Wales, colonised and coloniser: a reflection
Adam Price, Leader of Plaid Cymru
The murder of George Floyd and the desperately unequal burden faced by people of colour in the grip of the global pandemic have placed the question of racial injustice, at the forefront of our politics, in Wales just as in the wider world.
Accepting that to be silent at this time is to be complicit, I have committed to use the platform that I have to call for action: for the Welsh Government to instigate a wide-ranging review into the realities of structural racism, to decolonise the curriculum and to build a National Museum to celebrate the history of people of colour.
In the middle of this global moment of truth some criticism – some of it fair and some it not – has been levelled at me for some comments that I made about the Welsh colonial experience. I have spoken publicly about this before and I planned to do so again, having discussed it in depth with Plaid’s BME Section and others. While continuing to reflect on the criticism I have been more interested in listening than defending or explaining myself, not wanting to distract from the bigger issues at hand. But in response to claims that my actions mean Black Lives do not matter in Wales, I feel it’s now right that I respond.
First, for some context.
In October last year in an article headlined Westminster owes Wales reparations, I wrote:
“The Wales Office – that colonial outpost of a Westminster Government – stands in Whitehall in the building that once housed the Slavery Compensation Commission which infamously paid out to the slave owners after abolition rather than the newly liberated slaves. The argument that the British Empire owes reparations to the people of its former colonies is powerfully well-made by the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. But England’s first colony should be added to that long list of creditors.”
In an interview I gave the following week to Carolyn Hitt I said this:
“I feel very strongly that it’s not possible to understand the predicament we’re in without acknowledging the centrality of the fact that we had an extractive economy with a political power centre outside of our nation. For most people that is analogous if not identical to the experience of colonialism. The context, of course, is going to be different in every case. The term internal colonialism was invented to describe the experience of African Americans in the United States. In fact, there is a quote from the 19th century where they were referencing our experience – the Welsh inside the British Isles – in order to explain their own experience of internal colonialism.”
My intention throughout in making these comments was to highlight the continuing social and economic injustice that flows from Wales’ subordinate place in an unequal union.
Much of the criticism has focused on the use of the word ‘reparations’. Historically this has been used to denote payment by way of compensation by a State to make amends to those it has wronged e.g. the reparation payments imposed on Germany after the 1914-1918 War.
In recent discourse, however, the word has been more closely associated with the campaign to recognise the financial debt owed to the descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and to the former colonies of Western countries, including Britain, in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia and elsewhere (a campaign I fully support). In many conversations I have had since I spoke in October I’ve come to understand that many people of colour strongly believe that the word reparations should now be reserved exclusively for the context of slavery and western colonialism in acknowledgement of the unique scale of human suffering involved.
I didn’t fully appreciate the force of this argument nor the strength of this feeling. I recognise now that this was a mistake. It was wrong to blur this distinction, and I would express myself differently today. If my poor choice of words caused anyone pain then I am profoundly, deeply, genuinely sorry.
Today I would also want to give much greater emphasis than I did to Wales’s own guilt and complicity in Britain’s crimes against humanity. The fact that Wales has itself suffered historic injustice at the hands of the British State should not blind us to our own role in one of the most murderous enterprises in human history, the British Empire.
Yes, Wales must liberate itself from its colonial past. But that means not just a liberation from its own history of subjugation, but its history as subjugator too. Wales’ experience of privilege and powerlessness is not a simple binary but a complex relationship where being the expropriator and being expropriated are subtly intertwined.
In the debate around my comments, these two narratives – of Wales as colony and coloniser – are presented as mutually exclusive, as opposite positions. I’d argue the contrary, that in this dual experience we have a huge opportunity, as the Iraqi-born, Cardiff-based artist Rabab Ghazoul, has said, “because being both victim of colonialism and beneficiary of colonialism, means we in Wales have the capacity for both radical empathy and radical responsibility”.
Seizing that opportunity means teaching the next generation of Welsh citizens not just our own history as a nation, but also our own part in the history of slavery and colonialism, as well as the integral importance of people of colour to the history and identity of modern Wales.
In facing up to the responsibilities of our past and the realities of our present then Wales could be a global leader. We could write the rooting out of structural racism into our constitution. And as an independent country, we could join that little band of small nations – Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg – that commit to the original target of 1% of gross national income spent on overseas aid.
I have always believed that the struggle for Welsh independence is a movement for national liberation in the fullest sense. That the emancipation of the nation is meaningless without the emancipation of all from every form of injustice. That is why I cannot accept the wider charge that some have made against me: that I was “deliberately” setting out to offend people of colour or to diminish their past or present experience of suffering and injustice. I have seen some allege even that my comments were somehow a “dog-whistle”, implicitly supporting racism or white supremacism. All those who know me will attest to the fact that this is as unfair as it is untrue. Being the civil partner of a person of colour means for me these issues also have a personal, not just political dimension.
In being gay, working class and Welsh, my politics has always been intersectional, before the term was coined. To compare one movement with another, to draw on another’s experience to highlight a dimension of one’s own can carry with it the risk of appropriation of which we must be all mindful. But it is also part of the very way in which we construct our identities and build bridges between them. People from across the world who have resisted assimilation from a dominant culture have turned to each other for support, for strategies of resistance, for inspiration. So it was that the ideas of non-violence espoused by Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr and Mahatma Gandhi were deeply influential for the Welsh language movement.
And similarly, the experience of ‘national minorities’ like the Welsh influenced the thinking of Martin Delany, the 19th century black emancipationist who referred to Wales, as I mentioned to Carolyn Hitt, along with the Poles in Russia and the Hungarians in Austria as “a nation within a nation” laying the seeds for the internal colonialism thesis espoused by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and later applied by the American academic Michael Hechter back again to Wales.
The context of oppression is always different in every case and nothing can compare to the scale of suffering involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It is also true, as Albert Memmi says in the 1965 preface to his book The Coloniser and the Colonised, “that all oppressed are alike in some ways”. The mutual affinity that I as a miner’s son felt collecting in Brixton during the Miner’s Strike wasn’t because my experience was the same as people of colour, but because I and the people of colour I met at that time could recognise a common sense of powerlessness and marginalisation and agreed collectively, in the words of Martin Luther King, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I’m proud of the fact that in Wales the nationalist tradition has sympathised with and supported anti-colonial movements, whether we’re talking about Emrys ap Iwan’s critiques of intolerant John Bullism during the heyday of Empire, or Plaid Cymru’s opposition to the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars which the major Unionist parties, including Labour, enthusiastically supported.
There could never be a free Wales when others still lie in chains. This is a truth that our history teaches us, for so many of those chains were made with iron forged in Wales.