri Morgan, claimed in 2002 that there was ‘clear red water’ between Welsh and UK Labour.

But since the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn was chosen as Labour leader this body of water has become an ocean, even though he is probably closer politically to Welsh Labour than Blair was.

It’s no accident that Welsh Labour’s election strategy at this election involves promoting their Welsh credential and side-lining UK Labour.

Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones is the public face of the campaign in Wales, rather than an MP, as was the case in 2010.

And their slogan, #StandingUpForWales, is pretty much the same as Plaid Cymru’s promise to ‘shield Wales’ from the Tories.

After all, Welsh Labour didn’t do that badly at last year’s Welsh General Election. If they can convince the public that they’re voting for Welsh Labour rather than Jeremy Corbyn, they might just be able to mitigate their losses in some of those marginal seats.

Reproducing nationalism

This is using Welsh nationalism for political gain.

But what needs to be emphasised is that there’s nothing at all unusual about the use of nationalism for political gain. In fact, nationalism always develops for political gain.

Nations do not come into being because they have unique languages and cultures. The concept of a single language and culture that applies to all citizens within a territorial boundary is in fact a product of nationalism.

A country’s ethnic identity develops because politicians and institutions emphasise those unique characteristics to make the case for political autonomy.

They say: ‘We’ are a people because we speak this language, are part of this religion, like this sport, and have a history in common. ‘They’ are different.

It may well be the case that most of the people didn’t even speak the ‘national’ language before (see France). A majority may not even be part of the 'national' religion, or watch the 'national' sport. The 'national' history could well be made up.

The point is that the ‘We’ and ‘They’ creates or reproduces a nation. And the nation’s existence weakens or strengthens depending on these political imperatives; that is, whether it is worth somebody’s while to continue to reproduce that nation.

At the moment, it is worth Labour's while to reproduce Wales.

To make the case that Wales is different from England and therefore needs to be run by a different set of home-grown politicians, i.e. Labour ones, the party needs to emphasise the political, civic and ethnic differences between Wales and the rest of the UK.

This does not mean that Welsh nationalism is a 'fake or ‘bad’ thing.

Nationalism’s role in preserving different languages and cultures is a positive. Welsh nationalism can also be justified when British nationalism does not serve Wales’ best interests.

The future

Because Labour has played such an important role in preserving Welsh nationalism, their electoral future is likely to decide its future. There are four possibilities:
  • Labour bounce back in England, and win a General Election. They will likely dial back the Welsh nationalism, and promote the ‘contributionist’ British mindset.
  • Labour do not bounce back in England but stay in power in Wales. Welsh Labour morph into a Welsh nationalist party in all but name, promote further devolution at every opportunity, and some even begin to discuss Welsh independence as a real option.
  • Labour are wiped out in Wales by the Tories. Ethnic nationalism becomes more militant, but the ‘banal’, civic Welsh nationalism is stripped away. Over time, Wales begins to be considered just another devolved region in England.
  • Labour are wiped out in Wales by Plaid Cymru. The baton of Welsh nationalism is passed but the motive for strengthening Wales’ political institutions strengthens, as Plaid Cymru does not serve as a stepping stone to political power at UK level.
We are at something of an electoral crossroads in Wales, and it’s very difficult to see which of these possible futures will win the day.

The only certainty is that the nationalists of tomorrow will have a very different mindset to the nationalists of today. And our political parties are likely to play a large role in shaping their identity.

*Before someone complains, Alun Michael was called ‘First Secretary’.

Comments

  1. Wales fist First Minister? Dyrnu pwy tybed?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mae'r ugain mlynedd ddwythaf (a mwy p bosib) wedi bod yn gyfuniad o'r ddau opsiwn cyntaf. Wela i ddim byd i awgrymu y bydd y patrwm yn cael ei dorri o dan y systemau etholidaol presennol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmmm, dim hyd yn oed buddugoliaeth ysgubol i'r Ceidwadwyr yng Nghymru ar 8 Mehefin?

      Beth bynnag, mae canlyniadau'r etholiadau lleol heddiw yn ryw led-awgrymu mai opsiwn 2 aiff a hi.

      Delete
  3. Option 5:

    Labour are likely to have a very "difficult night" on the 8th of June. Something tells me that Corbyn will not step down as leader leading to a split within the UK party. If this happens I can see the Tories being wiped out in 2022 due to the job losses that will come with a hard Brexit + the continual austerity policies that are likely to be worse with a large Tory majority in Westminster. Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru working together for independence. What are the odds?

    ReplyDelete

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