As Wales loses its cultural distinctiveness, will a civic identity sustain us?

Wales from space. Picture by NASA

Ifan Morgan Jones

Why does such a thing as Wales exist? If you looked down on Wales from space, there would be nothing to designate that Wales was a country apart.

Yes, there is quite clearly a prominent land mass of note sticking out of the island of which it is a part. But the proturbations known as East Anglia and South West England are equally noteworthy.

Countries are there for historical cultural and economic reasons. In Wales’ case, we have half a nation-state because we have half the justification for being a country.

We have maintained a tenuous hold of nationhood because of a linguistic and religious heritage that has bubbled up out of the past and laid the foundations for a modern nation-state, but without the economic independence that would take us all the way to national independence.

Wales, at the start of the age of modern nation-states in the 19th century, was a Welsh speaking, nonconformist, country in an English-speaking, Anglican union.

As power shifted from the Anglicised landowners to the bourgeois middle-class, as Christendom cracked into modern nation-states, that was all the difference needed to begin crow-barring England and Wales, fused together since the 16th century, apart again.

In the 19th century, liberal Welsh nonconformists argued that Wales’ religious identity meant that it was more than a county of England – that it was a country deserving of its own national institutions (which they, naturally, would be in charge of).

We got a University of Wales, a National Library, a National Museum, our own rugby and football teams.

By the late 20th century, the religious argument was already largely gone. But there was enough left of the historical, cultural entity to serve the best interests of the Labour party, who saw an opportunity to establish a permanent electoral fortress.

As a result, we got our own parliament. These civic institutions may have been an end in themselves but, absent an economic argument for separation, they needed the justification of the linguistic and cultural template which came before them.

Civic nationalism

But the cultural, linguistic, religious and political argument that Wales is a country apart is slowly withering away. We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our neighbours over the border.

Some herald this as a shift from an exclusive, ethnic nationalism to an inclusive, civic nationalism.

But there is a danger here too. If you’re a country just because you’re a country – that you have all these national institutions and it would be too much bother to shut them down – you’re in a very dangerous place.

As Brexit has shown us, the public has no qualms about shutting down political institutions when the mood takes them.

Without Wales’ cultural heritage, Wales actually makes little sense as a country. It has no integrated economy or transport system. One could forgive those in the north of Wales for wondering what hold Cardiff has over them, and why.

The point I’m making is that there’s nothing inevitable about Wales. Countries are made by people and people can unmake them whenever they see fit.

Wales has been killed off before, has been resurrected, and could easily be killed off again. We may like to think of nations as permanent fixtures, but in truth the only continuity is change.

Those who benefit most from the existence of Wales as a separate country need to realise that if they want their civic institutions to flourish they can’t neglect the cultural cement which fundamentally makes Wales a country apart.


The survival of a unique Welsh language and culture up until the early days of the modern nation-state was a historical accident. It dodged many bullets to get there, but did. Phew.

But since then its survival or demise has been a matter that’s in the hands of the state.

Throughout the 19th century and up until the second half of the 20th, the state was actively opposed to its existence, and since then, supportive but neglectful.

Wales’ language and culture are now altogether a subject for our own devolved parliament. It can choose to save, or it can choose to kill, or it can choose to neglect.

So far it seems to be happy to do the latter. The government may set lofty goals, such as 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, but there’s been no fundamental change of strategy that would halt the current decline.

I’m all for civic nationalism. But it can’t be ignored that those nations that preach civic nationalism are those whose cultural and linguistic identity is already secure.

Once that cultural identity does come under threat, the nation acts swiftly – as we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, which is more than anything a backlash against a (primarily imaginary, in those cases) threat to the nation’s dominant culture.

Wales’ cultural identity is anything but safe. Our language is an endangered species. In many parts of Wales, it can be seen fading away as a community language in real-time.

Its industrial heritage too, is slowly ebbing away as living memory fades and as the valleys continue their demographic and economic decline. The laissez-faire approach won’t do.

There are many who bristle at the suggestion that you need the Welsh language, or the Welsh culture, to be Welsh.

That’s perfectly true, on an individual level. If you live or have lived in Wales and believe yourself to be Welsh then you are, in my opinion.

But if we feel we can do without the cultural markers that have sustained us in the past we need to articulate, on a national level, what replaces them.

What does set Wales apart? In the absence of these unique characteristics, why are we a country?

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  1. Bradlet Jones

    Erthygl wych.

