The Breakdown of Welsh Unionism's 'Common Sense'

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Yesterday’s results may not have reflected it, but in the wake of the huge shifts in the political landscape in recent years, slowly but surely backing for independence in Wales is gathering pace. Support in recent polling varies from 25-35% depending on the parameters – a not insignificant number when considering that only 25% of Scots supported independence when the SNP came into government with the promise of a referendum in 2007. No such promise has been afforded here as yet, but nevertheless it is the Welsh Labour government that will have to beat a difficult path forward in the face of a buoyant independence movement. In the minds of those faced with this arduous task will surely be the salutary tale of Scottish Labour’s decline. This situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, which has not only seen a huge drop in trust in Westminster, but has also very starkly drawn political lines along borders and demonstrated how the devolved administrations can do things differently, and better.

Notwithstanding his electoral success, Welsh First Minister and Labour leader Mark Drakeford is now in a paradoxical and slightly uncomfortable position. His rhetoric and core beliefs are directed towards buttressing the commitment to the Union, whilst his actions and the responses forced upon him by Westminster’s ineptitude undermine this commitment at every turn. His discomfort can only have been increased by figures that suggest over half of Labour voters support an independent Wales. For the moment, the increased support for independence has not converted into significant votes for Plaid Cymru – but there are reasons for the party to be mindful of a longer-term effect. 

How are we to account for this apparent shift in ‘common sense’ among the tenets of Welsh Labourism? In James Foley’s Verso blog on Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism he alludes to the Gramscian influence in its analysis; it has become the norm to refer to Labour’s electoral stranglehold in Wales as a ‘hegemony’ (partly I suspect under Richard Wyn Jones’ influence, a political analyst much inspired by Nairn).  After yesterday’s result, it is clear that to a large degree this hegemony continues its hold, if more precariously in many places, but the debate around independence has undoubtedly led to the loosening of previously hegemonic ideas around the Labour identity and perspective in Wales. 

Anybody who is a Labour member or has been brought up in a Labour environment and community, will have likely carried with them these ‘common sense’, hegemonic assumptions that have conditioned a certain understanding of politics. Given Labour’s hold on Wales, they are also assumptions which will have more generally permeated a great deal of people’s everyday thinking. They are so deeply ingrained as to be second nature, unlikely to have been reflected upon critically except in some particular circles. In this sense the Gramscian framing is apt – especially as the crisis of the UK has led to a disjuncture between benign assumptions about the union and the political reality. 

For the first time in a long time, perhaps since the 1920s, these assumptions are being challenged and subsequently being brought under scrutiny, with respect to the surge in interest in independence. One can hear the collective cogs whirring, not only in terms of those everyday members and supporters – but also amongst representatives who are either a) trying to adjust their views through adopting stronger home rule rhetoric (as Drakeford explicitly did in the run up to the election) b) trying to reject it, or c) actively adopting independence as an aim of policy.

Here I suggest ten aspects of Welsh Labour’s previously hegemonic ‘common sense’ that are being challenged. A new understanding of Welsh politics is  emerging, one which expands support for independence amongst Labour voters. 

1. Welsh interests are best represented within the British State

This is a fundamental principle of Labourism; it is an assumption that has, of course, socialist or even Marxist roots. As a predominantly working-class society, in Wales we must link with other working class communities across Britain in order to represent our interests and gain greater strength, in order to fight the structures of capitalism. Working together, on this enclosed geographical territory to ensure socialist principles imbue our longstanding, historic, collective structures, is the best method to ensure our interests are protected. This common sense was also, for baby boomers, grounded in the post-war experience, which saw a welfare state and a more meritocratic society provide them with unparalleled opportunities and security, in place of fear (to quote one its most famous architects, Aneurin Bevan).

