“For the first time ever I really am not looking forward to Thursday. Everything feels so fragile, grotesque and ugly. There is so much confusion and good people having to go against their principles. See you on the other side…” (Translation of a Tweet by @gwalltog (Ffion Dafis), December 12th, 2019).
At the time of writing, Ffion Dafis’ Tweet had accrued 19 “Retweets” and 234 “Likes”, a sure indication that her words have struck a nerve across the Welsh political Twittersphere. I would also agree with her sentiments, and with other similar thoughts expressed by other people of a progressive worldview elsewhere in the UK.
I was keen to write this ‘think piece’ before a single result has been declared in the General Election. In the past, I have written post-election polemics which have felt, in retrospect, a little bit ‘wise after the event’. I also wanted to write free of the emotions that naturally follow an election night – a cocktail of despair, or euphoria, or anti-climax, combined with the x-factor of a lack of sleep!
Online predictions vary from a hung parliament to a Conservative majority of around 50+. My own hunch is that it will be a volatile night. I think that there will be some seemingly contradictory shocks in store, as the electoral map of the UK adjusts to the Brexit landscape. For the first time in my life, I am able to countenance the thought of the Tories taking a shock 1-0 lead from the very first declaration of the night (which traditionally comes from one of the Labour-held football bastions in Tyne and Wear).
From the perspective of a Plaid Cymru supporter, we have the usual opinion poll projections of between 3-5 seats. However, I am factoring into my thoughts the worst-case scenario of Plaid Cymru ending up with just one seat for Plaid (Dwyfor Meirionnydd), as I am mindful that Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is vulnerable to a 6.5% swing from Plaid Cymru to the Conservatives (or, more accurately, a swing to the devastatingly effective slogan of “Get Brexit Done”). It could be a truly grim night. I hope not, but I am prepared for it, and am even minded to sleep through the event in order to be able to crack on with my personal responsibilities the next day.
Back in 2005, I wrote a series of political profiles for BARN magazine, based on interviews with a prominent figure from each of the four main parties in Wales. I spoke to David TC Davies (Conservative), Gwenllian Lansdown (Plaid Cymru), Mark Williams (Liberal Democrats) and Huw Lewis (Labour). From those interviews, there is one comment that has stuck with me. It was made by Huw Lewis, then AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, as he lamented Arthur Scargill’s lack of a strategy during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85:
“The first rule of any battle is to make sure you bring your troops home safely.”
Huw Lewis’ comment has become increasingly salient in my mind of late as our style of politics (whatever the issue involved) has become more confrontational and funnelled through the echo chambers of social media. I am also informed by my professional work as a caseworker, where I have undergone training in courses such as “Mental Health First Aid”. I have also been impacted, or at least been made more self-aware, by the recent suicides of three adults in my different friendship spheres. One of my primary concerns, therefore, is the future wellbeing of the national movement in Wales, both on a collective and personal level.
My message – particularly to younger activists – is twofold. First of all, I would like to argue that no matter how bad things appear on the morning of Friday 13th, there is a political future in Wales worth campaigning for. As Ffion Dafis’ tweet says: “there is so much confusion”. One source of that sense of confusion is the complex and multi-layered structure of politics and national identity that we have in the UK. In Wales, this includes separate elections to Wales’ Senedd which are next scheduled for 2021. The political context of 2021 will be vastly different from today, in ways which we can’t yet foresee.
In my mind, Welsh politics is increasingly coming to resemble the traditional Austrian Läger system of political subcultures, each existing within their own social silo (and each one intensified in turn by its own social media echo chamber). Given the dominance of the London based media in Wales, a “British-Welsh” subculture is bound to come to the fore in a UK General Election.
However, there is no reason at all why the Welsh nationalist läger cannot become “first among equals” under the increasingly credible leadership of Adam Price in a fractured Senedd after May 2021. The Welsh Parliament will be elected on a lower turnout and by proportionately more Welsh-oriented voters, in a post-Brexit turmoil in which the personality cult around Jeremy Corbyn, and indeed the Brexit Party / UKIP movement, may have splintered. In this context, all sorts of seats are within Plaid’s grasp, from Aberconwy to Neath to Cardiff West, and on the regional lists.
Part of my optimism in this respect is founded on the cultural groundwork that has been put in by the associated groups in the recent ‘IndyWales’ movement. I would probably be in disagreement with many current activists in terms of a Welsh independence referendum in the near future: I feel instinctively that the capacity of a Welsh state and civil society should be built on a gradualist basis for as long as possible. However, on a cultural level, there is no question that the various non-party campaign groups have helped to organise the nationalist base, and draw in a new, younger demographic from a wider catchment area than had hitherto been the case. In the fields of culture and sport, I sense that we are in a sort of “Cool Cymru 2”, in spite of (or maybe partly because of) the prevailing political weather.
As a father of two, I am also aware that the Welsh cultural renaissance moves on apace among the children of Wales. As I write, my family is in the middle of a treadmill of four Christmas concerts – a scenario which is being played out in families across Wales. On watching the high standards of singing, brass ensembles and drama, it is hard to ignore the words of a fairly recent Dafydd Iwan song which contends that “the children are singing the words, and Wales demands to live.” This will remain the case regardless of who holds the keys to No.10, and whether or not Brexit is eventually enacted.
So, there is hope in the confusion. However, in order to grasp and work with these opportunities, we all have to be in a proper frame of mind as individuals. Last week, the increasingly influential Meddwl.org mental health website published a blogpost on self-care for political campaigners. On a personal level, this is the most relevant manifesto to have been published during the 2019 campaign in Wales. Here are the main points:
- Make time to connect with people face-to-face
- It’s OK not to know all of the answers
- Do something creative
- Do something that isn’t associated with campaigning
- Get off-line
- Find your community
- Restrict things that take away your energy
- Ask for help when you need it
In my opinion, the Welsh national movement is at its best when it is guided by a vibrant cultural scene and dominant, humanitarian values such as community and peace. My fear is that if the worst-case happens tomorrow, Friday 13th, that cyber-politics and its attendant traits of anger, addiction, conflict and self-doubt will undermine the opportunities that are presented to the movement. It is incumbent on us all, as individuals, political parties and campaign groups, to promote and implement good self-care and mental health strategies, as advocated by meddwl.org, in the days, weeks and months ahead. Cerddwn Ymlaen.
Dr. Carwyn Tywyn currently works as a caseworker for a UK disability charity, and also performs across Wales as a folk harpist. Previously, Carwyn studied at the Welsh Governance Centre under the supervision of the Centre’s founder, the late Barry Jones. He was Political Correspondent for Golwg magazine from 2006-07. He is the co-author of Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism (2008) (With Prof. Rhys Jones).