The debate on the devolution of broadcasting highlights the fundamental weakness of Welsh nationalism
Ifan Morgan Jones
The success and failure of national movements tend to be put down to the mettle of those involved.
Gerallt Lloyd Owen bemoaned Wales’ ‘seaweed men’ who turned whichever way the tide was flowing.
However, in truth, the success and failure of national movements tend to be much more dependent on good old-fashioned power and wealth.
National movements tend to be driven by a nation’s middle-class because they have the time, education and platform to get the message out there.
The middle-class that tend to do the bulk of this work is usually employed by national institutions such as universities, libraries, museums, broadcasters or regional parliaments.
Delving into the nation’s history is often part of their job anyway – but there’s also a clear motive for promoting nationalism as well.
Because if you work for a national institution – say, the National Library of Wales – then the promotion of the idea that Wales is a country also justifies the existence of your own institution.
After all, if Wales does not exist, why do we need a National Library, Museum, Welsh Federal College, BBC Wales, etc, etc?
The primary thing to look for when gauging the likelyhood of any national movement reaching independence is ‘how much of a motive is there for this country’s middle-class to really push for independence’?
The countries that do tend to win independence are those where the middle class feels ‘held back’ by the central state that governs them:
- They’re rich and feel that they would be richer without the drag of the central state (see Catalonia)
- They’re very poor and feel that they’re being exploited with no realistic chance of improving their lot under the present system (see many colonies that won independence from the UK)
- They lack any kind of democratic representation (‘no taxation without representation’ was the rallying cry in the American war of independence)
Surprisingly – although we focus on it a lot – a different ethnic identity tends to be a somewhat secondary consideration.
It should also be pointed out that the success and failure of national movements depends a lot on the central state.
If they handle matters badly – by neglecting a part of the country or not affording it democratic representation – the chances of a national movement reaching independence is much higher.
So how does this relate to Wales and the devolution of broadcasting?
Wales’ national movement is at something of a half-way house, and this is no surprise, because while there is a clear motive for the middle-class to preserve a Welsh national identity there is no clear incentive to go for full independence.
As one of Wales’ foremost academic experts on Welsh broadcasting, Ruth McElroy, pointed out a few days ago, a devolved BBC Wales would probably be poorer than it is under the current set-up.
The problem for the Welsh national movement is a simple one, really: turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the nationalist Welsh middle-class that populate these institutions are unlikely to mobilise in order to campaign against their own financial best interests.
For BBC Wales, see also S4C, the National Library of Wales, the Welsh National Museum, the Welsh Assembly, and Welsh universities. These institutions are all ultimately dependent on the UK Government’s largesse.
Ultimately, until the Welsh middle-class is financially independent of the UK state then Welsh nationalism is unlikely to make much headway.
To take that next step towards independence the Welsh national movement will probably have to find a way to bypass these institutions and take advantage of the way in which the internet, in particular, has changed the game.
For instance, a self-sufficient media platform for Wales that was financially independent of the UK Government would be much more likely to push for independence than one dependent upon it.
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