Sunday, 20 April 2014

500th Post : The Sliding Scale of Nationalism

I've reached an important milestone today - the heady heights of 500 blogs.

I'd like to thank everyone who's read or scanned over my ramblings for the last three years. I might make it look easy, but it's hard work - often miserable, sometimes fun – but always rewarding. Taking time to read it means a lot and I hope I can continue to count on your support for however long this blog continues. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi.

To "celebrate", I'm going to do what I usually do and over-analyse an abstract topic.

There's been some discussion on here, and for many years elsewhere, about different strands of nationalism. Some people in Plaid Cymru, for example, don't support independence. Meanwhile, people who I would consider hardcore unionists have been tarred with the "nationalist" brush simply for backing Silk Commission recommendations.

In the light of a high-profile Twitter row involving the Welsh rugby captain, it's fair to say there's little  understanding of other people's points of view and how they might form their opinion on the matter.

A person's relationship with a nation can change based across a range of different factors. In my opinion, there are three broad identities that engender a sense of nationalism.
  • National Identity : The stomach – This is the primal, visual manifestation of nationalism. It's a "gut instinct" where you define who and what you are, and the visible outward label. This could also be expanded to include ethnic identity too. This asks the question, "Who am I?"
  • Cultural Identity : The heart – This is the more fluid, dainty identity by expressing what you feel about the nation you belong to, trying to figure out how to express that, and trying to determine what being Welsh/British/English represents. This asks the question, "What does it mean?"
  • Political Identity : The head – The rational, thinking side of it. This determines how you express nationalism based on decision-making, policy and democracy. It determines how far you're willing to go in terms of self-determination and how the nation fits into that. This asks the question, "How does it work?"

In trying to determine what all this actually looks like, I've come up with a sort of Kinsey Scale of nationalist sentiment for each of them, based on two poles - Welsh & British nationalism. It's worth pointing out that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers here.

National Identity

(Click to enlarge)
The only solid figures we have from this are from the 2011 census (covered in more detail here).

The results clearly showed that a majority of people in Wales consider themselves exclusively Welsh with no British identity whatsoever. This sentiment was stronger in some parts of Wales than others – in particular the south Wales Valleys.

People who consider themselves Welsh & British are in a withered minority. In fact, more people in Wales consider themselves English-only (11.2%) than Welsh & British. It seems most people have a very firm idea of what their national identity is : Welsh, English or British – not a mix.

You would think, therefore, that the fortunes of nationalist politics in Wales would be much better than they are currently.

Clearly, national identity isn't that important in political terms. It's been successfully adopted by all of the main political parties in Wales to such an extent that it's become rather elastic, or is being used as a dog whistle when it suits their ends – as we saw recently with Welsh Labour's claims of a Tory "War on Wales".

It can be a successful tactic too, as playing to national identity illicits a primal, somewhat territorial, response in voters and public. As a living embodiment of Welsh self-determination, many of us probably will defend politicians - and devolution as an institution - if there's any hint of an outside attack that would infringe upon Welsh identity or self-respect.

An exception there would be those who would consider themselves British, and/or have an outward antipathy towards all forms of Welshness.

The real nuanced layers of nationalism and its outward expression perhaps lie in cultural identity.

Cultural Identity

(Click to enlarge)

Although culture and nationality are inextricably linked, they needn't be symbiotic. You can measure national identity in the census, and you can measure its political expression in voting intentions. Cultural nationality is very hard to quantify.

So, how can you tell if you're culturally Welsh, culturally British, or a mix of both? I suppose it's what's in your heart. If you feel Welsh you are Welsh, likewise with British. If you're comfortable with both – so be it.

The outward signs of a person's cultural identity involve those things outside the formality of national identity, ethnicity or voting. That includes : attitudes towards the Welsh language, sports, literature, arts, hobbies and media consumption habits.

Those at either end of the scale are more romantic in their cultural identity. They probably get a sentimental glint in their eye thinking of traditions and are highly involved in cultural affairs of their chosen identity. They're proud of what they are, and aren't afraid to tell the world. When that level of patriotism turns unpleasant it becomes chauvinism.

The next step down would be those who are very firm in their cultural identity. On the Welsh side, they might speak Welsh or really enjoy things like Welsh literature and Welsh music but aren't obsessive about it and are a bit more flexible.

Logically speaking, those who identify themselves as culturally British
will have to accept things like the Eisteddfod and Welsh language as
a part of British culture despite being uniquely Welsh.
(Pic : Ynni Cymru)

Likewise, anyone considering themselves "culturally British" will still have to accept all of Welsh culture – including the language – as a part of that identity. British culture without the Welsh bits isn't "Britishness" but "Englishness" because it rejects a key part of what makes "Britain" Britain.

Then there are those with a more fluid cultural identity, but with a clear preference for one. On the Welsh side they would be "Ninety Minute Nationalists". I've come up with "Olympic Unionists" for a British equivalent as I couldn't think of anything better.

Someone supporting Wales at the Six Nations, or the Welsh national football team, is 100% Welsh for ninety minutes. Even an ardent Unionist is advocating Welsh independence by supporting the Welsh national side - which by most normal conventions of international sport shouldn't even exist.

However, once the game is over, their Welshness disappears and they don't think about it too much.

That's why "Ninety Minute Nationalist" is adopted as a pejorative. To the hard nationalist, the position is nonsensical, as Welsh culture should be – and is – linked not only to national identity, but political nationalism. To use footballing terms, 90 minute nationalists are seen as glory hunters and armchair fans, while nationalists are season ticket holders and will question anyone not seen to be pulling their weight. Similarly, from the opposite end, hardcore royalists might have similar suspicions of of Celtic republicans.

