On the Fear of Difference in the Coalfield

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Arthur Horner, Communist leader of the NUM and a Welshman, speaks on east European immigration following the Second World War

 

In 2016, Brexiteers sought to make migrants from the former Soviet block countries of eastern Europe a scapegoat for economic woes. However, the story of when racism was last directed in the coalfield against ethnic groups from eastern Europe has largely been forgotten. Its forgetting testifies to the erasure of working-class intolerance when clearly connected with the politics of socialism and class, the hidden archaeology about which coalfield culture is in denial.

Stalin’s push at the end of the Second World War to the Adriatic and as far west as the Elbe led to a flood of political refugees from eastern Europe. Tens of thousands fled to Britain, many of whom who were employed in mines chronically undermanned following the end of the war.

We can pick up the subsequent debate about these outsiders in a four-minute film from 1947 broadcast under the title, ‘Pathe Industrial Survey No 7 – Mines Need DP Labour – A Reply from Wales’.

The film can be viewed here

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/pathe-industrial-survey-no-7-mines-need-d-p-labour/query/DISPLACED+PERSONS

The film opens with a short clip of the most powerful trade union leader of his generation, the Welshman, Arthur Horner, Communist leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, giving his view on whether ‘displaced persons’ from the east should be employed in British coalmines:

The coal crisis has produced a general appreciation of the fact that the British economy depends absolutely on a given quantity of coal. So that we are therefore forced to consider the employment of Poles and displaced persons. We now urge the authorities to provide wages and conditions which will attract free Britishers into Britain’s basic industry. Foreign labour can only be regarded as an emergency measure for a specific and limited purpose.

Horner’s broadcast is followed by vox pops with various miners, and what seems to be a semi-scripted staged meeting at the miner’s lodge at Penygraig in the Rhondda Valley. Here and elsewhere a variety of differing views ranging from the tolerant to the racist are presented, with nuanced intolerance claiming the centre ground.

Horner’s speech is given from a British viewpoint. Nevertheless, it contains key words which from a Welsh perspective, and for an understanding of racism as an expression of class unity in Wales, appear to be central. In particular, Horner’s term ‘Free Britishers’ is key. In ethnic relations, the term ‘Britisher’ and its synonyms have been used in Wales many times.

In the early twentieth century, massive immigration from England between 1880 and 1914 had created two ethnolinguistic groups in the coalfield. Here the term ‘Britisher’ was an important term because it effected unity across this ethnic divide. However, this unity could only be defined in opposition to an ‘Other’, inevitably a coalminer from some part of the European continent, or war against Germany, or an imperial adventure. Thus at Abercraf and Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley, there were protests against Spanish miners who had moved to the area a little before the First World War. In a 1914 article, ‘Foreigners in the Anthracite District’, the socialist newspaper Llais Llafur (Voice of Labour), describes tension as being between ‘Welsh and English miners’ on the one hand and ‘foreign workers’ on the other. Here the Welsh and English are being united in the face of a foreign ‘other’. Scapegoating non-British immigrants in a coalfield in which there were substantial tensions between two British nationalities helped forge working-class unity.

Can something similar be seen at work in the 2016 Brexit referendum? Were tensions between various British nationalities in the UK somehow placated by a working-class British identity which pitches the ‘Britisher’ against the foreigner? In this context, the Brexit vote is a response to the SNP and the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.

In rural Wales today, where a similar ethnolinguistic divide exists to that in the coalfield in the early twentieth century, the ideology of the ‘Britisher’ might effect a similar unity. Anglesey was the home of the leader of Ukip in Wales, the Englishman Nathan Gill. He defined himself as local by appeal to a civic identity extended to him as a Britisher sharing Britishness with other Britishers in Wales. Ethnic tensions between English and Welsh are assuaged. This is realised by projecting fear of the Other onto the island’s tiny ‘immigrant’ eastern European population.

We cannot forget that working-class Welsh culture discriminated against other minorities too. The coalfield had a very poor record on gender equality. Nearly all elected political representatives and other leading figures in society, including within trade unions of course, were men. The coalfield was also deeply reactionary in its political treatment of the Welsh language. Although Welsh speakers were formerly a majority, and latterly a significant minority, in the coalfield throughout the twentieth century, there was no form of bilingualism in public life. The Welsh language threatened the unity of the working-class because it suggested that working-class culture was still open to cultural and linguistic divides. It is clearly significant that, in addition to antipathy towards immigrants, coalfield culture was not inclusive either of what might be termed internal cultural minorities.

It is Welsh socialism as an ideological construct which is largely responsible for this majoritarian intolerance. Socialism believed itself to be a universal creed. It was suspicious of difference. Majority culture (which was socialist) saw itself as inclusive and international which explains in part the reluctance to acknowledge racism and intolerance as a problem within coalfield culture.

The coalfield was thus poorly placed to be culturally receptive to the leftist arguments of the twenty-first century as regards respect for ethnic, linguistic, cultural, sexual and gender difference. Welsh-speaking Wales was relatively open to these messages because as a linguistic minority Welsh-speakers appeared to benefit from such rhetoric, and their intellectuals often justified calls for language rights on the basis of diversity. Cardiff, the capital city, was home to a university and other middle class institutions around which liberals and those who enjoyed a metropolitan lifestyle congregated. In this milieu, metropolitan forms of diversity were readily accepted because they had been designed within other similar metropolitan centres.

Of course there is no claim here to a particular morality pertaining to Welsh-speakers and others. We are merely talking about a construct, and how a politics of assimilation and exclusion presented as class loyalty played a peculiar ideological role in some areas of Wales. This happened in part because of an awareness of the residual bi-ethnic, bi-cultural and bilingual background of the population whose internal difference had to be overcome in the name of class unity. (Indeed, it is of great interest that some forms of nationalism in its fear of Welsh internal difference –especially the radical linguistic otherness of Welsh-speaking communities – merely takes up the baton of ‘unity’ which British class socialism puts down).

In the coalfield, working-class politics thus had a tendency to be expressed in terms of opposition to arguments for diversity. The Labour Party’s loss of a very safe constituency, Blaenau Gwent, in both the Welsh and British Parliaments to independent candidates on the issue of local opposition to gender quotas says much. Plaid Cymru’s failure to make headway in the coalfield because of the party’s perceived association with the Welsh language says something too. They are both sides of the same phenomenon.

Thus the coalfield vote for Brexit should not be regarded as wholly unexpected. Brexit cannot be dismissed as a transient phenomenon for ethnic protectionism has been an important and at times central element of coalfield culture for the best part of two centuries. It is part of a tradition of socialist resistance to the Other.

Reactionary thought, deeply ingrained in coalfield culture, reflects the claims of a particularist culture (male, white, British, anglophone) to pretensions of universality. It has done this to the detriment of other cultural formations. It is the peculiar development of progressive thought within a unified working-class which has permitted the development in Wales of this reactionary universalism.

