Daniel Pryce Lawrence: The New Political Divide (and how to make the most of it)

FB_IMG_1494412422983_2   By Daniel Pryce Lawrence  


Political nationalism in Wales has existed since the dawn of the modern democratic age in the mid 19th Century.  In fact, it is that patriotic instinct which ensured that Wales survived and gradually became a nation in its own right rather than just a (somewhat distinct) region of England. In pre-democratic days Wales was culturally and socially a nation, but legally and technically just another part of England, little different to Yorkshire in its institutional set-up.

The remarkable survival of the Welsh language and the subsequent work of a number of men and woman in making the Welsh aware of (and proud of) their shared national history meant that in 1881, with the Sunday Closing Act, Wales saw the first institutional recognition of this Welsh anomaly.  That it was an act that applied to all of Wales, and not an act that applied just to Welsh speakers for example, was a sign that the growing Anglo-Welsh (English speaking Welsh) felt equally part of the new Welsh nation, fully aware of their non-Englishness. Welsh identity still had a territorial basis, not a linguistic one, an important feature that ensured the survival of the nation.

At this time Welsh nationalism was a movement within the Liberal party, which dominated Welsh politics in this era in a similar way to which the Labour party later would.  It had a religious element because of Wales’ Nonconformity, and one focus of its campaigning was the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, a goal which was achieved in 1914.  Into the mix, which made this period crucial to modern Wales’ development we can add growing concerns for the language and the first agitations for Home Rule (devolution).

Nationalism and liberalism (and later socialism) became linked in the minds of many Welsh, and the fight for Wales became a fight to advance the growth and power of government, which was increasingly seen as the only means through which social justice could be achieved. This idea was aided by the fact that the Conservative party had little time for Welsh aspirations.

Nationalism or patriotism?

There is a tendency for some to think that nationalism in Wales is a relatively new phenomenon; that it goes back maybe to Gwynfor Evans winning Plaid Cymru’s first seat in 1966.  But it goes back much further than that.  In fact it has always been there, since the beginning of the Welsh nation over a thousand years ago.  It survived the first military conquest of the country in 1282 and remained long after Wales’ last brief flicker of independence in the 15th Century.

Nationalism continued because of what it is: an instinct, not a fully formed political philosophy in itself. Which is why you can find Welsh nationalists accross the political spectrum, and even varying levels of nationalism within all of Wales’s political parties. Some may find it strange for me to say that. Surely Plaid is the only nationalist party? All the others are die-hard unionists and British nationalists are they not? But it is much more complicated (and interesting) than that, and should give some hope to those of us who want to see further Welsh self-government, national recognition, economic success and the growth of the Welsh language.

We often talk about the banal nature of British nationalism, but Wales has its own banal nationalism. At this point (and after using the word quite a lot) I should probably describe what I mean by ‘nationalism,’ and it is not necessarily a belief in political independence. I am referring to something wider here, the sense that Wales is a distinct nation (one of four home nations in the UK) and not a mere region of a country called the UK.  That people naturally have an attachment to their own local and national communities – and for most people in this context, their Welshness – is an important part of their identity, and something they wish to retain. If Wales was an independent state it would be called ‘patriotism,’ and be lauded by those who now sneer when they use the term ‘nationalist.’

All parties have to take heed of this instinct. Can you imagine any politician suggesting that we abolish the Welsh national sports teams and that we play for England instead? Which is why we shouldn’t be too worried about Wales’ survival; it is much more robust than we sometimes think. But we should not be complacent either, there is a real concern that if Wales, as a distinct national polity continues to come second in the minds of its people to the British polity (which is inevitably England-focused due to its size and power), it will fall further behind both economically and socially. It would be failure from disinterest rather than a malicious campaign to undermine it.

A new nationalism?

This brings me on to the main point of this post. Namely, how the political party that is the standard bearer of Welsh nationalism can widen its support, encourage greater interest in, and debate about, the future of the country, and produce policies and leaders that can improve things for the nation and its people. I’m talking about Plaid Cymru.

In the 1980’s Plaid made a strategic decision to position itself as a radical, left-wing and socialist party. There were some true believers, but it was, at least, partly a tactical decision, based on the perceived idea that Wales was a politically radical & left-wing country, and that by doing so they could undermine Labour (the dominant party in Wales), and win support from them. This was a process taken forward by the then party leader (and now Lord) Dafydd Elis-Thomas.

Of course, no country is left-wing or right-wing, because they are relative terms, and to be honest those terms are quite often unhelpful (we’re all guilty of using them for rough explanations of things, especially on social media, myself included). They often mean different things to different people, and have had different meanings over time, so we need to be a bit careful with their use.

But there are some things to consider in the current climate.  People generally tend to vote for people that they believe have similar concerns and interests to themselves, and for leaders and policies which are confident and pragmatic. This is natural, ‘small c,’ conservative territory, as it is a philosophy that is (at its best) a rejection of ideology and utopian designs for society.