Seventy years on from the founding of the welfare state, this experience is a distant memory. The idea that working-class Welsh interests would be protected by the British state crumbled with the slow degradation of the big industries, and of course, the assaults of Thatcher, which jolted Wales towards devolution. Ironically, in some sense, the experience under New Labour ultimately served the knock-out blow: in failing to adopt the radical transformative politics required, poverty and inequality were not reversed, and, with the inevitable return of Tory government, became entrenched. With the predominantly conservative nature of the state exposed, and Wales either being represented by Tories they didn’t vote for, or Labour politicians having to service ‘middle England’, the above proposition is no longer held with the certainty of before. The Brexit farce and management of the pandemic has of course brought some of these issues to the fore, demonstrating in stark relief where the interests of the British state ultimately lie.

2. The British state is the instrument par excellence for redistributing wealth and protecting the interests of the Working Classes

An attendant assumption is the idea that the British state is to be venerated because of the manner in which it ensures that poor Welsh communities are net beneficiaries, and that through its redistributive structures and its control of the economy, it can answer the needs of the Welsh people. Again, the baby boomers can hark back to an age of nationalised nationwide industries, comparatively flourishing communities supported by the welfare state, and emancipatory social structures to support this interpretation.

The British State is now, however, one of the most unequal, unjust and anti-meritocratic states in the western world. Inequality has risen dramatically, and it is clear to both the working and middle classes that power and wealth are becoming more and more entrenched amongst the British elite concentrated in London. In thrall to neoliberalism, no potential government can hope to propose the sort of redistributive measures required in order to reverse these trends. Moreover, with the heavy industries destroyed, there is no longer the economic base for British-wide nationalised industries that fostered the trade union movement, nourished working-class communities, and which also created the possibility of a genuine socialist politics. Bevan’s Britain, and specifically its material conditions, no longer exist, and we must accept that they are never going to return. Consequently, many are now concluding that we need new, communitarian, home-grown responses – answers to our poverty which the British state can no longer provide.

3. Britishness is a source of pride and solidarity

The fact that many in Wales have been happy in their Welshness and their Britishness has always been given great emphasis, ever since these sorts of questions have been reported and reflected upon. This has been tied in great part to the collective working class identity, but there has also been a greater sense of solidarity built through the World Wars, the monarchy, and a shared anglophone culture (refracted to different degrees by Welsh-language culture, depending on the community in question). 

To a great extent these elements remain, in particular the shared culture, perhaps less so the monarchy. However, in recent years what have, for many, been the more “positive” aspects, have been overshadowed by other tendencies. The historical memory of victory is clearly one held dear by those brought up in the shadow of the war, but this is not an aspect of solidarity felt so deeply on the left by later generations. Moreover, the working-class culture that was shared by so many has effectively been under attack for more than forty years and with the weakening of these communities, so the ties that bind us have loosened. More obviously, in recent years, and particularly for millenials, experience of Britishness is thoroughly negative: Afghanistan, Iraq, financial crisis, austerity (and student fees), the referendum, Brexit, neo-fascist purgatory fuelled by a British myth steeped in a revanchist reappropriation of the war, and now what the British Medical Journal have described as the ‘social murder’ of the pandemic. In these circumstances it is difficult to hold Britain dear. 

4. The British Labour Party will act in the best interests of Wales

The PLP of the post-war period had Bevan, it had Jim Griffiths, it had Roy Jenkins. Giants, who were supported by a colourful supporting cast of Welsh politicians, amongst them Cledwyn Hughes, John Morris, Elystan Morgan and Goronwy Roberts. The sense in which the Labour Party represented its Welsh constituencies was not simply rhetorical – it was embedded in its fabric and grounded as much in the lives of the rural poor and quarry communities as the mining heartlands of labourism and working-class assertion. With Callaghan, Foot, and then Kinnock as leader in the 1980s the Welshness of British Labour was at least superficially obvious – and there was never a reason to doubt its commitment to one of its strongholds.

However, the diminishing stock of Welsh Labour MPs since New Labour (with the exception of one South African import) reflected both the waning material basis of the party across the country and the seismic changes wrought by the circumstances of the new millenium and the party’s response – which entailed playing to ‘Mondeo Man’ in middle England. If there was a feeling that if the Welsh had been somewhat taken for granted previously, the parachuting of MPs into safe seats and the aforementioned lack of change under Blair suggested that their votes were no more than electoral fodder for the Labour machine. These suspicions have ironically been confirmed in the behaviour of Wales’ Labour MPs since Blair, who appear in their attitudes to have little interest in expanding the powers of the Senedd. To a generation brought up with devolution, in particular, this lack of enthusiasm for empowering our Senedd can make the PLP appear like an alien body. The disenchantment with the Labour Party is symbolised most poignantly by old timers leaving the Labour Party, whose commitment to Labour was driven by patriotism and a love for their own community, which they’ve now concluded brought them very little. 