SB

This blog is a shortened version of a paper given at Japan Women’s University, Tokyo on February 23, 2018 as part of ‘After Coal: Symposia on Post-Industrial Culture and Society in Wales, Appalachia and Japan’. The symposia were organised by the Raymond Williams Society of Japan.
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On reaction in the coalfield

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The south Wales coalfield has been imagined as a radical cauldron of socialism, which in the popular and sometimes academic mind is seen to be synonymous with progressive values and internationalism. This image was shaken to its core in 2016 with the referendum on British membership of the European Union when the coalfield voted overwhelmingly to leave.

The coalfield has also seen extremely high votes for the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), the xenophobic, far-right party which employed anti-immigrant rhetoric as a populist device to pump up anti-Europeanism. The coalfield has also seen since the demise of heavy industry a number of racist attacks against members of its small non-white population, and has shown limited support for openly racist political parties such as the British National Party.

Xenophobia and the turn to the political right have been seen by many as a cry for help and illustrative of the crises facing post-industrial communities. Parallels have been drawn to the appeal of Trump in rust-belt communities in the United States. In a European context, there are comparisons with the rise of support for xenophobic political movements in very white communities which have lost their industrial base and suffered economic impoverishment as a result; for example, in post-industrial communities in the former communist east Germany.

But is the turn to the right merely an expression of working-class discontent directed against a liberal elite? This interpretation has had the effect of legitimising xenophobia and racism as an acceptable tool with which to exert brute influence on a supposedly out-of-touch political class. However, not all working class, post-industrial communities have expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo by turning to right-wing populism.

African-American communities did not support Trump in large numbers in the US Presidential Election of 2016. Ethnic minorities in Britain did not support leaving the European Union, despite being considerably poorer than the white population. Welsh-speakers voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, and many Welsh-speaking working class communities in north-west Wales voted to remain. That section of the working class in post-industrial communities with a strong minority identity perceived the swing to the populist right as pregnant with the threat of majoritarian supremacism.

The xenophobic response within post-industrial communities to industrial decline is not true of all sections of the working class. This is not a contemporary development. Tension between a proletarian identity modelled on majoritarianism, and minority identities within proletarian communities mark out a cultural and political difference within the working class. These differences have been a significant element in the history of the coalfield from its inception.

Working-class politics required workers to build solidarity to protect themselves against exploitation. This led to the creation of trade unions and a labour movement organised through socialist political parties. Their success encapsulates the dominant narrative of coalfield historiography; workers are in a struggle against capitalism. But the politics of unity also created solidarity along other lines, namely against groups who threatened the economic interests of the working class in other ways, and it did this along ethnic lines.

Among such groups in the south Wales coalfield were immigrants from outside England or Wales who were seen as either a threat to a supposedly indigenous working-class or who faced accusations that they were undercutting the working-class by providing cheap labour. In many cases, this was simple racism and reflected the fact that although the working-class was economically exploited it was also a part of the British imperial project.

Race riots periodically disturbed the coalfield. The nineteenth century saw some twenty or so anti-Irish riots or disturbances. The serious anti-Jewish riot of 1911 in Tredegar was preceeded by social tensions engendered by the shooting of two workers at Llanelli a few days before. Cardiff dockland, although outside the coalfield, was wholly dependent on exporting coal. It saw a serious anti-black race riot in 1919 when a white working class attempted to reassert its hegemony within the shipping and docking industries by expelling the black population from parts of Cardiff.

These events represent an archaeology of working-class racism in south Wales. Historians talk about such disturbances to prove that racism existed ‘in Wales’ but they do not see the archaeology. They are not viewed as a problem inherent to the concept of working-class unity. Rather they are viewed as evidence that nations, and therefore the Welsh nation, are intolerant.

This of course posits racism as a problem of nationalism. But it is better seen as a problem of class, for considerable evidence suggests that the most effective forms of organised racism were a product not of nation but of class. They were often the product of socialism, and never more so than in the exclusive employment practices promoted by trade unions, while spontaneous disturbances were often connected to class.

Welsh unionism was progressive in the sense that it stood up for better pay and conditions but it was also reactionary because in order to protect pay and conditions it sometimes closed out minorities so that the indigenous cut of the cake would be more substantial. For example, the National Union of Seamen was instrumental in ensuring that the non-white workforce was marginalised in the port of Cardiff between the two world wars. This blending of progressive politics with reactionary rhetoric and protectionist employment practices typifies Welsh working-class history.

Recognition of this history means that we cannot simply view the heavy vote for Brexit in the Valleys as an isolated event, a sadly understandable abberation by a hitherto blameless people. It is not merely a reaction to post-industrial woes. Rather racism is part of the very culture of the Welsh working class and has been for nearly two centuries. We are only blinded to this by a socialist historiography which blames other ideologies for the fruits of its own intolerance. The function of this strain of xenophobia will be the subject of the next blog.

S.B.

 

This blog is part of a shortened version of a paper given at Japan Women’s University, Tokyo on February 23, 2018 as part of ‘After Coal: Symposia on Post-Industrial Culture and Society in Wales, Appalachia and Japan’. The symposia were organised by the Raymond Williams Society of Japan.

Ynghylch yr Arall

Bu tipyn o sôn dros yr haf am broblem hiliaeth a’r Cymry. Cafodd eitemau newyddion eu darlledu yn cyflwyno dilysrwydd parhad y Gymraeg (ac felly bodolaeth y Cymry Cymraeg) fel pe bai’n bwnc trafod dilys. Paentiwyd sloganau gwrth-Gymreig ger Tudweiliog, a chafwyd y drip-drip arferol o sylwadau gwrth-Gymraeg ar y cyfryngau cymdeithasol.

Wedyn, ddiwedd Awst, bu paentio o fath gwahanol. Paentiodd pedwar o hogia’ gwyn eu hwynebau’n ddu, gwisgo dreadlocks ffug, ac yn lliwiau Jamaica ac i gyfeiliant cân hiliol – ‘We can’t afford condom so we have baby/ Either that or HIV’ – teithio ar hyd strydoedd Aberaeron mewn siarabáng a oedd yn cogio bod yn bobsleigh o Ffos-y-ffin.

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Mae i’r arfer o dduo wyneb hanes diwylliannol cymhleth. Yn y ffilm am gymoedd y de, The Proud Valley (1940), mae’r arwr o Affro-Americanwr, Paul Robeson, yn cael ei gyflwyno fel pe bai’n debyg ei liw i’r glowyr mae parddu dros eu hwynebau ar ôl bod yn gweithio dan ddaear. Y neges yw undod rhwng pobloedd ar draws ffiniau hil. Ond mae duo wyneb er mwyn dynwared pobl ddu yn rhan o draddodiad o fychanu ac israddoli diwylliant pobl ddu. Mae’n gwneud hwyl am ben hunaniaeth pobl ddu ac yn dweud nad ydynt yn haeddu parch gan y sefydliad gwyn.

