On how civic nationalism promoted Brexit


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It has become commonplace to explain the rise of the Far Right in terms of a ‘return to nationalism’. The implicit suggestion is that we would do better to abandon the nation as the frame of our political struggles. But as has been noted elsewhere on this blog, what we face is a clash of competing nationalisms, occupying different places on the political spectrum and generating very different kinds of political practice. We will have to fight nationalism with nationalism. This is not to say that Welsh nationalism should become Ukip-lite. It is to say that attachments to culture, language and nation resonate with people, and they cannot be wished away.

Prior to devolution, the Welsh national movement promised to make the Welsh masters in their own house. The wholeness of Wales would be restored. This fight might have been fought through a collection of utilitarian metaphors, concentrating on the economic rather than cultural aspects of internal colonialism, but in essence Welsh nationalism was an appeal to the being of the nation. It was Wales as Wales which drove Welsh nationalism forward.

Ontology stood at the heart of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru when it was founded in 1925, and it is the appeal to ontology – via the Heideggerian link of national remaking to which Saunders Lewis also subscribed – which has led to the erroneous but not wholly malicious accusation that Welsh nationalism contains within it the potential for xenophobia.

But Plaid Cymru was not fascist, and understanding this is crucial in order to fight the various forms of chauvinism which are so virulent in Wales today. Indeed, Plaid Cymru’s non-fascist patriotism contains the key to how to undo Brexit Wales. For the crucial thing is how Welsh nationalism defines the ontology of a nation.

Devoid of a State, Welsh nationalism could make no appeal to citizenship. Language did not offer a source of unification either. ‘Race’ often steps in at such times, but this did not occur in Wales. While race and language are distinctive categories, it was the awareness of linguistic difference that made it difficult for Welsh nationalists to make use of ‘race’. In this sense, the language divide saved Wales from more obvious forms of racism.

It was internal difference, and the irreducible existence of two language communities, which made racial definitions unpalatable. For linguistic nationalists to accept Welsh ethnic descent as the basis of Welsh nationhood would have made language irrelevant. For cultural nationalists, an emphasis on race unifying the nation outside culture would have been a disaster. Thus Welsh nationalism became absolutely dependent on ethnic heterogeneity, because the very basis of nation-building is that culture must be open to those (originally) not of the nation.

Culture, particularly language, could be learnt. But it was also the case that ‘culture’ became a metaphor for a ‘commitment’ to Wales in general. In Gwyn Alf William’s 1987 iconoclastic pamphlet, ‘Towards the Commonwealth of Wales’, published by Plaid Cymru, the thinking capacity of the Welsh has been mushed into a rather unpalatable type of ‘brain jelly’. The antidote: to renew as a nation. For Gwyn Alf, this was not possible without including those incomers who committed to Wales, but equally so it excluded those who did not:

Anyone who comes to live within this affirmed territory of Wales and commits herself or himself to Wales is a member of the Community of the Welsh People. If they commit themselves, they are welcome. If not, not. People who will not commit themselves would be unwelcome in every country on earth. They would be no more welcome in Wales than are the Afrikaners after 300 years among the peoples of South Africa.

The agency of culture for Gwyn Alf is not language but ‘commitment’ and ‘skills’, and ‘to adapt St Paul … the greatest of these is commitment.’

Welsh nationalism was at its most radical in the late 1960s, when race politics in England was at its most virulent, as in Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech. But the appeal of the National Front and Powellite Conservatism in Wales was limited. The labour movement in south Wales, as well too as civic society, played a role in keeping the fascists out. But there is a labour movement in Wolverhampton too. How then did the open racism which infected the white working-class of the English Midlands not have a similar appeal in Wales, which, as we know from the heavy Brexit and Ukip votes of post-devolution Wales, can have a propensity for xenophobia.

Plaid Cymru’s culturalism and British racism signified national belonging in different ways, and these definitions were not compatible. Right-wing British nationalism was unable to make headway in Wales because cultural nationalism had filled the discursive space into which it would have had to move in order to be successful. In the 1968 Caerphilly by-election, for example, Plaid’s Phil Williams came within 2,000 votes of overturning a 21,000 Labour majority. The roots of nationalist success in the 1960s were in a community-based cultural renaissance. This is why the predecessors of Ukip could never take root in working-class Welsh communities.

