Living in an IndyCurious Wales

Part Two

When Welsh nationalism first underwent a resurgence of strength in the 1960s, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and journalists, scrambled to make sense of the phenomenon. They began to create models which sliced Wales into various segments or sought to redefine the relationship between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Michael Hechter’s controversial ‘internal colonialism’ being the most famous of that sort. In their various ways, each of these segregations have a central assumption at heart – that to be Welsh and from Cwmbran, for instance, is identifiably different to being Welsh and from Caersws or Caernarfon. Take the ‘Three Wales model’, developed by Dennis Balsom in the 1980s and which has created its own teleology. There is British Wales, Welsh Wales, and the Cymru Cymraeg. Casual observers, speaking of the internal logic, can point to the colours of the electoral map as emblematic of the model’s accuracy. Cymru Cymraeg is predominantly represented by Plaid Cymru; Welsh Wales by the Labour Party; and British Wales by the Conservative Party. There are some slight challenges to that, particularly in the North East or in urban South Wales, where Labour dominate, but these are the nuances that the model allows.

One of the problems with the Three Wales orthodoxy, and I should note that it is not without numerous challengers by now, has always been the inherent assumption built into it that there is a hierarchy of Welshness based partly on national identity – to be British-Welsh or Welsh-Welsh – and partly on language (Anglophone or Cymrophone). As Dan Evans has noted, ‘there is a tradition [in Wales] of dividing the country into “more Welsh” and “less Welsh” regions’. This has been accepted as one of the ‘rules’ of Welsh life in a way that, crossing the border into England, for instance, is much less apparent elsewhere in these islands. The English may divide themselves into Northerners and Southerners, or the Scots into Highlanders and Lowlanders, East Coast and West Coast, but they all remain either English or Scottish. Not so the Welsh. This habit of segregation has an old lineage, of course. Alfred Zimmern, the Woodrow Wilson chair of international politics at Abersytwyth after the First World War, famously divided Wales into three, too, introducing into our lexicon the notion of American Wales. Decades before that, Cardiff had been likened to Chicago, and decades afterwards (but before Balsom’s intervention) the Rhondda novelist Gwyn Thomas insisted that the Rhondda was ‘a more significant Chicago’. Whether you agree, or not, their argument is an important one.

But what does being American-Welsh actually mean? Or, rather, what does it infer in historical terms? I was recently watching a James Baldwin lecture delivered in California in 1979. Baldwin talks about the creation of America and coming together of all sorts of people from all over the world in the notion of the American. ‘So that there was a moment in his life’, Baldwin says of a singular example, ‘when he had to start to speak English, when he became a guy named Joe. And that meant that he couldn’t speak to his father because his father couldn’t speak English’. That meant, too, Baldwin continues, ‘a rupture, a profound rupture. So the son did become a guy named Joe and never found out anything else about himself’. If that stress on ruptures – brutal or profound ruptures – sounds familiar, or evokes a Welsh voice, then it should. For, in their different ways, both Dai Smith and Gwyn A. Williams spoke about precisely the same phenomenon. American Wales experienced exactly the same break. And instead of Harlem or the South Side of Chicago, we have – or, rather, had – Merthyr Tydfil and the Rhondda, Cardiff and Barry. The rate of immigration to those places was unlike anything else in Welsh history before, what we are is fundamentally the product of that rupture. We are not the inheritors of Owain Glyndwr or all that jazz.

In fact, our failure to recognise, understand, cherish, and champion, the fact that Wales – in the singular – is the product of immigration and rupture means that we keep making profound mistakes about subsequent arrivals. It means that our better contemporary novelists and playwrights end up inadvertently whitewashing the history of the Rhondda; it means that we have to over-emphasise singular events (like the 1919 Race Riots) to remind ourselves of the everyday history of Welsh people of colour; and it means that we neglect the multilingual heritage of Wales in our embrace of bilingualism. Arabic, Irish, Greek, Maltese, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian, German, French, Flemish, Creole, Yiddish, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, these are Welsh languages too. When we divide by language or supposed national affiliation, ‘more Welsh’ or ‘less Welsh’, are we not, in effect, practising a form of segregation? In my view, yes. What does it say of our intellectual habits that we place a GP from India who lives and works in, say, central Cardiff, into the category of ‘British Wales’ but their sister or brother who has a job and a house in Tonypandy into the category of ‘Welsh Wales’, and their cousin living in Caernarfon as something else entirely? Except that the model is long past its sell-by date.