Peth peryglus yw tynnu cymhariaeth rhwng gwneud hwyl am ben iaith, a hwyl am ben hil, am fod hanes y ddau orthrwm mor wahanol. Ond mae’r delweddau a ddefnyddir i drafod iaith a hil yn gorgyffwrdd yn fynych. Ymatebodd un a ysgrifennau dan y ffug-enw eironig ‘Fluellyn’ i ymosodiadau ar y Gymraeg fel hyn yn 1910:

Your peculiar critic […] says “Anglicize yourself as quick as possible!” Personally, I would as soon […] blacklead my face.

Yn achos y difrïo ieithyddol a hiliol fel ei gilydd, mae tuedd amlwg i fychanu diwylliant arall, honni siarad ar ei ran, ac yna ei daflu o’r neilltu ar ôl i’r sioe ddod i ben.

Rhagflaenwyd y ffilm Proud Valley gan fersiwn radio a ddarlledwyd yn Chwefror 1940. Jack Jones oedd awdur sgript y fersiwn radio, a T. Rowland Hughes oedd y cyfarwyddwr. Yn nofelau Jack Jones y ceir yr ymdriniaeth helaethaf â thraddodiad y ‘minstrels’ yn llên Sasneg Cymru, ac mae nofel T. Rowland Hughes William Jones (1944) yn tystio i ddylanwad y nofelydd Eingl-Gymreig. Roedd William Jones yn un o nofelau mwyaf poblogaidd ganol y ganrif, ac mae’n cynnig golwg hoffus, os sentimental, ar gymoedd y de trwy lygaid mewnfudwr o’r gogledd. Disgrifia garnifal sydd yn ei sentimentaleiddwch i fod i adlewyrchu urddas ac undod mewn cymuned dosbarth gweithiol Cymreig, ond sy’n dibynnu ar lunio gwrthbwynt ethnig i ddifrifoldeb y frwydr ddosbarth neu genedlaethol. Gwneir hynny trwy dynnu sylw at ddifrifwch cynhenid diwylliant pobl ddu:

Goliwogiaid oedd yr aelodau [o’r criw], pob un wedi clymu ei drowsus yn dynn am ei fferau ac yn gwisgo côt fer a’i chotwm yn streipiau glas a gwyn. Am eu gyddfau yr oedd coler fawr wen a bwa anferth o ruban coch. Wynebau duon a oedd iddynt, wrth gwrs, a pheintiasai pob un gylch gwyn o amgylch ceg a llygaid. Ar eu pennau, gwallt trwchus o wlân du. Cerddent yn urddasol, a sicrwydd buddugoliaeth ym mhob cam, yr unig fand a chanddynt wisg barod.

A dyma bortread arall o fand ‘du’ yn y carnifal, yn fwy amlwg trefedigaethol y tro hwn:

Daeth y trydydd band heibio, dynion duon o ddyfnder yr Affrig, pob un yn ’sgleinio ar ôl triniaeth y brwsh blacléd. Yr oedd cylchoedd pres, a fuasai’n cynorthwyo i ddal llenni’r parlwr, yn hongian wrth eu clustiau, ac am eu gyddfau gwisgent bob math o bethau – gleiniau, aeron, a hyd yn oed afalau bach-coch-cynnar. Ychydig arall a wisgent ar wahân i’r trôns cwta am eu canol a’r esgidiau amryfal am eu traed. Digon yw dywedyd bod ambell un yn rhy dew ac arall yn rhy denau i fedru fforddio gadael eu dillad gartref. Ond ni churwyd drwm erioed yng nghanolbarth yr Affrig â mwy o frwdfrydedd nag y chwythai pob un o’r rhai hyn ei gasŵc.

Dyma adlewyrchu’r wedd ymerodraethol ar ddiwylliant diwydiannol de Cymru, ond a oes yma awgrym o ‘gyntefigrwydd’ y Cymry eu hunain yn ogystal? Mae sylwadau Eric Lott am ystyr ddiwylliannol y minstrels yng nghymunedau diwydiannol America yn berthnasol i Gymru:

Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear, the minstrel show continually transgressed the colour line even as it made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class […].

Ond peth dros dro yw mabwysiadu’r diwylliant du. Yn William Jones mae’n cael ei olchi i ffwrdd mewn glaw Cymreig. Mae modd ei dynnu ‘o ran hwyl’. Mae’r act o wisgo fel dynion duon yn dangos mor effemeral a dibwys yw diwylliannau darostyngedig yn nhyb meistri trefedigaethol. Nid ydynt yn bethau o ddifrif, ac anghofir ‘pob gelyniaeth mewn chwerthin’.

Yr oedd hi’n dechrau glawio, a gwelai pawb na fwriadwyd inc coch yr Indiaid na blacléd y dynion duon ar gyfer tywydd gwlyb. Er hynny, canodd y ddau gôr hyn yn dda iawn, er bod blas go anfelys yng ngheg pob gŵr fel y rhedai’r glaw i lawr ei wyneb ac i’w safn, ac uchel oedd cymeradwyaeth y dorf pan ddyfarnodd y beirniaid y dynion duon yn orau. Edrychai’r Goliwogiaid yn ddig, ac anfodlon braidd oedd camau’r Prif Oliwog tuag at y Prif Ddyn Du i’w longyfarch. Ond pan dynnodd hwnnw wig y llall a’i gwisgo o ran hwyl, anghofiwyd pob gelyniaeth mewn chwerthin.

Roedd y daith ‘Jamaicaidd’ ar gefn JCB yng ngharnifal Aberaeron yn amlwg yn y traddodiad hwn. Ond mae rhai traddodiadau sy’n haeddu cael eu dirwyn i ben, eu rhoi o’r neilltu – eu golchi i ffwrdd.

Os oedd duo’r wyneb yn drosiad o’r broses o gymysgu diwylliannau ac o amwysedd cynyddol y ffiniau rhwng pobloedd gwahanol yng nghymoedd y de yn y 30au, beth yw arwyddocâd yr arfer heddiw? Mae’r ymosodiadau ar y Gymraeg yn berthnasol yn y cyd-destun yma. Mae ffiniau ein hunaniaethau dychmygedig wedi eu siglo yn sgil Brexit. Rydym yn byw trwy gyfnod brawychus o adwaith diwylliannol lle mae ymgais nid yn unig i ail sefydlu ffiniau llythrennol y genedl-wladwriaeth Brydeinig, ond hefyd i greu ffiniau yn y meddwl rhwng y ‘Prydeiniwr’ a’r ‘Arall’. Medd Sigmund Freud yn Civilization and its Discontents:

It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people […] so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness. […] In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts.