5. Wales is best positioned to benefit by taking a contributionist approach to the British state

The idea that Wales is best served by being a valued member of the family of the British Union is one with a long tradition. Indeed in Labour terms it goes back to the inception of the party in Wales and the ultimate victory of those who rejected a particularist appeal to the idea of a separate party in Wales. The limits of this attitude, however, were captured poignantly in the entreaties of Rhodri Morgan after the Scottish Referendum, when he appealed for Wales to be rewarded for its ‘good behaviour’ in not putting the UK ‘through the mincer’.

The reality, of course, is that Scotland is able to make far more headway and ensure far more rewards for itself on account of its ‘bad behaviour’. The strength of the SNP, the threat of secession, has given the Scottish the leverage and power that sustains a Barnett consequential that speaks volumes in terms of its comparative difference to the sums received in Wales. It is able to extract far more substantial concessions from the British state. This no longer goes unnoticed in Wales, particularly when the Labour leader himself makes the point that Wales is unable in negotiations (such as those around the Withdrawal Bill) to use a strong independence campaign to provide an equal threat. Indeed, when the burgeoning independence movement was mentioned during a Johnson visit, it merely confirmed that even the Labour Party itself in Wales can recognise the limits of the contributionist attitude. An oppositional approach via the indy movement creates a momentum of its own – one that has clear pragmatic benefits for everyone in Wales. 

6. Wales is too poor to be independent

This is a belief that is rarely stated explicitly, but it is behind a good deal of the rhetoric from Welsh Labour. One could listen to Owen Smith wax lyrical about the redistributionism of the British state, and sense that behind this was the suggestion that we should be grateful for the largesse of Westminster. It is an assumption that popped to the surface somewhat more explicitly when Eluned Morgan once stated that those discussing independence should simply put their silly dreams to bed. 

This key plank of Labour ‘common sense’ is being assailed from two directions. One is connected to the Welsh independence campaign and the quite remorseless but rather effective emphasis on the self-evidently facile nature of this premise. There are dozens of independent countries that are smaller than Wales (this of course does not mean that there are no risks or problems in seceding, but the fact that the conversation is turning  – via Carwyn Jones – to the challenges of a new nation state securing the borrowing terms sufficient to secure spending over the transition period is itself significant). The other angle is the equally powerful proposition that Wales is too poor to continue being dependent on the British State. Given that child poverty is rising to 40%, we are reaching a critical stage for people in Wales. It is now self-evident, common sense even, to recognise that Wales cannot continue as it is. Given the direction of travel, maintaining the status quo poses the highest risk in terms of the future of our children.

7. Welsh nationalists cannot be internationalists

This is one of the classic tropes used not so much to buttress the Welsh Labour identity, but as a stick with which to beat Plaid Cymru. There is, of course, obvious traction to the idea that nationalism can mitigate against an internationalist spirit. There are too many grim historical examples of this, and as a more theoretical argument, there are numerous examples of ‘nationalists’ or ‘communitarian realists’ who question the notion of a global society or the possibility of fostering a global community. This has been a strong card to play and an appealing belief for Labourites to cling to as it offers a sense of moral superiority and plays into historical Welsh self-understandings connected to figures from our past such as Robert Owen, Henry Richard and also the almost mythical relationship with Paul Robeson.

