Can you be for Welsh independence while still rejecting the nationalist ideology often associated with it? Gary Raymond charts his own journey and warns against the insidious nature of nationalism in its most potent form.
I didn’t know how to start this article but after giving it much thought it’s best I start with the only thing I know I am certain of in this ongoing story I am about to tell you and that is that I am writing a book. I am always writing a book, that’s fair to say, and have been writing some book or other since I was… I don’t know… twelve? A few of them have even been finished, and some of them have even been published. But this book is important to this specific story. I can’t tell you too much about it at the moment, other than it is, in its own way, a personal take on the history of Welsh literature. I knew it was ambitious when I discussed it with my publisher, and any therapist worth their salt would not be far wrong if they suggested I was half-hoping I’d get laughed out of the room when I pitched it. But here we are. Aways down the way of the journey of a lifetime. I can tell you one more thing about the book, and that is that it has greatly informed my shift to becoming a supporter of the Welsh Independence movement.
I know… I’m as surprised as you are.
Apart from the self-indulgence of documenting my evolution to this position in writing, I believe that I have managed to square off the most problematic challenge of aligning with the independence movement, and that is my immovable distaste for nationalism. And I feel that perhaps… always perhaps… by setting out my thoughts here, I may offer some light for someone facing the same challenges.
I wrote many years ago how being editor of Wales Arts Review introduced me to my own country, to the myriad aspects of this fascinating place that is the land of my birth and for the most part has always been my home. In the last ten years I have driven around it many times, and, importantly, have investigated countless nooks and crannies exclusively from a cultural perspective. But researching this book has taken me much deeper. Deeper in time and space and thought. It has taken me away from the concerns and preoccupations of the contemporary Welsh experience, and yet at the same time it has shone a light on those things and brought them into sharper focus.
Let me explain, if I can, in the best way I have learned to articulate what I mean.
I was born in Newport, the Gwent one, in 1979. That was no Welsh upbringing. If we looked out at all, we looked resolutely toward England. When Botham took the Ashes, it was for us. The Hand of God was a dagger in our hearts. We drowned in Gazza’s tears. (Note: when it came to Rugby we were very Welsh, because rugby was about class not nationality and the Welsh team was made up of brickies, like our dads, and the English were all public school wankers, like the Tories). School-enforced St David’s Day celebrations were localised and focussed on industrial heritage, and my town was built on coal, my great grandfather worked and died down the pit, so there was nothing “national” to it. My focus as a child was enraptured by the football-mad romanticism that surrounded my scouse mother and her siblings. Liverpool had The Beatles and Kenny Dalgleish, and it had my aunts and uncles and cousins and they were all hilarious. My father’s side of the family was more unknowable, wrapped in the austere mystique of Welsh-speaking West Wales. Apart from hearing my grandfather on the phone to his sister back in Kidwelly (sorry, Cydweli), and watching Sgorio on a Monday night, I never heard the Welsh language growing up. We had school Eisteddfods, but I don’t think anybody ever softened those double d’s.
As I got older into my teens, Wales perhaps came to mean something more. I’m still not really over Paul Bodin’s penalty miss against the Romanian’s in 1993, truth be told. That wasn’t just football; it taught me something about where Wales seemed to belong in the world order. Wales had been getting a bit too big for its boots even getting that close to the 1994 World Cup in the United States. That’s what we all really thought. I knew about John Charles and his statue outside the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin, and Pele’s winner that knocked Wales out in 1958, but these were black and white, they were myths. They may as well have been tales from the Mabinogion.
Older again, later teens and into the drinking years, I understood radical left-wing politics, identified with many of its most vociferous proponents, and I loved strong forthright artists who wanted to crack heads and moulds and twist the bodies politic, cultural, and spectral. Newport was vital in this evolution. It had the history of radical reform in that it was the symbolic victory point of Chartism, but also it had connections to The Clash, and a Liverpool taxi driver picking me and mum up outside Lime Street once said to me that they called Newport “Liverpool South” up there. I lived in a cocoon of anti-establishment thinking that never once veered its gaze from the country across the Severn. To win was to defeat the English establishment, and to win was to be embraced by the English who felt as we did.
I have learned that my working class-ness is a part of my Welshness, and not a part of any other adopted identity I may have understood to be vital. To be working class and to read Tolstoy and Tagore and Dickens and Poe in my teenage years and not be sectioned, was because I was benefiting from the Welsh ideology of working-class didacticism that still exists in me today. What I understood to be the true colours of the Newport heart, were Welsh, not English, and, it must be said, not the colours either of that liminal border state-of-being.
And now, researching this book I’m writing, through reading mountains of books by and about Welsh writers I have learned a great deal about the historic and contemporary ideas of Wales. What I thought was my Anglophilic heart was actually as Welsh as anything I could have attached here at the end of this sentence as a metaphor. That’s the story.
Only it doesn’t end there, does it? What I am and always have been does not now just shift on this alternate grounding. I continue to have the politics of my heart and the passions of my mind and these things have not evaporated simply because I now believe in a different future. As I feel the left move away from me in its corrosive romance with shallow ideologies masquerading as moral fortitude, and the right get further still with its regressive ultra-conservative Randism, I think of Christopher Hitchens when he wrote that he had never intended to have what he called “a one-dimensional political life”. I am not leaving one camp and joining another. There is still much wrong with the way the establishments of Wales dictate the way the people of Wales should think about their nation. When I was young, in a place like Newport the Welsh language lobbyists were viewed with suspicion. I realise now it was not because we were ignorant (or, at least, not just ignorant) it was because we recognised the way the speakers of it looked at us. They looked at us the same way the English establishment looked at us: Down. They looked down at us. I see now that when I thought I was seeing the Welsh language stand for something that I did not believe in, it was not the language (the language of my grandfather and his family), it was the nationalism of some – the loudest – people speaking it. I have felt differently about the language for a long long time, but I do not feel different about the nationalism. And I believe there needs to be a clear public debate about the important dividing line between nationalist ideology and the support for Welsh independence.