Fel y gwyddai Freud o brofiad, yr Iddew sydd wedi cynrychioli’r ‘Arall’ yn niwylliannau Cristnogol y Gorllewin. Mae gwahaniaethau amlwg iawn yn y driniaeth, ac yn eithafiaeth y casineb, y mae gwahannol leiafrifoedd wedi eu profi yn hanesyddol. Ond yr un yw’r patrwm strwythurol. Y Gymraeg yw’r Arall i’r Prydeindod adweithiol, monologiadd, unieithog sy’n cael ei greu a’i atgyfnerthu o’n cwmpas wedi Brexit. Gallwn ddisgwyl tipyn mwy o’r math o ymosodiadau a welwyd dros yr haf. Gwedd ar yr adwaith yma fu atgyfodiad yr arfer o dduo wynebau yng ngharnifal Aberaeron. Gan i’r Gymru fodern gael ei chreu ym mhair yr ymerodraeth, does dim syndod fod hiliaeth amrwd yn bodoli yn isymwybod diwylliannol gwlad y menyg gwynion hefyd. Ein cyfrifoldeb ni yw ei wrthsefyll. Rhaid i ni fod yn ofalus nad yw diwylliant Cymru’r dyfodol yn cael ei adeiladu drwy ddifrïo ac esgymuno’r Arall.

SB & DW

Seiliwyd rhan o’r blog ar erthygl yn Golwg, 7 Medi 2017 gan Simon Brooks o dan y teitl, ‘Hiliaeth yr haf’. Darllen pellach: Daniel G. Williams, Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales 1845-1945 (Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 2012) a Daniel G Williams, gol., Canu Caeth: Y Cymry a’r Affro-Americaniaid (Gomer, 2010).

On the Need for Progressive Alliances

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Simon Brooks’s blog ‘On the Progressive Alliance’ is a powerful response to two phenomena witnessed in Wales during the course of the General Election. The first is the challenge that Corbynism now poses to a Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, that has for many years defined itself as a more radical alternative to managerial, Blairite, Labourism. The second is the warm embrace, and even the promotion, of Corbynism as part of an alleged  ‘progressive alliance’ on the facebook sites and twitter feeds of Plaid Cymru supporters and activists. Simon argues that in

persuading voters that “progressive politics” – most easily attained through a state-wide party like Corbyn’s Labour – is more important than nationalism, Plaid Cymru undermined the logic of its own electoral existence. […] This is why continuing to promote Corbynism and the Progressive Alliance represents a threat to the very existence of the Welsh national movement itself.

The debate regarding the ‘progressive alliance’  is not limited to Wales. I will come to our current predicament, and my points of disagreement with Simon’s analysis later, but will take something of a historical detour and will begin with a comparative example.

The following words belong to the African American critic and philosopher Cornel West. He is describing, in positive terms, a cultural phenomena that can also be perceived in nineteenth century Wales.

Black Nationalism was never fully embraced in an organizational sense. Black people usually still maintain some possibility for a multiracial coalition, for trying to extend the scope of democracy in America. I think the role of the Black Church has been crucial in this, because what it has done historically is steal the thunder from the Black nationalists. It highlights Black cultural distinctiveness and, despite calling for group cohesiveness, its message is universalistic. It has always been open to others willing to work with us. By saying that self-love and self-affirmation are key, it took center ground over Black Nationalism.

Cornel West sees the African American embrace of the universal as a positive. In a context where territorial nationhood was not an option, the dominant desire was to expand the parameters of American democracy and to claim full citizenship. As a minority within Britain the historical experience of the Welsh is similar to that of ethnic groups in the United States.  The Welsh, however, also had the option of territorial sovereignty, but unlike the Finns, the Slovenes and the nations of the Baltic states, it was an option that was never taken.

In his newly published Why Wales Never Was (an English language version of his seminal Pam Na Fu Cymru), Simon Brooks aims to explain why this was the case. He recounts a story that is essentially similar to that offered by Cornel West. The ‘universalism’ of Christianity in the realm of the spirit, and of Liberalism in the realm of politics, resulted in a resistance to the full embrace of a nationalist project. Unlike West in the African American context however, Brooks sees the rejection of nationalism in the name of universalism as a historical disaster for Wales. Welsh radicals took the view that group rights for members of national and ethnic minorities defined their members in terms of an enclosed identity, hindering their entry into wider society. Informed by Nonconformist Christianity, the 19th century Welsh rejected nationalism and wrapped themselves in the ideology of Liberal universalism. In order for the individual to access all areas, participate in the common good and benefit from it, one had to be inclusive and embrace the English-speaking civic spaces of the British state. Opposition to minority nationalism was made in the name of helping the minority out of its peripherality, rather than oppressing it. Simon Brooks sees the same mistake being made today in the name of the ‘progressive alliance’ and concludes by noting that in order to survive

Plaid Cymru will have to retreat from the Progressive Alliance and return to the national question.

 

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The argument has considerable merit, but it might be sobering to note that the critique of ‘progressive alliances’ within the nationalist movement is an exact mirror image of the resistance towards collaborations with environmentalists, feminists and minorities expressed by elements within the ‘internationalist’ Left. Eric Hobsbawm’s well documented contempt for minority nationalism, for example, was part of a wider rejection of ‘identity movements’. As he put it:

The political project of the Left is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity for the old Etonians or gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only.

In equating ‘shareholders’ with ‘blacks’ and members of ‘the Garrick Club’ with ‘the handicapped’ Hobsbawm is demonstrating the crude terms of a world view that he shares with American figures such as Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky – a group that the historian Jesse Lemisch described as the ‘Angry Straight White Men on the Left’. There is no doubt that Hobsbawm et al were right in deploring the waning of class-based politics on the Left, and in foregrounding the danger to democracy from the growing disparity of income between the richest and the poorest. But they were wrong in thinking about identity politics as a ‘distraction’, as a turning away from ‘enlightenment universalism’. As the queer activist and scholar Martin Duberman has noted, the

highflown, hectoring rhetoric about the need to transcend specific allegiances and unite behind Enlightenment ‘rationalism’ to become ‘universal human beings with universal rights’ rings hollow and hypocritical. It is difficult to march into the sunset as a ‘civic community’ with a ‘common culture’ when the legitimacy of our differentness as minorities has not yet been more than superficially acknowledged – let alone safeguarded. You cannot link arms under a universalist banner when you can’t find your own name on it. A minority identity may be contingent or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless. And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure.

It would do well for Jeremy Corbyn and his followers to keep Duberman’s corrective words in mind, for their unwillingness to countenance any broader alliances and to claim to speak ‘for the many, not the few’ is in keeping with the intolerant Left’s resistance to identity and ‘special interest’ politics. The mistake made overtly by Hobsbawm in the 1980s, and less consciously by the Corbynistas today, is one that I explored in a previous blog; the failure to differentiate between class position and cultural identity. When ‘the few’ are shareholders and the ultra-rich then one can see the power of the slogan, but when ‘speaking for the many’ involves the imposition of majoritarian norms on ethnic, religious, gender or sexual minorities it may have less emancipatory (even if unintentional) implications.

Indeed the Jewish ‘few’ within the current Labour party have expressed some disquiet at the tenor of recent debates. First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, seems to have already abandoned his own re-iterated belief in Single Market access in the face of British Labour’s support for a destructive hard Brexit. The interests of the Welsh ‘few’ are being jettisoned in the face of the British ‘many’ within the Labour party in this instance. The historical antipathy towards the Welsh-speaking ‘few’ within influential sectors of Labour in Wales has not wholly disappearedKehinde Andrews notes that John McDonnell’s unwillingness to commit to the single market is ‘a silent anti-immigration nod’, and Labour’s pandering to xenophobic fears – from Gordon Brown’s pledge of ‘British jobs for British workers’ to Ed Miliband carving ‘controls on immigration’ onto his embarrassing ‘stone’  – should be understood as part of a wider pattern, as indeed should Corbyn’s resistance to alliances with other progressive movements, his luke-warm campaign during the European Referendum and attacks on the SNP. It is a characteristic of the centralist British Labour party that it should view itself as the only true voice of the Left, resisting a pluralist progressivism and trumpeting the triumphalist Unionist universalism of the Brit-Left (while being seemingly blind to the fact that Brit-Left universalism is a contradiction in terms).

ProgAlli

3.

So we have elements within Welsh nationalism suspicious of a wider progressive alliance, and influential voices within the Labour Left unwilling to accept the legitimacy of identity and issue-based politics. Simon Brooks is right to note that an alliance with Corbynist Unionism should be avoided, and to argue that a clearer demarcation needs to be made between the campaigns of Plaid Cymru and those of British progressives. But progressive alliances need not be framed in British terms, and the desire to make common cause with other parties and movements on the Left did not begin with Leanne Wood, or with Dafydd Elis-Thomas for that matter, as some have suggested. While Saunders Lewis lamented the incursion of a ‘nest of Aldermaston Anglo-Welsh socialists’ into the ranks of Plaid Cymru following the breakthrough election of 1959, a decade later Gwynfor Evans would welcome Raymond Williams’s locating of Plaid Cymru alongside the green, pacifist and civil rights movements that constituted the ‘New Left’:

Derbyniais hyn fel disgrifiad teg o’n lle yn y spectrwm gwleidyddol  [I accepted this as a fair description of our place on the political spectrum.]

Drawing on the African American experience, Cornel West argues that any minority struggle has had to appeal to a ‘higher moral or spiritual ground’ in order to gain traction and support in the wider community. The struggle for Wales is no exception. Welshness was largely cultural in the nineteenth century, and was manifested, as Michael Hechter has noted, in the distinctiveness of the international campaigns that the Welsh supported in contradistinction to England: support for the Union against the slave-holding Confederacy in the American Civil War of the 1860s; support for the Bulgarians against the Turks in the 1870s; support for the Boers in the 1880s and 1890s. Simon Brooks argues that this repeated gesture towards wider alliances was, and is, the problem. ‘Taffy’, in the words of poet Alun Rees, supported ‘every bloody cause / Except his bloody own’.

Yet, might we not make the counter-argument that the broader internationalist struggles embraced by the Welsh were not peripheral to national identity, but were actually constitutive of it? When Leanne Wood stands with Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon as part of a minority nationalist, green and feminist alliance is she not adopting and adapting a strategy that has characterised Welsh nationalism since its inception? Hechter’s work suggests that it was within the crucible of the internationalist, ‘universalist’, struggles of the nineteenth century that a distinctive Welsh political sphere was forged. The language of rights, justice, exploitation and political legitimacy characteristic of ‘universal’ Liberalism, created the context for the emergence of Welsh nationalism. Minority nationalism – read as being the child of liberal Enlightenment rather than being a reaction against it – emerges as a result of the application to collectivities, as well as individuals, of the moral principle that human beings should be self-determining. This is what happened in Wales.

So, when Simon calls for a ‘return to the national question’, it is not wholly clear what he means. As prior blogs to this site suggest, that question has never gone away. But if he is arguing for a more overt campaign for independence, or the stronger advocacy of linguistic nationalism, then he is in danger of basing the movement on issues that currently have a limited, or regionally specific, traction on the ground. Furthermore, there simply aren’t enough Welsh speakers to form the foundation for the kind of mass nationalist movement that we have witnessed in recent years in Scotland. It was Raymond Williams who advocated the making of a ‘variable socialism’ based on the ‘cultural struggle for actual social identities and the political redefinition of actual self-governing societies’ as a corrective to the assimilationist, state-centred socialism of the Labour Party. There’s the potential for ‘clear green water’ in that statement. If the national movement is to advance it will do so in tandem with other emergent social movements – the struggle for social justice and equality, the environment, feminism. Progressive alliances have been the very lifeblood of our movement and to retract into a defensive position at this historical juncture would be a grave mistake. Against the assimilationist, centralist socialism of the Corbynist British Left we in Plaid Cymru must emphasise a variable socialism that, in cultural terms, respects the many and the few.

DW

Image from the SNP website: https://www.snp.org/cross_party_statement_on_resisting_the_tories_toxic_politics

On the Progressive Alliance

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That photo of Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett hugging on the podium during a leaders debate in the 2015 election campaign remains one of the defining images of modern British politics.

The image says much about what a progressive alliance might offer. Firstly, three women on a stage, which is symbolic too of other possible forms of diversity within politics, and Welsh and Scottish nationalism are presented as open and welcoming of difference. Secondly, two non-English leaders offering to the smaller nations of the Union a place within UK political discourse, and perhaps even the mirage of political power. Thirdly, the Celts hugging a political leader from England, recognising the place of England, an important message that Welsh nationalism is not about separation, but that those who live in England are our closest neighbours and friends.

Although the leader of a Wangland entity, the ‘England and Wales’ Green Party, Caroline Lucas, Bennett’s successor as Green Party Leader, is in many ways the voice of a bucolic, Blakeian English nationalism. This Progressive Alliance is thus ‘of the nations’, and can be presented as a panacea for the evils of right-wing nationalisms. It negates ethnocentricism; both the ‘ethnicist’ centricisms of minority nationalities and the ‘colonising’ centricism of big nations.

Clearly, there is much here that is appealing. The alliance between Plaid Cymru and the Greens in 1992 which led to Cynog Dafis’s famous victory in Ceredigion that year also appealed. But the Progressive Alliance of today cannot be understood without Corbyn (in the famous picture from 2015, the Labour leader, Ed Milliband, is excluded and looks wistfully in). And a Progressive Alliance honed on Corbyn is primarily a Trojan Horse for the Labour Party and the ‘Yookay’, based as it is on simplistic and rather universalist assumptions about the British common good.

In cold Parliamentary terms, the non-Labour Progressive Alliance is ineffective too: the reach of the Green Party does not extend beyond the boundaries of Caroline Lucas’s seat of Brighton Pavilion, which with its artisan cheese cafes, Regency architecture and pebble beach is the most Bohemian constituency in the entire United Kingdom. To enter into an alliance with Brighton is to imagine that Aberystwyth represents the whole of Wales. A progressive alliance with the Green Party is an alliance with utopianism, for like much of Utopia it cannot easily be found.

Thus contemporary Welsh nationalism blends into the politics of British socialism, enabled by the self-deception that Corbyn stands apart from Welsh Labour.