Things become a lot more complicated when you come to ethnic minorities, who are cited as feeling more British than white ethnicities, despite coming from cultures and backgrounds which are very different and contribute to the "melting pot" of Welsh and British society. Ethnic minorities might see adopting "Britishness" as a safer option, as Englishness in England has been claimed by the far-right - though that's starting to change.

Even the most ardent unionist can support Welsh independence
for 90 minutes - plus time to chug a beer or two.
(Pic : City School of Languages)

Being stuck in the middle might be a sign of cultural apathy and no real strong connection to either pole than a cultural identity in itself.

I was born in a former colony, have an Irish surname, support an English football team, haven't read much Welsh literature and most of my favourite authors and books are American. I don't speak much Welsh and I've listen to more Norwegian and German music.

In cultural terms, I should be about as British as they come or don't have a cultural identity at all, placing me somewhere slap bang in the middle. Based on that alone I probably have more in common with the Lib Dems and Greens than Plaid Cymru.

Yet I'm still one of the more prominent hard nationalists and supporters of Welsh independence out there. I can only relate to this from my own anecdotal experiences, but far from nationalism being solely about identity issues, it clearly goes a lot, lot deeper.

You can like British culture and still be a Welsh nationalist. Likewise, you can even live and breathe Wales in everything you do and still be a British nationalist. Look at the some of the Tories.

Political Ideology & The Constitution

(Click to enlarge)

I suppose this is the meat when it comes to nationalism and national identity. It mostly manifests itself as support (or lack of) for varying levels of self-determination, without which a nation can't exist.

At either end, you're going to have the fanatical nationalists - people who are exclusively and stridently Welsh or British. On the Welsh side, they'd support independence by any means necessary, and completely reject Britishness. On the British side, they'll show an antagonism towards any outward sign of "Welshness" and would equally support the union by any means necessary. You're talking Northern Irish paramilitary groups, historical figures like Owain Glyndwr and protest organisations. So they're thin on the ground, if they even exist at all in modern Wales.

A step down from that at either end would be those who support Welsh independence on both an ethnic and civic basis, and those who oppose all forms of devolution – but would stop short of violent direct action, just be very, very vocal about it.

There are differences between between ethnic and civic nationalism . The former is generally seen as more right-wing because it links blood to soil, while the latter is bog-standard social democracy with extra flags, and has pretty much been adopted by all the main parties in Wales to varying degrees.

I probably count as an "8" – a civic nationalist who supports independence more strongly than mainstream opinion and perhaps stronger than Plaid Cymru. Such people are often called "hard/dry nationalists".

The vast, vast majority of people will fall somewhere in the middle. This includes those who are civic nationalists but don't support independence strongly (Plaid Cymru in general). Also, "wet nationalist" Home Rulers who support further devolution or a form of federalism and consider themselves happy to be Welsh – this would include the likes of David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central).

Welsh Labour are arguably slap bang in the middle – they're happy with devolution as it is, and are open to more powers, but would fall short of federalism, considering themselves both "Welsh & British". Yet, as the census figures paradoxically show, being "Welsh & British" is something of a minority thing and enjoys less support than Welsh independence. So playing up dual-identity is unlikely to win support on its own. It looks like, quite frankly, nobody cares if they're Welsh or British when it comes to politics, unless they're already a nationalist.

Also lurking are the devo-sceptics (or devo-realists), who think devolution has gone far enough. They perhaps consider themselves more British than Welsh (but will play up the Welshness when it suits them) and would likely oppose further powers, but not the principle of limited self-determination as a compromise. I'd image the Conservative grass roots would be found here, as would many Old Labour and Labour MPs.

(Click on Wales)
It's worth noting this perceived spread of nationalism within parties as it can cause problems. Plaid and UKIP are fairly obvious candidates to be placed at either end – one a Welsh nationalist party, the other a British nationalist party. The Lib Dems have historically been "Home Rule" party so are fairly easy to place too.

But even within those parties, there are going to be differences. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) is clearly a Lib Dem style "Home Ruler", while UKIP have come around to tolerating the Assembly's existence.

People who consider themselves "internationalists/citizens of the world" might often fall under British nationalism too because they support the status quo by default. The Green Party of EnglandandWales  gives the impression of having quite a few of these - and have really struggled to adapt to post-devolution Wales, despite being officially federalist - so are arguably closer to UKIP than Plaid in terms of nationalism, but not general ideology.

Having said all this, it's worth being careful in strictly equating levels of support for independence with nationalism. If there were a Welsh independence referendum tomorrow, with no underlying case along the same lines as Scotland's Future, even I'd vote no. It's one thing to support something superficially, it's another thing entirely to check the details - and there are plenty of details on Welsh independence that need to be ironed out if a realistic case is ever going to be made.

Although it's true that you can't eat a flag, they can make very good tablecloths for a skilled chef.

Nationalists shouldn't get too despondent about low levels of support for independence, as all the foundations are there for a sudden change in opinion given the right circumstances. However, it's off the menu for now and we should perhaps learn to accept it and play the long game. Many hard nationalists might not like the idea of Plaid sidelining independence, but they're broadly right to do so.

Likewise, unionists shouldn't get complacent about high levels of support for the Union, which is perhaps all head and no heart. Technocratic arguments about finance and borders will only get you so far. As the Scottish independence campaign is proving, heads can be turned and the positive case for union is – in some areas - built on sand.

You're going to cause controversy in politics when you try to mix the three identities or try and stamp a single one on people.

One of the most important modern human virtues is tolerance. Tolerating something doesn't mean have to like or accept it. You should just respect that some people are going to have different ideas and values from you. When we can all tolerate something or someone you don't like, without resorting to smears or hyperbole, it's a sign our society is starting to mature and our media along with it.


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