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Labour would be better off understanding Welsh nationalism than dismissing it

20 May 2018 8 minute read
A Welsh Labour image from last year’s election

Ifan Morgan Jones

When Labour are having a hard time in the Assembly, one of their favourite tactics is to engage in a little ‘nat-bashing’.

Rather than take the criticisms from the opposition seriously, they will seek to deflect it by rather patronisingly suggest that it’s driven by illogical ‘nationalist’ urges.

I have every respect for politicians such as Lee Waters, below, but this is a very good example of this tendency in action:

It is ultimately an excuse not to engage with constructive criticism.

Their ‘anti-nat’ argument has three components:

• Welsh nationalism is a political ideology with a particular end goal, separatism, that is completely removed and is in fact in opposition to other political ideologies, such as socialism

• Rather than being driven by a desire to improve people’s lives, it is driven by the illogical urge to shift borders around for the sake of doing so

• Welsh nationalism is xenophobic and small-minded, particularly in comparison with the nationalisms of larger nation-states, such as British nationalism

This comment by Leader of Cardiff Council, Russell Goodway, who claimed that being a British nationalist made him “more broad-minded” than a Welsh nationalist, is a good example of the latter claim.

However, this claim, which is that the larger the geographic entity you feel attached to, the more broadminded you are, does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

It’s a common theme in Labour discussions about nationalism, which is that borders should be broken down whenever possible. Large nations good, small nations bad.

This is a vision of nationalism that developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as a justification for the expansion and exploitation of Empire.

It has little to do with socialism which should, if possible, mean that power is at close to the people as possible, not centralised in far-away imperial capitals.

Larger nation-states aren’t necessarily any better or fairer than smaller ones.

This is because the core regions tend to exploit the periphery, and the more peripheral those regions are the more economically, democratically and culturally unfair the nation-state tends to be.

Because nation-states tend to have one powerful legislature, one dominant, official language and culture, and a centralised economy run from the centre, the result is that:

1) Those on the periphery have no real democratic control. They may be able to send representatives to the mother parliament but these can be overruled by the larger block.

2) Their own language and culture is eroded by the one favoured by the central state, through education, broadcasting, economies of scale, etc.

3) They tend to be treated as a peripheral economic area to be exploited by the economic core.

National movements aren’t driven by some illogical urge to flags and tradition over people, but about fixing these problems where they arise.

They are about changing what they see as a fundamentally unfair system that leaves peripheral segments of the nation-state at a disadvantage.

In this sense, they serve a highly important role in the world, which is to push back on regional inequalities and demand better treatment from the core.

In the absence of national movements or the threat of national movements, there would be very little to stop the rise of governments that serve very large areas but which centralise political power and wealth in one region at the expense of others.

The EU, for instance, works all the better because the national identities of its southern states is a brake on its tendency to prioritise the economies of the French-German axis.

It is largely up to the core whether they listen to national movements and take action, of course. It is only if they choose not to act do national movements ultimately lead to independence.

Ironically, the response to regional inequalities is often to emphasise the nationalism of the core rather than actually come up with practical solutions to the above problems.


However, rather than seeing nationalism as a tool for solving fundamental unfairness many in the Labour movement continue to consider nationalism as an end goal in itself:

But nationalism isn’t an end in itself, but a means of reaching a particular goal.

For instance, you don’t have to choose between socialism and nationalism, as Mick Antoniw suggests above.

You can be a socialist and believe that because Wales consistently elects socialist governments but the bulk of the UK does not, the best way of securing a socialist government is more autonomy or independence for Wales.

However, by dismissing nationalism as an irrational urge rather than one that arises as a result of real problems, Labour aren’t doing anything to stop nationalism.

If Labour do consider nationalism in Wales to be a problem, then the best way to solve it is to solve what gives rise to it, which is democratic, cultural and economic regional inequality.

These problems are particularly prevalent in the UK, which has a particularly dominant core and a very weak periphery.

Within the UK we have one of the poorest regions in western Europe (west Wales) and the richest (London).

And we have an undermining of Wales’ democratic will and culture (see the recent Prince of Wales Bridge decision as an encapsulation of both).

The current Conservative UK Gov seems to determined to inflame nationalist sentiment rather than take steps to mollify it.

But neither have successive Labour governments done much to solve these problems either, and in recent years seem happy to either stand by or help the UK Gov make things worse.

At the end of the day, Wales needs a nationalist movement at the moment because otherwise, within this realpolitik union, an UK Government completely blind to regional inequality wouldn’t have any reason to care whether Wales is treated like a peripheral internal colony or not.

‘Power grab’

Labour’s criticism of Welsh nationalism is all the more jarring because they are, to a certain extent, a Welsh nationalist party themselves.

For all their ‘nat-bashing’, Labour understands all of the above at a base level, because they are very happy to use nationalism when it suits their electoral need.

The same Mick Antoniw dismissing nationalism above posted this banner during last year’s election campaign, which is positively dripping with the discourse of nationalism:

Devolution itself is, of course, a nationalist project but you won’t hear Labour argue against it because it gives them an electoral fortress in Wales.

This means that what we currently have is a Labour party that wants to have it both ways on nationalism.

The debate over the EU withdrawal bill was probably the best demonstration of this.

Carwyn Jones argued for ‘standing up for Wales’ and against a ‘Westminster power grab’. This is the discourse of nationalism in a nutshell.

But as soon as a deal that suited the Labour party was found, the discourse turned on a sixpence.

Virtually the same argument espoused by Carwyn Jones a month earlier was condemned as ‘self-indulgent flag-waving’ the next.


If Labour want to disagree with that the present system treats Wales in a way that is fundamentally unfair, that’s fine.

But painting nationalists who want to change the status quo as illogical or small-minded is simply incorrect.

For instance, it’s already been pointed out by many that most Plaid Cymru areas voted to Remain while most Labour areas in Wales voted to Leave.

Wanting a system of governance that works for Wales and wanting to close the door on the rest of the world aren’t the same thing.

In a perfect world, further devolution or Welsh independence should be considered dispassionately as one would the same category as any other form of government reorganisation.

If we’re going to move on with our national conversation, Labour need to show a level of understanding of the national movement not currently on display.

Trying to shut down debate with name calling won’t do.

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