Monday 18 January 2010

Narrow Nationalism

I was listening to someone talking the other day about the need to promote Welsh identity, but to do so without falling back on 'narrow nationalism'. It's a line that I've heard many times before, but the one thing I don't think I've ever really heard anyone explain properly is what they mean by 'narrow nationalism'.

Generally speaking, it often sounds almost apologetic in tone – 'I'm Welsh, but I'm not one of those awful nashies' as it were; as if pride in Welsh nationality and political nationalism must always go together. But the growth of political nationalism really shouldn't leave those who don't share that political perspective almost afraid to espouse their Welshness, let alone feeling apologetic about it.

Of course there are those who seem to think that all things Welsh=good; all things English=bad. There are even those who think that the existence of a Welsh nation should automatically mean that we must become an independent country. But I'm not sure that those views are typical of political nationalists - and they are certainly not views which I hold.

I happen to believe that Independence is the best long term future for Wales, but that isn't an axiomatic consequence of Welsh nationhood. It's based on a whole range of factors, and I've always been prepared to put the case for my vision for the future of Wales as robustly as I can, since I think we need to win the argument, not simply restate the fact of nationhood.

As far as I am concerned, there is nothing at all wrong with people feeling proud of their Welsh nationality and wanting to develop and promote Welsh identity, but at the same time thinking that Wales is best served by remaining an integral part of the UK. The debate about the future of Wales, both politically and culturally, would be all the better if that case were to be put more robustly and less apologetically than sometimes seems to be the case.

Far too often, the responsibility for putting the arguments against moves towards greater Welsh autonomy is left to those who deny the existence of Wales as a nation. And I'm far from convinced that they are either typical or representative of modern Wales.


Pelagius said...

Fair point on an important issue. But I think Plaid is missing out by not confronting this. "Nationalists", as a term of abuse, was coined by British imperialists against independence movements in India, Ireland, Africa, etc. Which is where Labour picked it up. Of course, they are nationalists too: British nationalists. See, e.g. their views about fellow Europeans. Instead of Plaid saying it as it is, the party uses mealy-mouthed words like the "London" or "Westminster" parties or even the "main" parties. British nationalism is mostly a bad thing: often racist (not just in one party), militarily-aggressive, increasingly anti-Islamic, nuclear-armed and bad at governing. A failed state really. So Plaid needn't be so defensive. As some American general once said when told he was surrounded, "Excellent! That means we can attack from all sides."

D Hughes said...

Sadly there are a still a few dinosaurs who believe Wales isn't a nation at all, without any history, culture or identity.

Take Neil Kinnock for example who dismissed the Welsh identity, saying that "between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes".

Hopefully like the dinosaurs these people will disappear eventually.

Unknown said...

British nationalism only makes sense if Britain is considered to be a nation. Most people have been educated (conditioned) to think that it is. There lies the dichotomy in Wales and Welshness.
There is another point of view, which I trust Plaid holds, that Wales is a nation, just as Scotland and Ireland are nations.
In that case Britain is not a nation but a grouping of nations in a single state. That is the reality and we must work from that.
The point is that these nations, to cement their cultural, social and political identity, require nation status embodied in national institutions: a parliament, courts of law, and so on.
Either Wales is a nation or it is not. British nationalists, by their very belief, would deny that it is.
For sure true nationalists regard Wales (Cymru) as a nation and that the obvious course is towards independence and sovereignty.
Anything short of this is a "cop-out", an evasion of responsibility.

John Dixon said...


I'm not sure that it's fair to say that anyone supporting the continuation of the UK is necessarily a British nationalist. Some are, certainly. Maybe even most. But some of it is just innate conservatism and resistance to change, and I wouldn't necessarily assume that it's as thought through a position as the label 'nationalist' might suggest.

But I take the point about us needing not to be defensive as well. Not sure that I'd relish being in a position of having to attack on all sides though...

John Dixon said...


I think you and I start from two rather different perspectives here.

You seem to believe that each and every person can be a member of one, and only one, nation; and on that basis, the existence of a Welsh nation precludes the existence of a British nation. And you add that anyone who believes otherwise does so because they have been 'conditioned' so to do.

