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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6.3.2 The nature of Welsh nationalism

Kellas begins by making a distinction between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ forms of nationalism. His ‘western’ form of nationalism is essentially the same as what we have referred to as ‘civic’ nationalism, an inclusive social movement with national ‘belonging’ based in citizenship. Both Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith advocate this type of nationalism. ‘Civic’ nationalism can be contrasted with ethnic nationalism [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , where ‘belonging’ is understood in terms of some form of common descent, which may be genetic or may simply mean a shared history. Cymuned is usually taken to advocate a form of ‘ethnic’ nationalism.

As with all typologies, there is often a degree of overlap between categories. For example, shared culture is important for both civic and ethnic nationalism but is treated differently by them. For Cymuned, the Welsh language is the defining characteristic of the Welsh nation, to the extent that if the Welsh-speaking communities were to disappear, so too would the Welsh people ‘cease to exist’, an outcome Cymuned regards as ‘ethnocide’ (Cymuned, 2003, p. 5). Cymuned has rejected charges of racism and welcomed in-migrants, ‘who learn Cymraeg [Welsh] and become part of the community ... from all nations (including England) and all races’, seeing them as ‘enriching a multi-racial Welsh-speaking society’ (Cymuned, 2003, p. 7). Nevertheless, there is an exclusivist element in the suggestion that only Welsh speakers can truly claim Welsh identity, and this underlies much of Plaid Cymru’s disavowal of the group’s position.

In the previous extract you saw that Kellas characterises Welsh nationalism as being a type of ‘national secession’ movement, an inclusive movement in that ‘the existing citizens of a territory were acceptable as members of the nation’ (Kellas, 1991, p. 73) and one example of many such movements that have arisen within a liberal democratic tradition. However, other types of nationalism – and in particular what Kellas calls ‘integral nationalism’ – have different characteristics: illiberal; autocratic; intolerant; racist. Thus, Welsh nationalists have had to face accusations from political opponents of ‘narrow nationalism’, and even ‘racism’ and ‘fascism’, which largely stem from a failure to acknowledge the very broad range of movements coming under the nationalist label.

We now turn to an examination of some aspects of Plaid Cymru’s political philosophy and policies in order to characterise more fully the nationalist movement in Wales.

Nationalism and internationalism

Welsh nationalism was a product of the radical politics and socialist ideals that developed in Wales during the early decades of the twentieth century. The political importance of Welsh identity was an integral part of this context – Keir Hardie, the first independent Labour member of parliament from Wales, was a supporter of Welsh national identity and campaigned for Welsh home rule. In the years just prior to the First World War, several prominent members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) tried to create a separate Welsh ILP, and although unsuccessful, continued to advocate a union of nationalist and decentralist socialist ideals (Davies, 1983). Some of them would become members of the Welsh Nationalist Party after its establishment in 1925.

The distinctiveness of the Welsh Nationalist Party lay in its emphasis on the Welsh language and culture, and in its independence from any British political party. But the party could not be accused of being ‘narrow nationalist’ in outlook. At the first of their annual summer schools in 1926, party president Saunders Lewis addressed directly the issue of nationalism versus internationalism. In his lecture entitled ‘Egwyddorion Cenedlaetholdeb’ he maintained that ‘the thing that destroyed the civilization of Wales and ruined Welsh culture, that brought about the dire plight of Wales today, was – nationalism’ (Lewis, 1975, p. 5). His argument was that the concept of nationalism that arose during the period of European state formation was materialist and based entirely on force. He advocated that Welsh nationalism should be inspired by an earlier principle, when an acceptance of an international authority, that of the Christian Church, across Europe was combined with respect for a diversity of cultures. Lewis then proceeded to argue that the recently established League of Nations was ‘an attempt to loosen the hard chains of material nationalism’ (Lewis, 1975, p. 9) and advocated that one of the conditions of Welsh self-government be a seat in the League of Nations.

Nationalism and socialism

There was a socialist element among Welsh Nationalist Party members from its foundation, although they were less prominent among the leadership. Kate Roberts, a member from 1926 onwards and a close associate of Saunders Lewis, explained her initial refusal to join: ‘as I am a Socialist I really cannot reconcile myself with his [Lewis’] ideas. Personally, I see no difference between doffing one’s cap to an English merchant and doffing one’s cap to our old Welsh princes’ (Davies, 1983, p. 124).

In the 1938 party conference, a group of university students from Bangor challenged Saunders Lewis’s proposed social programme, arguing that the party’s philosophy was in essence socialist and that this should be acknowledged in order to win over Welsh socialists for the goal of Welsh self-government. The rejection of their motion in favour of Lewis’s concept of perchentyaeth may have been less a rejection of socialism than a reflection of the great personal respect for Lewis among the membership (Davies, 1983, pp. 104–5). Regardless of this rejection of the label socialist, the party’s primary spokesperson on economics during their first two decades, Dr D.J. Davies, was a former member of the Independent Labour Party and developed party economic policy based on his socialist vision.

Plaid Cymru began to move toward an explicit socialist position in the 1960s when an infusion of a new type of member began to affect the party. These new members were products of the educational opportunities created by the post-Second World War welfare state for working-class people; many were young, non-Welsh speaking and from the industrial areas of south Wales. Although most came from families and communities that were traditionally loyal to the Labour Party, they rejected Labour for what they regarded as its betrayal of socialism. One party member from a Valleys constituency, interviewed in 1977, said he had joined Plaid Cymru as a teenager in the mid-1960s.