Following the election of Leanne Wood as its leader in 2012, Plaid Cymru positioned itself as the Leftist resistance to the managerialism of Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones. This was an implicit criticism too of Plaid’s previous leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who had seen managerialism and gradualism as the most effective way in a purportedly post-political age of achieving power. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 threatened to undermine this strategy. Corbyn was the mirror image of Wood, and this made it difficult for Plaid to maintain ‘clear green water’ between itself and Labour. Green water would have overflown had Plaid Cymru in the tradition of post-conflict Sinn Féin, or the post-conflict Abertzale parties of the Basque Country, rejected the state socialist party as the inevitable carrier of state hegemony. This could have meant rejecting Corbynism by emphasising independence, a course of action desired by much of Plaid’s rank-and-file, as became apparent following the Brexit vote.

Rather ironically, however, the logic of ‘progressive politics’ coerced Plaid Cymru into a conservative rather than radical response to Corbyn. With a Lloyd Georgian emphasis on sanding down the bumpy surfaces of national differences to attain social justice, progressive politics assumes the radicalism of identity politics (independence, language, culture) to be a form of essentialism. In this sense, Plaid Cymru’s warmness towards the Progressive Alliance is strikingly similar to that of Cymru Fydd towards the Gladstonian Liberal Party and will have the same effect.

The deceptive genius of ‘progressive politics’ is this – despite solidifying injustice between various national groups, it wears the pretence of radicalism. By utilising the sort of rhetoric now identified with Corbynism, Plaid Cymru can appear radical within the wider context of British politics. But the link between progressive politics and universalism arrests any move towards cultural particularism as reactionary. Any genuine national struggle is cast as backwards, or at the very least, unimportant. The Progressive Alliance requires Welsh nationalism to be conservative in terms of its own teleology.

Observant of the war between Welsh Labour and English Corbynism, ‘progressive politics’ persuaded Plaid Cymru to cut a furrow for Corbyn in the west, in keeping with the idea that progressive ideas always transcend national and party-political borders. As a result, Plaid Cymru politicians and activists sang openly and with great regularity the praises of the Leader of the British Labour Party as if he were the embodiment of goodness itself.

But the argument that the best way to support the Leader of the British Labour Party is to vote Plaid Cymru is not an easy one for the Welsh electorate to understand. There is some evidence that it helped the Plaid vote in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, the only Plaid seat in which the Tories came second in 2015. Here indeed, a tactical vote for Plaid might help keep the Tories out. But in the rest of the country – in particular in Llanelli, Rhondda, Blaenau Gwent and Neath; all Labour seats which a resurgent national movement might be able to take – Plaid’s Corbynism proved disastrous. In Plaid-Labour marginals like Arfon and Ynys Môn, it was to prove suicidal. Electors drew the conclusion that the best way to get Labour was to vote Labour, a logic which appears on the face of it to be rather logical.

Furthermore, the politics of the Progressive Alliance saw social politics as emancipating individuals rather than championing disadvantaged groups. It was the Welfare State and not national community which became central. The national question was downplayed as a minor, denominational difference between Plaid Cymru and Corbyn. A flood of Plaid voters turned to Labour in those Labour seats which were under possible Tory challenge, which in the feverish atmosphere of voter volatility meant nearly all of them. In much of the Valleys, in Cardiff and in the north-east, Plaid’s core vote deserted it: it went on manoeuvres to help ‘keep the Tories out’. Persuaded by months of pro-Corbyn propaganda on the Facebook accounts of nationalist activists, large sections of the Plaid vote were convinced that this is what the Plaid Cymru leadership wanted.

When political parties have a bad election, they often presume that things cannot get any worse, but as the recent history of the Welsh Liberal Democrats shows, this does not have to be the case. Political parties disappear when they cease to have a purpose. In persuading voters that ‘progressive politics’ – most easily attained through a state-wide party like Corbyn’s Labour – is more important than nationalism, Plaid Cymru undermined the logic of its own electoral existence. This is why continuing to promote Corbynism and the Progressive Alliance represents a threat to the very existence of the Welsh national movement itself.

Unreciprocated political overtures, like unreciprocated love, can be the cause of great misery and unhappiness. With its Siren calls of universal brotherly and sisterly love, the Progressive Alliance is in reality a mechanism by which Welsh nationalism can be disarmed and dissolved within the politics of a pan-British Left. As the legitimate voice of British universalism, the Labour Party advances, for it is well placed as a large party to take on the Tories. In Wales, the Welsh Labour Party has managed to express resistance to metropolitan Corbynism and also take advantage of it, a rather nice, but for Plaid Cymru somewhat ironic, post-colonial twist.

Complexity can be beguiling for those seeking insights. But some things are quite simple. In order to survive, Plaid Cymru will have to retreat from the Progressive Alliance and return to the national question.

SB

On The Far Right on the Home Front

neil-hamilton-single-use-onlyNeil Hamilton addresses the Springbok Club, in front of apartheid-era South African flag

 

In light of events in the US and the recent protests in the UK, we should be thankful that the rise of the far-right is not so advanced in Wales. Nevertheless, the fact that the Welsh Assembly has a significant UKIP presence makes it an exception in the UK – and suggests there’s every reason to be marching against UKIP as much as against Trump.  After last Tuesday’s events at the Senedd (17 January 2017), when Welsh-language pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith were informed that an invitation to give evidence to an Assembly committee was being withdrawn, it is becoming increasingly clear that this unchartered territory is proving to be difficult terrain across the political landscape.

Dictating terms?

Cymdeithas yr Iaith, on the basis of prolonged internal discussion, decided as a matter of principle that in the event of providing evidence at Assembly committees they could not endorse UKIP with direct answers.  Their reasoning is clear and rational: “UKIP has promoted and tolerated prejudiced attitudes against a number of groups in our society – gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people, ethnic minorities, migrants, people with HIV – and the Welsh language. We cannot treat them like any other party.”

With the intention of taking this stand at the Culture Committee (where they were to be questioned by UKIP leader Neil Hamilton) they contacted the chair, Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins, to inform her as a matter of courtesy, but emphasised ‘we don’t want you to change anything regarding the arrangements of the meeting’.

Had Cymdeithas asked that Hamilton not be allowed to put questions to them they would have been in difficulty, as this would not only be providing directives to the Committee as to how to conduct their business. There would also be the more problematic implication of querying his right to ask questions, and therefore his legitimacy as an elected representative.

They asked no such thing, but instead indicated that they would choose to respond to any question in accordance with their collective conscience. Rather than answering the question directly they would outline briefly their stance with regard to UKIP.

The responses from both an Assembly spokesperson and the Chair clearly indicate that they took the view that Cymdeithas had in fact made a direct request to silence Hamilton. “It is not for witnesses to dictate to an assembly committee who is allowed to ask questions,” stated the spokesperson.

Bethan Jenkins stated that she consulted with Committee Members and “the unanimous view of those who responded was that it was for the committee to decide who should ask questions and not witnesses.”  These responses reveal how the nature of Cymdeithas’ request has been interpreted, intimating that they had demanded that Hamilton not be allowed to put forward any questions.

This assumption is obviously mistaken.  Hamilton’s status, as an AM and member of the Committee, was not questioned; Cymdeithas merely indicated their intention to exercise their presumed right to answer as they saw fit (and without, it should be added, resorting to unreasonable or hateful rhetoric).