However for many on the left, at the moment, to state that we should listen to the common man or woman on the street is heresy. Some seem to believe that it’s only if you disagree with the majority of ordinary people on the majority of issues that you can be right. Perhaps because they believe that they are particularly enlightened and modern. They don’t accept that societies grow organically and that, given enough time and stability, people naturally find ways to co-exist and co-operate in relative peace and prosperity, and therefore there might actually be some wisdom in common sense. Instead, it is easier to believe that it is only through change forced from above, by people like themselves preferably, that we can enlighten people. They have grown up in an age in which law is not just a reflection of commonly accepted norms, but the creator of them.

“Aren’t most people political idiots who don’t understand what is good for them?” is the idea implied, or increasingly even given voice: especially if they haven’t read Karl Marx, watched a film about Che Guevara or been equally enlightened by some other utopian belief-system which they think has all the answers. If only more people agreed with them the world would be a happy place – they think! So, we see people unwilling to argue a point decently with someone, instead they will turn to abuse and a questioning of their opponents’ motives.  On social media both the left and the right are guilty of this.

But maybe the average citizen has noticed something that the self-described progressive hasn’t noticed. Maybe the instinctive doubt that grows in the minds of the sceptic when politicians have a new scheme for change, suggests a deeper wisdom that was hidden somewhere deep down in our collective cultural tradition.  An instinct that survived because it was valuable.

They might also ask why countries that have been dominated by socialist and other utopian ideas (whether left or right) generally tend to become poorer and less stable than those that are more sceptical and ‘small c’ conservative. Maybe they have also noticed that it is not just what governments do that matters, but also what people think, and the values that shape their actions, which are equally important.

They may be completely wrong, but so might you, so might I.  Let’s therefore go a little bit easier on each other in this new post-Brexit world.

The erosion of trust in society

The truth is that most people want similar things, but have different ideas about how to achieve them. Those of us brought up in Wales were brought up in a similar culture, (with regional differences of course), so it would be strange if we all had completely different ideas on what makes a good society.  It’s only because of those shared values that we have nations in the first place, formed by the trust that only exists in places with a shared culture and shared institutions. Trust that, given enough time and spread widely enough can give birth to stability, democracy and a measure of progress.

The belief that we have a shared interest in the future, that the person we may be arguing with might have different political ideas, but is motivated by good and honest intentions, is valuable in itself. Even if it is not always true.

The erosion of trust within societies is one of the main issues fostering the instability and anger that fuels support for far-right and far-left politics in the western world at the moment. It is not helped by politicians who make promises that they must know they cannot keep, and therefore constantly disappoint an electorate that becomes increasingly cynical.  I could labour this point a bit further, but that is a story for another post.

A party for (all of) Wales?

What does all of this mean for Plaid? In my opinion, for Plaid to seriously advance beyond its current areas of support, it will have to reconcile itself to the fact that it will have to be a party that draws support from a number of different political traditions, and find a compromise position that appeals as widely as possible.  It should be trying to appeal to people who have voted Labour, Conservative, Liberal or even UKIP previously, and not see this as selling-out, or watering-down its values or aims.  Plaid should, after all, be a nationalist party with a socialist element, rather than a socialist party with a nationalist element, as well as a party that can appeal nationally and not just regionally. They need to do this as soon as possible, because if Labour get their act together and elect a more plausible leader than Jeremy Corbyn, with a new policy platform, then there is a chance that Labour will regain ground in its heartlands.

It should always be stressed that Wales is not Scotland, or England, or anywhere else. Any party that wants to change Wales for the better will have to find positions that can appeal to and unite the three distinctive regions of Wales (the three Wales model): ‘British Wales’, ‘Welsh Wales’ and ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’.  Plaid naturally has appeal in ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’ as a party founded, at least partly, to protect Welsh language communities.  It has made efforts (and had some success) in appealing to ‘Welsh Wales’ which is focused on the valleys, and is strong in its sense of Welsh identity.  The most difficult nut to crack would be ‘British Wales’, the area from which I hail.  This is an area in which Plaid has had little success, and it sometimes gives the impression that it has given up on the idea that it can win in this region.  My argument in this post is that it can win in this region and that it can do so without sacrificing its support in the two other regions of Wales.

Some tough things the party would have to do

What follows is a couple of gentle suggestions of ideas about how the party can start to do this, and how they should start thinking. They might be wrong, but if any supporter of the party reads this and doesn’t even reflect on them then they are likely to just help Plaid remain at the same levels of support it has for the last 20 years.

The party should avoid the temptation to support every leftist campaign or group that has a presence on social media but little support beyond that. As every vote they may win from them will often mean a much greater loss of votes among the general population, who are not as politically obsessed. They’ll get the message that Plaid is an activist party, and then question whether it is a serious party of government that can control spending, that can fight the temptation to indulge the loudest campaigners and those with the most money.

So quite often, when talking about “right-wing” or “conservative” nationalists, we are just talking about moderates, who have been labelled as such purely for questioning whether certain socialist or utopian ideas will actually help people, or advance the core aims of the party: moderates who are often more closely aligned with public opinion than those doing the labelling. Such people saw Brexit and Trump coming (even though they were quite likely against them) because they paid attention to what people were thinking and saying, but were often drowned out by those who were louder or more adamant. Such people can see that the cure for right-wing populism is not left-wing populism, and that no ideological system can contain all the answers.