My generation began to realise that all this tremendous loyalty to Labour had got us nowhere in our area and had got Wales nowhere as a whole ... We suspected Labour not just on practical grounds, that they had not delivered on their promises, but also on ideological grounds that they were not a true socialist party ... We chose nationalism as the best way to pursue socialist ideals.

(Davies, 1989, p. 72)

By the early 1970s the socialist direction, not just of Plaid Cymru but also of the language movement, was beginning to be acknowledged by some intellectuals on the left.

Activity 19

Read the following extract by Raymond Williams from his review of Ned Thomas’s book, The Welsh Extremist, on the Welsh language and the language movement, published in 1971. What do you think were Williams’s reasons for changing his view of Welsh nationalism as parochial and conservative to seeing it as a part of ‘a cause better than national and more than international ... a very general human and social movement’ (Williams, 2003 [1971], p. 3)?

Extract 7

I used to think that born into a Border country at once physical, economic, and cultural, my own relationship to the idea of Wales was especially problematic. But I now see, from Ned Thomas, among others, that it was characteristic. I remember focusing first on the powerful political culture of industrial South Wales: in the first half of this century one of the major centres of socialist consciousness anywhere in the world. But the necessary movement from that kind of centre was into a larger society. ...

But there was always another idea of Wales: the more enclosed, mainly rural, more Welsh-speaking west and north. For me, in the beginning, that was much more remote. ... In the last decade especially ... another idea of Wales, drawn from its alternative source, has come through in the campaigns of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Language Society.

The relation between these two phases has been especially difficult. Many English Socialists, and many Welsh Labour Party people, have seen the later phase as a marginal or romantic irrelevance, or as worse. ‘Nationalism means Fascism’, somebody said to me angrily. He is especially the kind of man who should read Ned Thomas’s book. For the strange thing is this: that through its radical emphasis on identity and community, and in its turn to popular campaigning, to demonstrations and to direct action, this new Welsh movement ... has come through as part of the new socialism and the new thinking about culture ...

... [I]t seems to be true that in late capitalist societies some of the most powerful campaigns begin from specific unabsorbed (and therefore necessarily marginal) experiences and situations. Black Power in the United States, civil rights in Ulster, the language in Wales ...

Williams, 2003 (1971), pp. 3–4


Williams’s intellectual journey illustrates the difficulties that Welsh nationalism faced as a consequence of the wide variety of movements that have been labelled ‘nationalist’. It also points to changes in the understanding of socialism, in particular a growing acceptance of the importance of ‘local’ experiences and cultural meanings that have moved the two ideologies closer together.

In the early 1980s, Plaid Cymru officially incorporated socialism into the party’s aims, while still rejecting the state socialism it associated with the Labour Party. A Commission of Inquiry into the future of the party defined its political stance as ‘decentralist socialist’. However, some in the party remained concerned about the contradictions between decentralism and socialism and, in a minority report, Phil Williams argued that government functions should be conducted at as low a level as feasible without undermining ‘the basic equality of individuals and communities within society’. Thus, socialism and decentralism could be combined, ‘but when the two principles contradict it is to socialism that we should give our highest priority’ (Plaid Cymru, 1981, p. 111).

Green nationalism

Phil Williams’s minority report was grappling with an issue similar to that raised by Raymond Williams – the relationship between different levels of social organisation and their associated cultural meanings. Raymond Williams identified with a new form of socialism, the New Left, composed of broad social movements (the women’s movement, Black Power, the Welsh language) yet rooted in the particularities of locality and common interest. Another social movement, the ecological movement, became increasingly prominent from the 1980s, advocating a similar blend of global awareness and local action.

Phil Williams, who had been one of the young ‘non-traditional’ recruits to nationalism in the early 1960s and whose ideas had a major influence on Plaid policy over four decades, was among the first to press the party for action on green issues. He persuaded the 1983 Conference to establish a working party on ecological and environmental issues. This policy area came to be particularly closely associated with west Wales as a result of the agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Green Party to field a joint candidate for the constituency of Ceredigion and Pembroke North in the 1992 general election. This decision produced a victory for Cynog Dafis, who became the fourth Plaid MP and the first Green MP at Westminster. The agreement with the Green Party held until 1995 and was instrumental in getting some environmental measures through parliament.

After his election to the National Assembly in 1999, Phil Williams continued his work on the problem of climate change, arguing that Wales could contribute significantly to action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. In a speech to the National Assembly in May 2000, he described climate change as ‘the overriding imperative of global politics and ... the most important single issue since the 1980s’. As a professional physicist, he felt obliged to convey the ‘sense of reasoned, responsible panic’ of key environmental scientists. At the same time, he detailed actions by the National Assembly for Wales that, he maintained, would make a genuine contribution to addressing the crisis. Speaking as a nationalist, yet recognising the necessity of international cooperation, he concluded:

[A] though no single parliament has the power to solve the problem globally, this Assembly, with the exception of the climate change levy, has all the necessary powers to ensure that Wales plays not only its full role but perhaps a leading role. That is my dream.

(Williams, 2004, p. 62)