I have a rather more fluid view of nationality in the twenty-first century, based partly on a philosophical viewpoint, and partly on the empirical reality that most of the people who live in Wales are quite happy to believe themselves to be both Welsh and British. I'll leave aside the philosophical for the time being; purely on the empirical basis, there is something to me deeply unsatisfactory about a view of nationality which requires me to disregard the subjective national feelings of the majority of the populace of Wales!

And that word 'subjective' is, for me, the point. People hold the nationality which they feel themselves to hold. Whether I - or you - like it or not, nationality is in very large measure a self-defining attribute. There may be objective factors which make it easier or harder to adopt one or another nationality, but the whole concept is at root a subjective one. (Which, in a sense, is why I am arguing that an axiomatic conclusion that any nation which exists must become independent is unrealistic and unhelpful.) I don't believe that anyone can dictate to anyone else what his or her nationality is.

Certainly, it would be easier for Plaid to achieve its goals if the national psyche was as clear-cut as you would wish, but we surely have to start from where we are.

Anonymous said...

n - Pelagius is correct to state that those who support the british parties are British nationalists.

Does that make them members of the BNP no, but then there's a very wide definition of Welsh nationalism which can include communists, aethistist, peaceniks, conservatives, muslims etc. They're joined by the belief that Wales is a nation and as such should gain international status as a nation i.e. become an independent nation state. Within the definition of a 'nation state' there is also a wide view - from integration with the EU, or NATO membership or outside the EU and Commonwealth etc.

These are all tensions/differences within those who believe in the British nation state as a Welsh nation state. However, if someone believes in a Welsh nation state and independence (lets take it as a seat in the UN at it's most broad and accepted goal) one is called a 'Welsh nationalits'. A term, I and thousands others use as well. If that's the case, then it stands to reason that someone who believes that 'Britain' should have a seat in the UN (something all British nationalists parties agree on from Labour, LibDem, Tory, UKIP, BNP etc) then they're British nationalists.

Don't get fooled John. The fact that 'British' nationalism is the 'norm' or normalised, banal nationalism, as Richard Wyn Jones says, doesn't mean it isn't a nationalism.

So, Pelgius is right. Not all these people are frothing xenophobes off course, but then not all Welsh nationalists (by a long long stretch) are frothing xenophobes either ... not that you'd guess that from the way members of the British nationalist parties portray Welsh nationalists.

Unknown said...

We have to start from where we are, true, as I said "That is the reality and we must work from that, as it is the situation in which we find ourselves.". We need to change the way the Welsh people regard themselves. This is not social engineering. It is making a difference to the way the people of Wales identify with the nation and not with the British state in which they have been brought up and which they believe to be their country. It is a shift in consciousness, from an emotional fixation on Britain as their native land to a realisation that their true nation is, and can be, Wales - and not Wales but Cymru. These is the work which nationalist should set themselves, to convince the youth of the nation that independence is an option which can be realistically achieved.

John Dixon said...


To assume that everyone who supports any of the UK parties is, per se, a British nationalist, is, I think, more about labelling those with whom we might disagree than about holding an inclusive and meaningful debate about the future of Wales. I don't find labels terribly helpful; they carry with them a whole host of different meanings to different people, and end up obscuring rather then facilitating discussion. And it's particularly unhelpful when the label is being applied to the majority of the people of Wales, most of whom accept the existence of the Welsh nation (whlst not necessarily all adhering to the same concept of that nation), but simply disagree with the idea that that nationhood should automatically become statehood.

John Dixon said...


"These is the work which nationalist should set themselves, to convince the youth of the nation that independence is an option which can be realistically achieved"

I don't disagree with that, although I don't see why we'd only be interested in the youth of the nation. My point, however, is that convincing people that independence is realistically achievable does not depend on first convincing them that they must adopt a particular, and pretty exclusive, idea of Welsh nationality.

I think it's probably pretty clear by now that your concept of nationality and my concept of nationality are not exactly identical. But they do not need to be. And if there can be two different views, why not 3? Or even 3 million?

Unknown said...

Simple logic, John.
A nation within a nation is possible (Kurds in Iraq/Turkey/Iran)but is not sustainable. Palestinians in Israel is another example. A one-nation solution has been ruled out.
Simply, Britain is not a nation. It is a state. England is a nation (calling itself "Britain" and regarded as such by outsiders).
Wales is a nation, QED, within a British state but "incorporated and subsumed into England" (Act of 1536).
Secondly, the youth are not the only ones to be won over, but are the coming generation which will see independence as a reality if they are convinced of its viability and are aware of their history.