Wales is a singular noun but a plural experience. It can be, like England and Scotland, understood by distinguishing geographical and historical trends: North Wales and South Wales have different rhythms because they have different pasts as well as different words for exit and milk. Those are the plural experiences. Likewise, the Valleys are themselves internally quite different. What happened in the Dulais Valley cannot be taken as the truth of the Rhondda or the Ebbw Valley, and vice versa. There were gay bars in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport in 1984, even if there were none in Onllwyn or Seven Sisters. But if this was Scotland or England or Ireland we wouldn’t seek to divide the place up intellectually on that basis, or make a hierarchy of allegiance on that basis. Unless, of course, nationalism here in Wales would like to have its own Voigt-Kampff in which allegiance is sought out by some kind of test with artificial boundaries? Who amongst you, dear readers, would qualify as ‘Welsh’ in a world which places the ‘Cymru Cymraeg’ at the top and the ‘British Welsh’ at the bottom? There is no sense in determining the extent of someone’s loyalty to an, as yet unformed, state on the basis of whether a trio of ostrich feathers irritates them or not. If it does, just take an anti-histamine like everyone else with an allergy.

The truth is, of course, that it is far easier to wave the crest of Owain Glyndwr than it is to create political structures and institutions which will bring about meaningful, material change to the lives of the vast majority of the people who live in all parts of these islands – and beyond. I get that. It’s far easier to write blogposts, too. Or books, or academic articles, or whatever else it might be. But the changes that we seek are not constitutional so much as materialist. They relate to housing, to income, to life expectancy, to opportunity. They do not relate to whether or not we are ‘colonised’ by ‘the English’. Your antagonist is not a family living on a meagre income in Darlington but the state that enables that to happen. We have a common problem. The solution is obvious: a renewal of social democracy not a constitutional sundering. It’s like being hungry and having a custard slice. It makes you feel better, temporarily, but the impact of the sugar rush runs out soon enough and you’re left unsatiated.

Why, asked the Fabian Society more than 130 years ago, are the many poor? The answer they gave remains the answer today: ‘We live under a competitive system with capital in the hands of individuals. What are the results? A few are very rich, some well off, the MAJORITY IN POVERTY, and a large number in misery’. An independent Wales would not be any less capitalist than the United Kingdom. The Welsh would not be any less an example of the answer to the above question than they are now. It’s a painful thing to acknowledge but acknowledge it we must. We are also poor, the majority of us, because we do not take democracy with the seriousness it deserves. We take for granted an historical anomaly and abrogate our responsibilities to making our democracy not only social but vigorously democratic. As Aneurin Bevan wrote in the aftermath of the Second World War:

Not only is democracy very recent, not only was there most inadequate preparation for it, but at the same time, ever since democracy came of age, [humanity] has been engulfed in a series of tumults: two world wars; vast migrations; the unsettlement of the early twentieth century Industrial Revolution superimposed upon the nineteenth. There has been no stability anywhere at all in the whole of this period. And so ordinary men and women were asked to discuss policies of state, and to decide them, even as society was being made over before their eyes. So not only is it very young, but the task it has had to carry out, the problems it was asked to solve, were of a complexity unknown before in the history of [humanity].

And what of seventy years later? Does not the same apply? A reminder, if one were needed, that the democratic systems in Wales are themselves very young indeed – local government is less than 25 years old in its current form, the Assembly only 20 years old. Danger Will Robinson, Danger. Part of the reason we Europeans came together to pool our resources is so that at least some of this burden could be eased. We resolved the debate about what a border would look like between Ireland and Britain, say, or between Belgium and the Netherlands, by ostensibly getting rid of it. And my goodness me, if we’re finding it difficult to work out how to police a resurrected Irish border which was only really around for a few decades, what challenges would be faced rebuilding a border (between England and Wales) which hasn’t existed for centuries and which is so porous it might as well not exist? Actual answer – it doesn’t really, only in our imagination.

I started this post focused on the poverty of academic models which divide into artificial components and so I shall end this contribution to the series by drawing on the words of Dai Smith. ‘Wales’, he writes, ‘rings with the self-righteousness of those who make claims for it according to the image of the country necessary for them’. In other words, yes, Wales is indeed an artefact which the Welsh produce, but, like all those tacky lovespoons and ‘cwtch’ cushions or fake miners’ lamps sold in tourist shops, we are not all making the same one. Some of us are not really making ‘Wales’ at all, but something else, even when our words contribute to the culture and society around us.

In the end, though, it is surely beholden upon this generation to take seriously the burden of the democracy we have inherited and try to make it better on its own terms? Our energy should be directed towards that goal, not the romantic pipedream of the Glyndwr flag wavers. After all, for twenty years we have had the means of doing so but have not made the most of it. The call for independence is a reaction as much to the failures of devolution in this era of austerity as it is a reaction to the failures of central government. To be blunt: the people begging on the streets of Cardiff are not able to wait for ‘independence’. The people who cannot get housing or live in houses not fit for purpose are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those communities which will be torn asunder by Brexit are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those living in the care of the state are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those elderly people who are living isolated in communities are not able to wait for ‘independence’. And those who deserve a twenty-first century education are not able to wait for ‘independence’.

Say Yes, then, not to independence and the populist tide upon which YesCymru and all the others are riding, but to social democracy and the renewal of the material lives of everyone who lives here. Welsh Welsh, British Welsh, American Welsh, Cymry Cymreig, or, you know, plain old you and me. More about what I mean by social democracy in the next post.

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