Ifan Morgan Jones
What is Welsh identity? And, in the age of Brexit – where Welshness itself faces being swept away – how can we preserve it?
That was the question asked by Laura MacAllister in an excellent opinion piece in the Western Mail last Saturday, in which she said that Wales faces as “existential crisis”.
It’s hard to disagree. How does any vision of what it means to be Welsh appeal to the valleys, the Welsh-speaking west of the country, the north-east of Wales, and everything in-between?
It sometimes feels as if different parts of Wales are different nations, with different national histories, cultures and even languages.
Over the years, two main ideas of what it means to be Welsh have developed.
In the Welsh-speaking west of Wales, the cultural identity is bound up with the Welsh language. If you asked them about Welsh history, it would start with the medieval Welsh princes, and Owain Glyndŵr’s subsequent fight for independence.
For some in the valleys, meanwhile, the culture is that of the post-industrial working class. And the history of Wales is about how a modern nation was forged in industry, and the labour movement that arose from that to demand fairness from their exploitative employers.
Neither of these groups has a monopoly on Welshness, however. Other parts of Wales have their own deeply held views of what it means to be Welsh.
But often, unfortunately, because they don’t correspond to the narratives set out above, many feel that ‘Welshness’ is something they’re left out of altogether.
However, I believe there is such a thing as a unified Welsh national identity and I am going to try and set out what it is.
The first clue to a nation’s identity is what we choose to remember and celebrate from our past. And here there is a clear theme that runs throughout Welsh history.
Just look at the varied stories we choose to tell ourselves as a nation, north, south, east, west and beyond:
- Boudica’s fight against the occupying Roman forces in 60AD
- Llywelyn the Last’s attempts to hold out the invading Norman army of Edward I in the 13th century
- Owain Glyndŵr’s war of rebellion against the injustice perpetrated on the people of Wales by the Kingdom of England in the 15th century
- The Rebecca Riots by farmers in response to unfair taxation 1839-43
- The Newport Rising in 1839, when 10,000 Chartists, who were calling for the vote, marched into gunfire
- The Tithe Riots against the unfair tax levied by the Church of England, and the wider fight for the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales in the 19th century
- The battle to set up Wales’ first universities, with funds raised by working-class industrial workers
- The victory of a working-class Wales’ rugby team against England in 1897
- The three-year Penrhyn slate quarry strike of 1900-3, the longest dispute in British industrial history
- The Tonypandy riots of 1910 and 1911, which prompted Churchill to send troops to south Wales
- Welsh miners staying out after the collapse of the Great Strike of 1926, to force the British Government to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions
- The formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 1962 to fight for the continuation of the Welsh language
- The miner’s strike of 1984-5 against a Conservative government that called the miners ‘the enemy within’
- The fight from the 1950s onwards for a National Parliament for Wales, culminating in 1998 with the vote for devolution, and the overwhelming vote for further powers in 2011
Despite the variety of identities that exist within Wales, there is something here we all have in common.
It is a fight for justice, and rebellion against injustice. A fundamental belief that the weakest and the poorest should not be dominated by the powerful.
This is what binds our national story together.
Even our sporting identity is based on the idea of the underdog toppling expectations and winning against opponents who have much better resources.
Our history shows that Wales, as a modern nation, was itself formed as a response to injustice.
Laura MacAllister said in her article: “But perhaps deep down, ours continues to be the mentality of the submissive and the compliant. Little wonder, given our history is characterised by conquering and assimilation.”
I disagree. It’s not Wales’ conquest which is the defining feature of our identity, but our refusal to be conquered. If we had given in, Wales wouldn’t exist.
Belonging to Wales is to belong to a huge trade union of sorts that represents our interests against those that would seek to exploit us and treat us unfairly.
Welsh national identity was necessary, and still is necessary, primarily as a call to arms against domination and exploitation.
So why do we still need Wales – and Welsh identity?
Many people in Wales today are proud of their British identity. We share a culture, institutions like the NHS, football leagues, music and much more.
Unfortunately, however, the UK Government doesn’t always treat every part of these islands equally.
Political, economic and cultural power is hoarded in London and the Home Counties.
While London is the richest area in western Europe, Wales is home to the poorest. If you started in the valleys you would have to walk 1000 miles to find a poorer area.
Almost a quarter of people in Wales are trapped in poverty.
But rather than invest in Wales to bring it to an even keel with the south-east of England, our taxes will fund HS2, Crossrail (and soon Crossrail 2) while we’re told we can’t have electrified rail and a lagoon in Swansea.
Wales’ voice at Westminster is already weak. But we are now about to lose a quarter of our MPs.
So no, we may not today be fighting against the Normans like Llywelyn the Last or breaking our backs down the coal mines, but Wales is still neglected, exploited and trodden on.
And everyone in Wales loses out as a result. This means that Wales, and Welsh identity is still needed, as a way of fighting back against this injustice.
And because it is this one thing, ‘punching up’, that unites Wales, it can be a home to a variety of cultural identities – yes, including minority groups who are themselves fighting against injustice.
So, let us not focus too much on our differences as citizens of Wales – where we are geographically or what language we speak.
Let us concentrate on what brings us together as a whole, as one Wales: ‘punching up’, rebellion, standing up for the weak – a fight for justice, and against injustice.
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