  2. The Bellwether

    Excellent and well thought through article. But (there’s always a but..) being a bit thick and somewhat ‘uncultured’ I could really do with an explanation of what is meant by Welsh ‘culture’. I understand and agree with the language bit and possibly ‘civic identity’ but culture ‘markers’? Eistedfodae? Literary? Visual/musical arts? Barking at the moon? Worship of a pagan God?

  3. I believe there are no degrees of Welshness, therefore you are as Welsh as you want to or consider yourself to be.
    However, I have been told often that I come across Welshier than others but I don’t endorse that.

  4. Efnisien fab Euroswydd

    What an awful, defeatist, article. Straight from Plaid’s leftist Leannite school of thought. filled many of us with hope. Alas, another false dawn. Another one bites the dust.

    Get your head out of the Plaid leadership’s backside, Ifan, and at least pretend to be a journalist.

  5. The answer to your question is no. A civic identity is not what the Scots are pushing for. They are pushing for a civic identity that serves the people of Scotland. I want a Welsh civic identity that serves us all, including my friends in Abertillery who refuse to speak Welsh and the lovely Turkish brothers who cut my hair. This is not a binary situation – either we protect the language or we have a Welsh police force. We do both.

    We do it by supporting institutions that work at a Welsh level rather than asking UK institutions to have a Welsh department and we do it by spending money to support our culture. That’s the language, civic bodies, our traditions and the traditions of newcomers and on spending money to encourage participation.

    The binary choices then become ten million on classical music or ten million on music for all of us. Whether to allow second homes o to tax them punitively. Whether to pay for infrastructure this year or next year.

  6. “We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our neighbours over the border.”

    This reveals part of the problem: the idea that we only have ‘one’ border, which is ‘the’ border (note that neither the neighbours nor the border are made explicit, and so our unconscious attitudes have to be reinforced in order to provide the relevant information. Let’s rewrite this sentence: ‘We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our English neighbours over the eastern border, and in many ways our Irish neighbours to the West.’ It would be good also to include reference (implicit or explicit) to other neighbours to whom we maybe aren’t becoming so similar – if only to remind ourselves that the English aren’t the only other relevant people in the world.

    Wales has a huge cultural and psychological problem in seeing itself through the eyes of the English, and in seeing the world through English eyes, also. The world is bigger and more important than that, and we shouldn’t forget it, for a moment.

    This would surely help assist with the further points made in the article, concerning maintenance of cultural identity/particularity. Realising that we are in fact part of the wider non-English world as opposed to a plastered-on scab of England, let’s look to making that vision full and viable, by respecting the culture (and language) found here as well as showing more interest in the culture (and languages) of our neighbours. It’s not necessary to have a ‘national’ or ‘ethnic’ identity to do this (any more than we need to have a ‘national’ ecological identity superimposed on our attempts to keep the rivers full and the trees standing: even an empty civic identity should be predicated on allowing variety to thrive within its political framework.

  7. There is no need for a civic identity because many English first language speakers born in Wales still consider themselves Welsh. Just like how anglicised Scotland and Ireland still consider themselves to be Irish and Scottish. Wales is the least anglicised out of them all yet Scotland and Ireland have had a stronger identity. They have a stronger foundation of institutions behind them.

  8. “Those who benefit most from the existence of Wales as a separate country need to realise that if they want their civic institutions to flourish they can’t neglect the cultural cement which fundamentally makes Wales a country apart” i can honestly say i dont know of anyone promoting welsh civic institutions that wants to neglect welsh culture ifan. Support for welsh civic institutions and welsh culture surely go together like a ‘horse and carriage’.

  9. We know that we are approaching Wales on the M4 because we have a bridge to cross and currently a toll to pay but blink and you will miss the red dragon on the bridge that brings you in from Manchester and Liverpool through Deeside. This would be irrelevant were it not for the Welsh Language which I believe readers of Nation.Cymru have prioritised as top in maintaining Welsh Identity. In another article “It’s one-way bilingualism, not immigration, that’s killing the Welsh language”. Have ‘we’ the arbiters of cultural distinctiveness taken our eye of the ball for such a long time that people in North Wales have preferred to follow the ball in Everton, Liverpool, Manchester Utd and latterly Manchester City. A small point perhaps but football is culture and to many our strong involvement in the European Championships is what gave us our cultural distinctiveness to the outside world.

    Each individual has to become their own beacon of that. Don’t buy the Western Mail but lobby and insist that Nation.Cymru comes out as a Daily or at least Weekly Newspaper so it doesn’t languish on the internet. If like the ‘now deceased’ Cymro it is seen on the shelves of newsagents then there is a higher visibilty for this brand of cultural distinctiveness. A culturally distinctive newspaper to match the Western Mail that despite the challenges of the terrain and the A470, a hub in Carmarthen and one in Caernarfon producing the same printed edition of Nation.Cymru under the editorship of IMJ. Copies are then distributed along the M4 corridor and back along the A55 with a message ‘Gam Bwyll’ to the cultural appropriators of our distinctive Welshness. We have to concede that ‘Scwar Canolog’ Caerdydd is lost with the BBC, the HMRC, the Western Mail and the WRU who will all be pushing to water us down to Britishness. Can we lobby and boycott the WRU to such an extent that they are forced to drop the Prince Of Wales feathers as their logo and the word Principality to describe their stadium? Unlikely I’m afraid. This sham assembly that we have in Cardiff Docks or the Bay as it is known to the incomers need to wake up and smell the coffee and after this past week they are more likely to do so.

    If it has to start off as a monthly, then become a weekly fine and then let it be subsidised as a loss making affair by the National Senedd of Wales forever to counteract the message of Trinity Mirror coming out of Westminster or Oxford or wherever they are based. Instead of the once weekly ‘Welsh Column’ in the Western Mail. Nation.Cymru, the print version is a bilingual publication. Everything that is in English is in Welsh and vice versa with a Learners’ Section. This newspaper will then hold the ‘comfortably numb’ to account namely the political parties that have been watering down our cultural distinctiveness over the last century. Not only can we hit the National Assembly in its pocket we can hit it at the ballot box. Forward Nation.Cymru

  10. The Bellwether

    Forget politics, civic pride, wishy washy nationalism, elections, cultural sensibilities (duh); we, the sheeple, love to follow a Leader. Throughout history these ‘leaders’ (that are remembered and become icons of er..culture) have often been ‘warrior’ kings of some sort ie.royalty. We have Owain Glyndŵr. King Arthur and please feel free to list the many others.

    Tom Robbins, author of ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’, postulated in another terrific book ‘Jitterbug Perfume’, that Nations should always have and be defined by a King/Queen to rule over them. His thesis, as far as I understand it, is that this monarch should be chosen by physical mortal combat similar to that used by the Mongols in their Empire under Ghengis Khan. The leader should have absolute power over life and death and any civic activity and be provided with everything and anything they want whilst in power. I mean anything. When they start to lose their physical and mental powers they are killed off by the next monarch. It doesn’t matter that these ‘monarchs’ will inevitably be twp, lazy, incompetent, perverted, murderous and so on as long as they can still beat the shit out of any contender for the throne in hand to hand combat. The King/Queen is Dead, long live the King/Queen (as long as they can hack it). In addition to an absolute monarch there would need to be a ‘court’ of sycophants that surround the Monarch and give them anything they want and satisfy the slightest whim. The main premise is that there is absolutely no hereditary element to this. No dynasties or succession and no elections. The old Court of Sycophants is dissolved with the death of the monarch and replaced by a new one. If you want to be monarch you have to fight for it – may the strongest win!

    There should be jousts, and competitions like the Palio in Sienna. The Romans knew how to entertain the masses. We all miss this – 6 Nations rugby and Eisteddfod Genedlaethol once a year is really not enough to hold the disparate elements of a Nation together.

    Do I believe in all the above? Well, of course NOT (that would be silly and politically incorrect)…but I’m tempted!

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      Celtic Kings didn’t work like that. Warriors they were yes but many dynasties swapped out the Kingship among themselves. What that meant was when a King died it’d pass to another branch of the family (Primogeniture) – not necessarily the previous Kings son. In fact I’d say certain Welsh leaders brought about the downfall of our nation by trying to Normanise the succession from the traditional: the Lord Rhys tried to skip his eldest son who was a bastard by Christian terms (even though that mattered diddly squat in Brythonic law), as did Llywelyn ap Iorwerth by skipping his son Gruffydd in favour of Dafydd. Anyway it wasn’t always through strength of arms that saw Kings fall, and they were largely selected from the elite of their nation – not a lot different from the current situation really – we elect from a stagnant elite.

  11. Small detail, I believe the image is by Commander Chris Hadfield and I recall it appearing on Twitter around St. Georges Day. I was amused by this.

  12. Gethin ap Gruffydd

    Excellent article but my for my own hard and fast views, see WEXIT Blog

    • Terrible reflection on the newer generation of “bright young things” that most of the real imaginative writing about freedom,liberty etc comes from people who were caught up in that brief ( too brief) flurry of activity in the mid/late 60’s. The boys locked up by Jock Wilson & Co, and some who got away, were just a symptom of the real feeling around the place then, but it all faded away, except for the slow burn (bad pun) of Meibion Glyndwr. Gethin is right, we have softened, been conditioned into a semi compliant comatose condition where to rebel now is to spout innane drivel about a bit of bad behaviour by politicians who ought to know better and luvvies who were never known for restraint and self control anyway. All this while real hoods and fraudsters are helping themselves to buckets full of (scarce) public funds and buggering up the demographic landscape of Wales all in one fell swoop. Re-focus and see clearly who are the enemies of the people and maybe, just maybe, a few will do something about it.

  13. An example of a civic institution that is happy to neglect Welsh culture has to be the Welsh Government and the Labour party in Wales ( Jac O North makes a strong argument about the role of the third sector and housing associations in particular in undermining Welsh culture). Maybe you could include most of education, especially higher education in this list. The analysis is good, I do think we need to, as suggested above by others look at our other neighbours, and try to reimagine Wales not from an English only perspective. The argument that national identity and cultural identity is becoming increasingly anglicised neglects to acknowledge that this is a much wider problem, cultures and people are becoming homogenised on a global level, go to France they call it globalisation, the problem here is that we articulate this phenomenon as colonialism or blame the English, and this is a major turn off for most Welsh people, who don’t want to be associated with the perceived pettiness and parochialism of the national movement. Despite this the institutions where there is mass participation – sport for example are distinctive and culturally Welsh, we need to promote our language (not just Cymraeg, but the way we articulate this struggle in any language) beyond the very insular level of Wales vs England, we need to be talking Wales up as a potential member of the international community (even though we are not, yet), and make our case for our existence in the world of nations not just within the U.K. Unionists and anti-Welsh individuals are very happy that this discussion is still based on ancient antagonisms as it’s easy to discredit as Welsh Nats, English haters, people with a chip on shoulder harking back to the Middle Ages. Once we elevate the debate beyond the UK we will see support for a sustainable culture and democratic nation state of Wales turn from a trickle to a flood. I do believe this is happening and Nation.Cymru not only is playing its part but has a growing part to play.

    • We need to be setting the agenda and stop undermining some of the many good things that we have. Some things are non-debatable and we should even be debating them. What is Welsh culture? – Who cares – it just is, end of. What is French culture, what is English Culture? They are all layers of romantic nonsense at the end of the day and nothing to be gained in debating them or trying to justify them, except to undermine them.

      So what if we have some pettiness and drop into parochialism from time to time – it is part and parcel of being human and shows that people cherish certain things and ways of living. Whether it’s parochialism or not, we still need ways for normal Welsh people to express their want to be different and maybe show a bit of proud parochialism from time to time. Some will criticise that, but so what. We have to be able to show our differences, whether its real or perceived. We tend to respond too much these days to the critics and we should be a bit more steadfast and controversial from time to time. It never used to bother us, why does it now. It’s not about being rude or obnoxious or uncivilised – it’s about wanting and liking being different and proudly saying so.

      Another comment earlier about chapel culture, is that I think it ultimately undid us and conspired against us to some extent in the 20th century. The chapel culture and it’s relics outlived it’s usefulness in many areas and became part of the problem, in terms of undermining Welsh identity. My parents reacted strongly to being pressurised to send me and my siblings to chapel (by my grandparents) and they held their ground – it wasn’t going to happen to their kids sort of thing. This sort of thing used to be entwined with the language and negative attitudes towards it. We’re in a different age now and that part of our culture has gone for good, which I think is a good thing. It doesn’t mean that the hymns, sermons and other things shouldn’t be cherished as part of our cultural tapestry, but maybe appreciated these days, more for their art and creativity, than for their religious purposes.

      I still feel that part of the loss of the great hymn singing traditions at the old arms park, was down to our very own pious chapel brigade constantly whinging on TV and radio that the hymns were being sung by uncouth drunkards who didn’t know the words and never went to chapel. I certainly felt that sentiment in the 1980s when singing half a dozen welsh hymns during a game, all learned at school, not in chapel – religion had nothing to do with it, most of us had no idea what the words actually meant anyway.

  14. Welsh culture is what the people of Wales do, just as Scottish culture is what Scots do and English culture what the people over the border do. Give us the power to run our own lives and our culture will continue to develop and change. Rule over us, either at home or from abroad, and our culture will continue to die.

  15. Gethin ap Gruffydd

    should this nterest us? (Finnancial Times)New centre-right political party vows to ‘reboot’ Ireland

    Fragmenting political landscape throws outcome of next general election wide open

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