In the ‘niche’ – why should we fight for an independent nation that ignores our struggles?
A populist language has recently crept into Welsh national movement which decries the presence of ‘identity politics’ and passes off concerns for the plight of minority groups and women as ‘niche issues’.
Much of this language, of course, has come into full fruition in response to the Plaid Cymru leadership challenge, where the incumbent Leanne Wood is being challenged by fellow Assembly Members Adam Price and Rhun ap Iorwerth.
The first thing we need to consider is, what actually are ‘niche’ issues?
According to various sources – who will remain nameless here, though we know who they are – a niche issue is one which relates to the specific challenges facing women and minority groups. They are issues which serve as a ‘distraction’ from the real issue – that of Welsh independence.
The people who’ve been spouting this idea seem, 1. Unable to conceive of tackling more than one issue at a time, and 2. Ignorant of the fact that engagement with these issues is what will encourage people across all of Welsh society to engage with the independence project.
After all, these ‘niche’ issues of inequality effect, even if in indirect fashion, absolutely everyone in our nation.
Why should women be encouraged to fight for an independent nation which ignores their struggle against the patriarchy? Why should immigrants and refugees welcome a sovereign state which does not fully recognize their humanity, let alone their citizenship?
Why would members of the LGBT+ community follow elected representatives who refuse to acknowledge their identity?
These arguments aside, we shouldn’t be focussing on these issues as a mere means to an end. The basic principle of human understanding should lead us to consider them as a matter of course, natural as breathing.
Do I mean focussing on the struggles of women and minority groups ‘for the sake of it’? Absolutely.
The heart of all truly progressive politics is essentially the same: of wanting to ensure happiness, health, and security for members of a society.
For a long time now, I have noticed a trend of commodifying the support lent to women and minority groups for strategic political gain.
We shouldn’t be seeking to engage with black and minority ethnic communities just so that we can pat ourselves on the back, and feel smug that we’ve secured their votes when elections come around. We should be engaging with these communities and their struggles because we possess a shared humanity.
These recent arguments surrounding what issues are central to our vision as a party, and which are peripheral, are frighteningly revealing.
Arguments once made by imperialist centralisers about the trivial and ineffective ‘Celtic fringe’ (itself a revealingly gendered term) were directed by hard-line nationalists to Leanne Wood throughout her campaign for our party’s leadership, and in particular her ‘fringe’ issues.
Social inequality, peace, women’s and trans rights are not ‘fringe issues’ for my generation of activists. The intersection of these issues with minority nationalism is precisely what brought us into the party in the first place.
You cannot separate the struggle from the people.
I believe it’s also worth saying that politics isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an unemotional landscape. The issues which we as activists seek to debate and work on often affect us on a personal level.
The rampant obsession with ‘bias’ and ‘level debate’ ignores the fact that many of us are directly affected by the politics which we seek to promote.
By definition, the only people able to give a truly ‘unbiased’ (though no one is) political voice are those who aren’t themselves touched by the issues which structural inequalities present.
To put it simply: women are told that they can’t debate the pay gap in a level-headed manner, black people are told they can’t discuss police brutality without bias, the working class are accused of jealousy when they point out the increasing polarity between rich and poor.
Essentially, this belief grants yet more power to those groups which already have enough, and puts distance between people and their most intimate struggles.
Who isn’t negatively affected by sexism, racism, and poverty? The answer is, of course, wealthy white men who – if we adhere to the above argument – are the only demographic qualified to speak on the aforementioned issues without the bias of actually experiencing them.
The notion that politics ought to be a scientific and impersonal expression of will is, in a word, ignorant and degrading. Not only this, but it is ignorance which disempowers those who already bear the brunt of society’s ills.
In line with this respect for emotion in politics, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my own. I do this out of a sense that many others, both within the national movement and in wider Welsh political scene, share my feelings.
I am tired. I am tired of nationalists who care more about waving Glyndŵr’s flag than the plight of the Welsh working class. I am tired of conversing with nationalist men, decades older than myself, who haven’t tried to gain even the most basic understanding of feminism.
I am tired of political illiteracy which extends to even the highest ranks of our political parties, and tired of women bringing ideas into the fold which would alleviate the structural disadvantages we face – only to have them ignored.
I am tired of our inability to engage with black and minority ethnic people, more so of my contemporaries’ ignorance as to why that might be.
I am tired of the liberalist approach to feminism in the movement, the idea that gender equality will be achieved by way of a slow process of gradual steps, rather than a conscious structural overhaul. I am tired of lots of things.
One of the most damaging effects of this recent trend towards dismissing the aforementioned issues as ‘niche’ is that it dehumanises individuals who are already disadvantaged. I’m a young, queer woman with an invisible disability – if those are ‘niche’ issues, surely that makes me a ‘niche’ subject?
I can’t dice and divide up the various parts of my identity on either a personal or political level, and I shouldn’t have to. It’s the fluidity and correspondence of these identities and struggles which make us human.
This multi-faceted tangle of issues and inequalities does not detract from our efforts towards independence, but rather, serves as a reflection of the diverse make-up of the nation that we want to take a place on the world stage.
I’ll finish on this pertinent quote from Martin Duberman, quoted in Daniel G. William’s brilliant Wales Unchained (University of Wales Press, 2015);
“It is difficult to ‘march into the sunset as a ‘civic community’ with a ‘common culture’ when the legitimacy of our differences as minorities has not yet been more than superficially acknowledged – let alone safeguarded. You cannot link arms under a universalist banner when you can’t find your own name on it.
“A minority identity may be contingent or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless. And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure.’’
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