Plaid Cymru is a democratic party, and to its credit allows (in my previous experiences) quite a bit of reasonable dissent and debate. It would not be in the interests of Wales to split the nationalist vote between competing parties, although it may one day be a necessity (when Wales’ national future is assured and the country is in better shape). But Plaid is not currently the broad church it needs to be to win support more widely in order to lead the debate, and therefore advance Welsh influence and prospects.

Many like myself who voted for the left-leaning Leanne Wood (partly because I was a member of Plaid Ifanc at the time and felt bound by the group’s decision to support her, but also because she represented a change that Plaid needed) had hoped that she might be the leader that would widen Plaid’s support outside Welsh-speaking Wales. She has, to an extent (to her credit), but not enough to make the big advances that Plaid should be making on the back of Labour’s malaise. Instead, much of that leaking support is going to the Conservatives!

If the strategy was to be the real left-wing party to Labour’s ‘Blairite’ party (which Welsh Labour distanced itself from anyway), it didn’t work when Labour was ‘Blairite’ and can’t work now that it has a UK leadership to the left of Plaid. As we have learnt recently, Wales never was this uniquely progressive, social democratic land some had convinced themselves it was. Welsh Labour itself is still a left-wing outfit (despite what some may say), somewhere between Blairism and Corbynism, so having Plaid attack them from the left only makes them look more moderate and helps maintain them in power when their support should be dropping.

After 18 years of having Welsh Labour in power, with a number of experiments in  left-wing policy followed by falling standards in our schools and hospitals, you’d think some people might start asking whether there might be something wrong with their ideology. But for too many the problem is that they just weren’t left wing enough!

We can only hope that enough people of this mindset have been drawn into the Corbyn experiment and away from Plaid to keep the party focused on its patriotic goals, not its utopian ones.

Are the political plates aligning in Plaid’s favour?

Much should be in Plaid’s favour at the moment; the new political divide is moving towards a focus around culture, identity and the value of nations in an increasingly globalized and transient world, rather than one which is focused on class. So, after years of being told by ‘progressives’ that they are parochial and backwards-looking for wanting to focus on, and defend, a uniquely Welsh version of civilization, it seems the whole western world is now asking questions about the values that created it, and what is worth defending.

As mentioned earlier, one of the problems facing Wales’ political life is that the  Conservative party in the country has given a valuable philosophy a bad name. Conservatism in Wales was originally the province of the landed gentry, most of whom had little time for the idea of Welsh culture and nationhood. So their idea of conservatism wasn’t defending Welsh ways, it was making us more like England. It was supporting institutions like the established Church of England in Wales (against the wishes of the Nonconformist majority, who nevertheless had to pay for it!). Its core instinct was a British nationalism that had little room for the Welsh anomaly. Later on, and more recently, they also became a dogmatic Neo-liberal party which increasingly put its faith in the power of the market, a faith that went beyond support for a system that worked, and that had a useful basis in human nature.

If Wales had been an independent and democratic country in the 19th century, a true conservatism in the country would have defended the Welsh language and way of life, and extolled its patriotic instincts. But it didn’t, it joined the progressive ranks that led the calls for Welsh people to not only learn English (which was sensible), but to disregard the Welsh language, which was not. The effects of being told that it was your language and culture that was holding you back are still being felt today, and even though they would be hard to measure, I can’t imagine that they would have been helpful in strengthening Welsh self-confidence.

However, this is the past now and should not be dwelt on too heavily, only learnt from and used to understand where we have come from, and possibly where we may be going.

In conclusion

There is a strand of thinking within the Welsh nationalist movement that could be increasingly useful to Plaid in navigating the new political divide. A strand of thinking that could bring on board new supporters, whilst helping fight the new right-wing populism that is growing in Wales, like elsewhere. Because, when no one is being honest or speaking plainly, when no one is trying to explain the changes going on in the world in a way that respects people’s natural attachment to their community or their dislike of rapid change in their way of life, they are bound to be more susceptible to the insidious propaganda of the far right, who at least speak plainly and give simple answers.

The world is changing rapidly. Technology’s ability to shrink the world and the increasingly transient nature of many communities are making people feel vulnerable. People around the world are increasingly looking for ways to slow down this change, or to make the transition less painful. We can never stop the world changing or try to turn things back to the way they were, but we can at least try to respect the fact that not everyone welcomes the change that we are seeing to long-established ways of life. We could at least recognise that it is not necessarily an evil instinct that drives this feeling.

A party that was founded, let’s not forget, to defend a unique culture and its communities, to advance Welsh self-government, and which relies to some extent on the enlightenment idea of the value of nation-states, should at least recognise that the instinct I have described above is an important part of its DNA, and that it might be time to pay more attention to it.

Daniel Pryce Lawrence is originally from Builth Wells in Powys. He holds a Masters degree in Welsh Government and Politics from Cardiff University. He has been a member of Plaid Cymru’s youth wing Plaid Ifanc, and has played an active role with Plaid Cyrmu in Cardiff. He currently lives and works in Australia.

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Categories: Politics

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