Islands of Intolerance

The response throws into doubt the democratic credentials of the Assembly, seemingly debarring a witness on a false assumption. Moreover, it would seem to delineate Assembly committees as fora where our accepted practices and moral norms regarding free speech are put to one side (at the one end of the scale, the accused in court may remain silent, whilst at the other end of the scale, no one would dispute an individual’s right not to answer a question in any given social situation, if they are uncomfortable with the question, or the questioner).

The situation, inevitably, is more complex – in a way that the reply to Cymdeithas fails to recognise, or any subsequent responses have revealed.  Clearly the incident necessitates work and reflection, in particular on behalf of Elin Jones as Presiding Officer and her legal advisors, in order to review the Assembly Standing Orders that dictate the rules for Committees.

A great deal turns on the interpretation of the nature of Assembly Committees and how their status has (or hasn’t) been characterised in their regulations. On the face of it, the claim to free speech seems appropriate to symposia that are created in order to discuss and debate issues with a view to collating information to inform policy.

Nevertheless, an understanding of Committees as evidence-collecting bodies aiming at disclosing the truth of a given matter provides a more legalistic interpretation, where legal convention might be seen to dictate that the witness is duty bound to respond directly to the questions put to them.  In such a forum, in accepting the invitation they would legitimately be expected to provide evidence for the question in some form – although they would still maintain their right to outline their position on UKIP.

This latter interpretation might seem to inform the assumptions in the response of the Assembly and the Committee, but the relevant sections of the standing orders (17.21; 17.42, 32) do not refer to a situation where a witness refuses to answer.  In fact it seems implicit that the Chairperson has a great deal of autonomy in interpreting the regulations and creating rules for their Committee, which would suggest Bethan Jenkins has effectively decided to set a coercive and potentially worrying precedent.

These issues both reveal the work to be done and indicate that the decision made to exclude Cymdeithas yr Iaith was not grounded clearly in Standing Orders. Even if this had been the case there are questions surrounding the treatment of Cymdeithas, and whether they should have been prevented from appearing at the Committee.

In particular, why were they not provided with an opportunity to review their position in face of the assumptions of the Committee, and why was it not explained to them that they (presumably) had the option of voicing their objections to UKIP if they also provided evidence in face of the question?  The move to ban them without any further discussion or legal advice (apparently) may be regarded as a rather authoritarian response, and should the Presiding Officers and Assembly lawyers decide they are duty bound to answer UKIP questions directly, at the very least Cymdeithas should have their invite reinstated and given a proper chance to review their options.

However, it is not clear to me that the case would rest there, and here we may be in unchartered territory in the UK (and possibly beyond). More powerful than a claim to freedom of expression and opinion in this context, and perhaps the interpretation which reflects the position of Cymdeithas most accurately, is that this is a question of freedom of conscience. In their view, given their sincerely-held beliefs, responding directly to UKIP is an unconscionable act.

It would be interesting to know whether there is any precedence for this, because in political committees as a rule this question would never arise, given the assumption that those elected politicians asking the questions represent views within the normal, acceptable parameters of British democratic politics.  Will the Assembly find in favour of the option, therefore, of such acts of conscientious objection to UKIP?

If they do not, they will in some sense be creating ‘islands of intolerance’ in our Senedd, forcing witnesses to act against their conscience and therefore their own free will, or to forgo the opportunity to provide oral evidence if they give prior notice. The ramifications of this would be significant in terms of Welsh civil society, and groups and individuals who might be invited to give evidence at Assembly Committees.

The Committee Chair claimed in a statement defending the decision that Cymdeithas complaining about having an invitation rescinded undermined the validity of written evidence; but of course, were it not the case that face-to-face debate and discussion provide added value, the committees would not invite parties to give evidence at all, and would only request written submissions.  It would clearly create a two-tier system where those who choose to disavow UKIP’s politics would not be given the same opportunity.

There are no doubt groups and individuals who have deep reservations about UKIP in the same way as Cymdeithas, who might like to take a similar line. They would all presumably be debarred from debating and discussing in any Assembly committee.  Should they choose to tow the line, in effect Assembly rules would be reducing the capability of Civil Society in Wales to respond to the challenge of the far-right.

The Politics of Intolerance

The response of the Chair has been instructive, and raises questions about the handling of the issue and the wider ramifications.  She took to social media to state she ‘could not accept a situation where one group refuses to answer a question from an elected member of the committee’, and retorted to one query with: ‘so Cymdeithas should be allowed to determine which questions to answer and how’.

Both responses seem to offer a rebuttal of the norms of free speech and conscience, and it might be felt by some that they left something to be desired in terms of due respect to members of the electorate. She also questioned why Cymdeithas wished ‘to make an enemy of her’ and referred repeatedly to her record in fighting UKIP, which brings us to the nub of the political issue.

There is a huge question mark regarding not only her behaviour (it is important not to single her out on this because this relates to all AMs who are not in UKIP) but the general tendency in the Assembly towards complicity with UKIP – represented most starkly by the raft of publicity shots of members of all parties happily smiling away with UKIP AMs, sending out the message that despite their politics they should be treated ‘like any other party’.

Most specifically, Jenkins and her colleagues surely realize that such behaviour legitimizes UKIP in a way that means that they will only have to work harder and knock on more doors in future, as their political enemies find their place as an acceptable part of our political landscape.

How can you argue the case effectively that UKIP’s politicians are, for example, charlatans, lazy, and beyond the pale, whilst treating them as ordinary politicians from day to day?  In the end, both Plaid and Labour will count the electoral cost, as they have done already (if you want a plausible version of a nightmare Trump scenario, imagine the UK in 2020, debilitated by ongoing Brexit wranglings and economic decline, where an emboldened UKIP storms former Labour strongholds, including the South Wales valleys, leading to a scenario where they could more than double their Assembly vote in 2021 and form a coalition with the Tories).

This is not to say the answers are easy, and indeed these political parties need to work out subtle and efficient ways of undermining UKIP. A step in the right direction would be a sustained attack on their record in the Assembly, far more publicity for their ridiculous and poisonous attitudes, and a more co-ordinated attempt to discredit them. It is our politicians who see them in (or frequently) out of action, and so they have a duty more than most to inform the public of UKIP’s actions.

There needs to be an openness to some of the radical ideas currently being discussed in Wales and elsewhere with regard to how we address the underlying societal and economic issues that have fed the rise of the far right. A more positive message of hope is also needed with respect to our communities, where we look to celebrate our diversity as a society.

Smiling alongside UKIP in photos is certainly no help; working to silence the dissenting voices in civil society is not only morally problematic, it will aid no one’s cause except the far-right. Whatever the outcome with respect to the actions of Cymdeithas, they have shown us that we need not accept without question the politics of the far-right, and there are numerous ways we can oppose them here on the home front.

This is part of a global struggle.  Politicians and civil society in Wales have an opportunity to be at the forefront and to set an example. Are we up to it?