You can, it turns out, be a supporter of one without subscribing to the other.
So, I am now a supporter of Welsh independence. All the reasons I have had for not supporting it over the years have, since 2016, been eroded, not just in my heart and mind, but, I believe, in the realms of reasonable discourse. (And that was the clincher. I can no longer see how you can argue against it). Being part of the United Kingdom and having the interests of the Welsh nation as a primary concern can no longer be honestly regarded as compatible bed mates.
When in the past I have looked at the quality of the Welsh politicians to which independence would hand authority, I have been left with a terrible sinking feeling. Now, you cannot deny the standard of person filling the halls of Westminster is low enough to render that comparison moot. Whatever reservations I might have of the bodies in the Senedd, they are tap dancing their way into my heart when compared with the conveyor belt of accumulative doom that is the UK seat of power. I do not believe the staunchness of Welsh Labour’s opposition to the idea of independence is as staunch as it used to be. When Health secretary Eluned Morgan says that she cannot support the nurses’ strike, but that also she cannot do anything to improve the pay scales of the nurses of Wales because of the impoverishment forced on her portfolio by the generosity or lack thereof of the UK Government, she surely cannot fail to see the unionist paradox at the heart of her position. If Wales is to have a devolved health system, it must have control of its own finances. If it has control of its own finances, it is Independent in all but name.
But much of this is a for-better-or-worse numbers game and that is economics, and nothing is ever right or wrong in economics, it just is where it is. Better minds than mine can make those cases. What I am talking about though is morality. As the United Kingdom sinks from the world stage, Wales does not need to be dragged to the depths with the English establishment that has caused this fate. There is a moral imperative for the people in charge of Wales to ensure our country can escape the whirlpool and find its own way in the world free of the toxicity of the English nationalism that has destroyed the Union.
Which brings me to perhaps my most important point. I do not believe an Independent Wales would have voted in favour of Brexit. The conflation of UK worries with the reality of the lot of the Welsh people has meant the poisonous lies and propaganda of the English press and media that tipped the balance for many people who saw a false solution to genuine woes, was a misstep for Wales that will have merciless consequences. A country fully in control of its own narrative, without any confusion for those within it about what argument applies to what, would not have voted to leave. Brexit was about English nationalism, and it bled over the border. That border needs to be made solid not just along the edges of the country, but in the minds of the people of Wales. It is the only solution to the terrible problems we are now in and that will only become worse as long as the English party system has ultimate say.
The future for Wales could be a healthy, robust, challenging and honest coalition of political perspectives. It would be majority liberal in outlook, and the worst tendencies of both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru could be tempered by their gravitational pull toward each other, as was recently seen in the partnership deal between the two parties. But a new Welsh conservative party could be re-invigorated and have a real role to play too, (shed, one would hope, of the mindless bloviators that currently wear the blue rosettes in Wales). From the tensions of the tectonic plates of political differences will emerge a country for us all.
And this is where we return to the vital argument that separates two conflated positions. I am for an Independent Wales. What I am not, and never can be, is a nationalist. I cannot be of the mindset that Wales is a chosen place (a distasteful hangover from Wales’s puritanical nonconformism, which in turn was an anti-Semitic appropriation from Judaism), that it is superior to another in objective terms, that we are God’s people, that we are created from a pure source of light, that we are noble, morally clean, and that we are locked in an eternal battle with our colonialist neighbours, as was and is the Almighty against Lucifer. I do not believe there are degrees of Welshness, and that they form concentric circles of idealness that get narrower and godlier until eventually you find yourself in the cradle of Caernarfon. I do not believe the English are my enemy (they are my family, after all); I do not believe I have an automatic cousinship of victimhood with the oppressed around the world; and I do not believe “Team Wales” is an honest and edifying project that will result in the Utopia Cymreig that some seem to think it will.
I believe it is nationalism that holds back the Independence movement. The sloganeers at the side of the road ready for any passing convoy of limo’d dignitaries is not the look of a mature band of brothers. Mythologising the men behind domestic terrorism such as the bombs for the 1969 investiture, or the burning of holiday cottages, is moronic. Nationalism is for bullies, and it is insidious. The Independence movement of course cannot help but be entangled with it in the public consciousness. Nationalists of course want independence, but they see the winning of it as the starting point for their real project: the control of the definition of “being Welsh”.
The Independence movement needs level heads, sound hearts, and a clear argument against the prevailing model of unification. It needs to be honest about the challenges, but it can be honest with head held high, because what has been going on in Westminster since 2016 is a trainwreck that we do not have to continue to be a part of. We live in unusual times; times when we can retreat whilst still advancing. Global communication has brought new perspectives on what Globalism can mean. Wales can become independent without making itself smaller. But it needs to shed the narrow and corroding visions of nationalism to reach its broadest appeal. That is the biggest challenge facing the Welsh independence movement.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster.