In defence of Welsh nationalism
Ifan Morgan Jones
I read with great interest the views of Nathan Abrams on nationalism, and believe his contribution was a particularly valuable one.
It can be very difficult for those who have grown up in a linguistic and cultural tradition, such as myself, to understand the point of view of those who haven’t.
In many ways, Nathan represents the exact sort of person that the Welsh national movement needs to win over.
He has made the effort to learn Welsh (and despite his modesty I can confirm that he speaks it very well)! However, he has understandable reservations about associating himself with Welsh nationalism.
Part of the problem here is that ‘nationalist’ is now used as an insult. That is, it’s used exclusively to describe the ‘bad’ in nationalism but not the good.
Nathan Abrams himself noted that he has ‘no objection to Welsh independence’, making him more of a nationalist than many in Plaid Cymru itself!
It’s just that, because his nationalism is benign he does not recognise the term ‘nationalism’ as applying to him.
‘Nationalism’ is neither inherently good nor bad. It depends entirely on what kind of feelings it arouses and the motivations of those who would seek to arouse them.
Nationalism can create a sense of belonging that brings people together as a community that together strives towards a common goal that they could not achieve as individuals.
Nationalism can also preserve languages and cultures. All languages that hope to survive in our globalised world need state backing and we, therefore, need a variety of different nation-states to preserve that linguistic diversity and the cultures associated with them.
Finally, nationalism can emancipate a community of people from a nation-state that is undemocratic and/or treats them unfairly.
Yes, there is also a bad side to nationalism, and we are once again at one of those junctures in history when we have become acutely aware of that.
The bad of nationalism is that it’s impossible to have an ‘us’ without also a ‘them’. Some nationalisms can also, by force, seek to integrate a ‘them’ into an ‘us’.
Nationalism can also be exploited by some who, rather than putting the emphasis on what is good about ‘us’ puts the emphasis instead on what is bad about ‘them’.
I do not believe that Welsh nationalism falls into the latter category. The difference between this nationalism and say, the xenophobic nationalism so prevalent in Britain and America at the moment, is that it does not seek to claim that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’.
What Welsh nationalism claims is that ‘we’ are equal to ‘them’ and therefore have an equal right to our own language, culture and a democracy that represents our views and interests.
Neither does it seek to impose ‘our’ culture, language or way of life on any other countries. It recognises and appreciates cultural diversity.
It is, therefore, a defensive rather than aggressive nationalism. We do not seek expansion or empire, but rather to resist the nationalisms of others whose cultural and linguistic expansion would seek to snuff us out.
The truth is that we live in a world of nation-states. No one has been able to come up with a good alternative to this arrangement.
It is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s view on democracy, the worst system apart from all the others.
It’s therefore impossible to ‘opt out’ of nationalism. Supporting the status quo of the preservation of your nation-state is just as nationalist as supporting a change.
Rejecting Welsh nationalism means a tacic approval of British nationalism, which has for centuries actively sought to delete all cultural and linguistic variety within its borders and promoted a centralised system of democracy that does not serve the best interest of its peripheral regions.
Nathan’s other complaint is that nationalism is ‘backwards looking’. Well yes, it is, but aren’t we all? We all look backwards to understand how best to tackle the present and the future.
Welsh, British, Jewish – these are all cultural constructs with their roots in the past. If we began every day with a blank slate none of these identities would make any sense.
But nationalism is also ever changing. It’s in a constant process of re-evaluating the past and choosing what lessons need to be learnt, and what practices and tradition we maintain and what we throw away.
We need to become more welcoming and tolerant of each other. But that doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath-water.
We can tolerate each other without becoming culturally exactly alike, because a world where we’re all alike would be very dull indeed. One of the best things about working at a University is working with people like Nathan who are from different cultural traditions.
- Using nationalism to preserve or fighting for cultural and linguistic variety is a good thing when a larger nation-state would seek to eradicate that diversity.
- Using nationalism to preserve or fight for the democratic freedom of a nation is also a good thing when the larger nation-state that would seek to integrate them is not wholly democratic or would use its greater size to marginalise their democratic wishes.
These are things I believe that Welsh nationalism does, and in my opinion that far outweighs any evil in nationalism.
Which is why I’m proud to call myself a Welsh nationalist, and I think Nathan should be too!