Huw Williams

Originally from Dole, near Aberystwyth, Dr. Huw L Williams is a philosopher at Cardiff University.  His most recent books include a volume on Welsh intellectual history, Credoau’r Cymry (University of Wales Press, 2016), and a co-authored work with Carl Death, Global Justice: The Basics (Routledge, 2017). A shorter version of this essay has been published in Welsh on Y Twll, https://ytwll.com/
‘On the Far Right on the Home Front’ appears here as a guest blog.

 

On the @ShaziaAwan Question

In a New Statesman article of 9 December Shazia Awan asks: ‘I’m a Welsh Asian – so why doesn’t the Welsh Assembly have a box for me to tick’ on their equalities form? The sub-heading states that a ‘bureaucrat’s form clumsily equates being Welsh with being White’. But as Shazia Awan indicates in her article, this is more than ‘clumsiness’. The equation of ‘Welshness’ with ‘whiteness’ foregrounds the tendency to view ‘the Welsh’ as a racial group and underlines the fragility of a nascent multicultural Welsh citizenship within Brexit Britain.

Awan notes that:

There are options on the form for ‘Asian or Asian British Indian’ and ‘Black or Black British Carribean’, to give but two examples. And also for ‘White British’, ‘White Irish’ and ‘White Welsh’. But not for ‘Asian Welsh’, or ‘Black Welsh’. Did it not occur to anyone there was something wrong?

She traces the oversight to the ‘Brexit advisory group’ that First Minister Carwyn Jones ‘clumsily’ assembled over the summer: ‘This group was made up of predominantly white, middle aged men, and not a single person from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background’. Jones’s criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s immigration policy this week suggests that Awan is right to detect an intolerant underside to the Welsh Labour Government’s response to Brexit. But her initial question takes us to the heart of cultural debates about Welshness in this age of UKIP and Trump.

Two common metaphors are deployed in the contemporary debates on multiculturalism. The first is the ‘melting pot’. The term, traced to the writings of the Zionist from England, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), quickly gained traction in the United States. The melting pot is a symbol of the assimilationist ideal in which peoples come together, throwing away their particularities and blending into one culture. Against this assimilationist metaphor, some have suggested the ‘salad bowl’. This is preferred by contemporary multiculturalists for it is not based on assimilation, but rather on the co-existence of different cultures. The ingredients within the salad can cohabit within the same space, but can also retain their distinctiveness. This is the multi-cultural ideal.

 

Both symbols speak to significant strains within liberal and progressive cultural thought. Both are under threat from the exclusionary racism on the rise today. But there is a more fundamental question: what constitutes the ‘pot’ or the ‘bowl’ itself?

In British forms of multiculturalism, Britain is the answer. Liberal forms of Britishness emphasize the hybridity and multi-cultural nature of the cosmopolitan centre. But this multi-cultural centre relies on defining the peripheries in static, mono-cultural and even racial terms. As Stephen Kinnock has been good enough to remind us recently, Britishness is quite comfortable with assimilating ethnic others, and tends to see any challenge to it in racial and backward terms. We might trace this structure of thought back to Matthew Arnold writing about the Celts in the 1860s, or to the amalgamation of the Celts into the English ‘band of brothers’ in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In each case a seemingly plural, liberal, hybrid Britishness relies on racialised subgroups to function as the ingredients in its melting pot.

If we adopt Werner Sollors’ influential distinction between notions of identity based on ‘consent and descent’, we see that Britain, in its liberal guises, is conceived in consensual terms, while the Celtic peoples and other minorities are envisaged in terms of descent. In a revisionist account of nineteenth-century British culture, the historian Peter Mandler suggests that a ‘civilisational’ rather than ‘racial’ perspective characterised the thought of the Victorian era. The problem is that he concentrates wholly on how the English conceived of England and Englishness. Matthew Arnold’s writings indicate that a ‘civilisationist’ view of England can happily co-exist with, indeed may actually be predicated upon, a racial view of the Celts. This is certainly preferable to the belief that the ‘British people’ should think of themselves in the racial terms advocated by the intolerant Right. But ‘the Welsh’ are ultimately conceived to be an ethnic sub-group whether we adopt Kinnockian assimilationist liberalism or Faragist cultural fascism.

While the intolerance of UKIPian Britain is clear enough, it is quite difficult to explain – whether to open-minded liberal Englishmen or some Welsh Labourist historians – what is wrong with the assimilationist vision of Britishness. It might be useful to transpose the debate to a different context. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the problem that Slavoj Žižek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales. Žižek states that he is ‘often accused of being a Slovene ant-Serb nationalist’, and notes that

when I converse with members of the so-called Serb democratic opposition, they say they are in favour of a cosmopolitan democratic Serbia whose defining quality is citizenship and not national belonging. OK, I accept this. But this is where the problems begin, because if you speak with them a little bit longer, you discover a certain political vision that tries to disguise cultural particularity as democratic universalism. For example, if you ask them about Slovene autonomy, they will argue that Slovenia is a small self-enclosed nation and that they, by contrast, are in favour of an anti-nationalist democratic society which is not self-enclosed.

Žižek claims that the Serbs practice a ‘kind of two-level nationalism’ in which Serbia is the only nation in the old Yugoslavia that can sustain an open principle of multicultural and democratic citizenship. This results in a ‘double logic’, for while Serbs are seen to be fundamentally democratic, modern and evolving, the Slovenes are viewed as an inherently closed, traditional, ‘primitive Alpine tribe’. This, he argues, is often the basis for contemporary racism. ‘We should be careful when people emphasize their democratic credentials’, warns Žižek, for the key question is whether ‘these same people allow the Other to have the same credentials?’

The problem that Slavoj Žižek identifies in the relation between Serbs and Slovenes is mirrored, if in a less charged manner, in the relationship between England and Wales. British nationalists employ the same ‘double logic’, espousing the progressive potential of their own national identity, while denying it to the minority nations who may wish to decide the forms of governance suitable to their own, always evolving, interests and identities.

On the Left, ‘Britain’ has been separated from its connections with empire and racial superiority, and is espoused as the multicultural face of Englishness. The debate regarding ‘cultural nationalism’ in Britain today is a debate about the frames, or crucibles, within which a multicultural society is allowed and able to develop. The true British democrat, following Žižek’s astute analysis, is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space that we call Great Britain. To develop the political autonomy of Wales and Scotland is not to reject British multiculturalism, but is to deepen multicultural citizenship. It is surely time to move beyond the ‘double logic’ by which ‘my nation is progressive and cosmopolitan’ while ‘your nation is separatist and divisive’. For it is only when we fully embrace the idea of independent Welsh citizenship that we will see ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘Black Welsh’ as established tick boxes on our census forms.

DW

[Ceir fersiwn Cymraeg o hyn ar y blogiad blaenorol yma]

Dyma fi’n cyflwyno’r un ddadl mewn cyfweliad byr gyda Alun Rhys Chivers, Golwg, yn Rali Yes Cymru, Abertawe at Dachwedd 19, 2016.