Anonymous said...

The concept of the 'right of nations to self determination' was written into the philosophy of the Labour Party in it's early years from the far left. It was essentially a dilemma that was faced during the Russian revolution as to what to do with nations that had been liberated from a collapsed imperial empire. The 'British left' have always had "issue" with this as to what this means in terms of their political philosophy. In practice the most 'British and 'Imperial' governments of the 20th century in terms of foreign policy has been that of Labour governments not of Tory ones. The conservative view of nationhood is less prescribed in that markets and trade can function irrespective of national governments. In a global economy the Tories have less use for the boundaries of any nation sate. Whilst there may be greater synergy between Plaid and Labour in Wales over day-to-day government, the reality is that the Labour Party has accommodated concepts of Welsh autonomy for reasons of convenience. You are right to identify that arguments against moves towards greater Welsh autonomy is left to those who deny the existence of Wales as a nation, the question arises as to whether the new-found pragmatism in the Labour Party on Welsh nationhood will continue. If a new Tory government pursues a policy of antagonism towards Wales like they did in the 1980s then it probably will. If, however, the Tories pursue a policy of greater self-determination for Wales, which would mean allowing protracted form of left of centre political autonomy, it would mean the death of the Labour Party in Wales and Plaid becoming the 'natural' expression of the political will of the nation. The remnants of denial you identify, which used to pervade the consciences in the valleys from people who didn't say they VOTE Labour but said they ARE Labour, is dieing out. Ironically, going into coalition with Labour in the Senedd has made the 'narrow' appeal of Plaid into a view of natural universal representation across all of the communities of Wales. It is also completely wrong to suggest that those who have traditionally voted 'socialist' have done so to be 'British'. It is only the Labour MPs who have tasted the sweet sherry of the palace of Westminster who say this. I have, however, heard people say "I will be voting Plaid and believe in independence for Wales, but am not a nationalist." LOL.

John Dixon said...


I agree that the logic is simple; but the conclusions reached from the application of simple logic are only ever going to be as valid as the initial premises. And my problem is with the premises which you use. Restating the same axioms doesn't turn them into unchallengeable facts.

The fundamental difference between us seems to be that you regard the concept of nationality as being something which is objectively determined by a range of definable factors. I regard it as being a part of a person's overall identity which is self-defined and optional. People can choose to espouse multiple nationalities - or none.

State, country, nation are three different things; they may overlap in a variety of ways, but none of them necessarily flow from each other.

To return to my initial point, it is perfectly rational for people to seek to strengthen the identity of the Welsh nation whilst still arguing that the nation of which they consider themselves to be a part should not aspire to statehood. Those who do aspire to statehood need to convince them, not just tell them that they are wrong.

John Dixon said...


Thanks for the comment. I agree in particular that the Labour Party has long found the issue of Welsh nationality a difficult one. I've never been convinced by the argument of some in my own party that the Labour Party is somehow split between a nationalist wing and a unionist wing; I think that's a misinterpretation of the situation by outsiders looking in.

Looking to the roots of that party, I think that what we still see, even today, are echoes of the perceived conflict between loyalty to class and loyalty to nation, and the difficulty which that party has always had in arriving at some sort of synthesis of the two.

Unknown said...

Anon.: " I have, however, heard people say "I will be voting Plaid and believe in independence for Wales, but am not a nationalist.""

This kind of statement illustrates the confusion in the minds of those in Wales who feel that being a "nationalist" is some kind of slur on their character. What needs to be inculcated is a sense of pride in being a nationalist. Possibly many people in Ireland did not fight out of a concept of nationalism but out of a feeling of grievance and injustice. This sense of grievance is somewhat lacking in the Wales of today and therefore does not inspire or stir the blood. We no longer have the Black and Tans to terrify the people of the Welsh valleys, as in Ireland. Nevertheless, for whatever reason they vote, political or economic and whether or not they support independence, if they vote Plaid at least they are voting for a Welsh party which will secure home rule.
The nation to watch is Scotland as it is farther along the road, and when their referendum is won the people of Wales will be encouraged to turn in the same direction.
Scotland will win the argument for Wales.