Fascism was not defeated in 1960s Wales by a values-lite, Welshness-lite, language-lite civic nationalism. It was defeated by the revival of a new Welsh consciousness in the deindustrialising heartlands of both Welsh and English-speaking Wales. Enoch Powell was challenged by a radical, extra-parliamentary social movement with a nationalist narrative, which meant by the ‘Welsh nation’ not everyone in Wales, but those in Wales (regardless of birthplace or ethnicity) with ‘commitment’; who possessed an existential desire to be part of the nation.

Following devolution, influenced by New Labour talk about ‘inclusivity’, Plaid Cymru threw these values overboard, and the national movement turned its back on cultural nationalism. Heavily influenced by a superficial reading of nationalism as a phenomenon divided between the ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’, Plaid convinced itself that appeals to Welsh ontology via culture were ‘ethnic’. They were therefore bad. Culture was replaced by civic nationalism, the fetish and fantasy of a late capitalist, laissez-faire, neo-liberal imperative that nothing but institutions mattered anymore. And the institutions were Welsh. But if everything was Welsh anyway, this reduced the national project to managerialism in the first instance, and the gradual replacement of National Left politics by a more mid-Atlantic variety in the second.

Civic nationalism contained within itself a number of key, and as it proved disastrous, contradictions. In dismissing the idea that there could be a link between Welsh culture and Welsh citizenship, civic nationalism had the effect (although not the intent) of encouraging the population to imagine Welshness in racial terms.

Twenty-first century civic nationalism tried to circumnavigate the problem of ethnicity and nation by claiming that everyone on the territory of Wales was Welsh, but subliminal ideas about national ‘belonging’ had not been abolished. They had merely been vacated, left as an empty vessel for others to fill. When Welsh nationalists refused to define Welsh citizenship and Welsh nationality, this did not lead to a nirvana of national belonging. Instead Welsh nationalism was displaced by British nationalism, and Ukip.

With their emphasis on the supremacism of Britishness, Ukip made mincemeat of the weakness of concepts like ‘bilingualism’ and ‘Welsh civil society’. British nationalism now defined Welsh citizenship in increasingly regressive terms (enforced acquisition of the English language, commitment to the UK, rejection of Europe, internationalism-through-Empire). Culture, which had been put on the back-burner by Welsh nationalists, was now taken up by Ukip. Welsh nationality was no longer a duality played out between the Welsh and the Other (who could be welcomed). It became a battle between Britishers (the Welsh and the English together) and the European outcast.

Of course, there were ‘culture wars’ in the 2010s, but these were largely based on an American model that pitches individual identity choices against the homogenising force of the alt-right, and (more damagingly) tends to pitch ‘cosmopolitan’ metropolitan centres against allegedly homogeneous ‘white’ post-industrial peripheries. This was hardly useful in post-devolution Wales which had centralised in its own metropolitan core in Cardiff at the expense of post-industrial communities across the country. There was no useful form of identity-based politics which spoke to post-industrial communities as communities (and which might still of course have celebrated their own internal diversity; be that of race, gender or sexuality).

In order to defeat Brexit, Ukipism, neo-fascism, Wangland and British nationalism, we need to learn from recent history. The age of ‘civic nationalism’ has not led to less intolerance but more. The two decades or so between devolution and Brexit testify to its failure, but also to a specific historical period which now belongs to the archaeology of the past rather than the present.

In hollowing out the national movement and undermining popular concepts of Welshness, civic nationalism supped Welsh resistance to British nationalism. Welsh politicians vacated the cultural, which was subsequently filled by a default culture of Britishness leading to the election of Ukip to the Assembly and a Brexit majority in Wales. Where Welsh cultural nationalism remained reasonably strong (for example in Gwynedd), a large Remain vote was attained, even with an ageing population and in a non-metropolitan, ‘white’ area with some of the lowest wages in the entire UK.

To survive as a Welsh people, a narrative centred on nation, community and culture offers the best chance. The empty civic is exactly that: a shell. Like all shells, it must be filled with some living organism.