This trope, however, is losing some of its traction, partly since British Labour’s pandering to the racism of the Brexit rhetoric (remember those mugs?) in an atmosphere where British nationalism has become far more explicitly xenophobic than its Scottish and Welsh equivalents. Going back to Attlee’s post war government, there is also troubling evidence that the party has been institutionally racist, and helped to plant the seeds for decades long rhetoric and legislation that culminated in the Windrush scandal . Rightly or wrongly, the belief has also been undermined by the result of the Brexit referendum, where it turned out that the Labour dominated valleys were far less pro-EU than the most nationalist part of Wales, Gwynedd. Of course, taking the referendum as a proxy for people’s ‘internationalist’ credentials is problematic, but it’s impressions that so often count in politics. The fact that Welsh-speaking women in Gwynedd have been recorded as the most pro-EU group in the UK has undermined the idea that Welsh nationalism is tied to an anti-internationalist spirit. 

8. Welsh nationalists are mad, bad.

In a similar fashion, another piece of common sense circulating amongst the Labour fraternity was the idea that Welsh nationalists are what Alun Cairns takes them to be (he famously equated them all with Meibion Glyndwr on Question Time). The idea of the ‘Welsh Extremist’ addressed by Ned Thomas in the early seventies remained a staple of Welsh political life, part and parcel of the enmity between the two parties. A consequence of this was the idea that any sympathy with the Welsh nationalist cause was to be avoided lest you found yourself on the slippery slope to extremism.

This piece of common sense makes little sense to many present-day Welsh citizens. There are obvious reasons for this. Firstly, there was the rapprochement between many in the two parties in the ‘80s as Wales faced a national crisis. This in time fed into the cooperation between those who campaigned for devolution. And this solidarity was consummated when the two parties got into bed with each other, and the two became ‘One Wales’. The Labour party itself, therefore, detoxified Plaid Cymru, and together with their own ‘soft’ nationalism, detoxified nationalism as a consequence. With support amongst their members for independence flourishing, there are now occasional attempts to ‘toxify’ it once more. 

9. Welsh nationalists cannot be socialists

Here we get to the classics. The idea that Welsh nationalists can’t be socialists seems to revolve around the idea that if you reject the British state you are in effect rejecting working-class solidarity, and putting pay to the possibility of working with allies on the other side of Offa’s Dyke. More recently Mark Drakeford has argued for the more unconventional notion that nationalism is inherently right-wing. There is also the more fundamental assumption that to be Welsh nationalist is to be nationalist in a way that doesn’t apply to being a supporter of the British state; that somehow we can work on the assumption that if a Labour supporter is loyal to the British state, one is a socialist first and foremost, and in no sense a ‘nationalist’.

This second premise is of course one of the more illogical and contradictory, one that is constantly challenged on social media. The argument attempts to elide the fact that affinity to the British state is in itself a form of nationalism. The only people who are not nationalists by default are anarchists and cosmopolitans who reject the nation-state. Everyone else is involved in a debate that is, effectively, about where state boundaries should be drawn, what form they should take. Such people do not, in fact, reject nationalism at all. The connected argument about the socialist credentials of those who remain faithful to the British state again rely on the questionable premise that collapse of that state would somehow reduce working-class solidarity and the prospects of the working classes more generally on these islands. The British state, however, remains elitist, self-serving, and still structured by aristocratic privilege, rituals and forms, buttressed – as described by Perry Anderson - by the bourgeoisie. In recent years it has become increasingly evident that bringing down the British state could be the only act of solidarity that could emancipate the English working class from its imperialist and virulently capitalist hegemony. To steal a line from the incomparable Sel Williams, it is not Adam Price’s Wales that is the final colony of the British state – it is in fact England.

10. Labour is a Unionist Party

Mark Drakeford’s attempts in the 2019 Keir Hardie lecture  to talk up the eponymous Scot’s Unionist credentials is a sure-fire sign that the assumption of Unionism as a core part of Labour identity is under scrutiny. Unionism has long been an underlying assumption, of course, and one which has only really been brought to the surface by Plaid politicians seeking to criticise Labour by focusing attention on an apparently servile attitude. Indeed, it may be one of the most deeply ingrained pieces of ‘common sense’ because there now seems to be a genuine tension, or anachronism in Welsh Labour representatives emphasising Britishness when they’ve spent the last 20 years emphasizing Welshness and devolution. This, however, rather proves the point that devolution has long been a process which entrenches and buttresses Unionism, a point expressed most convincingly by Dan Evans’ work on devolution as a passive revolution.

With Britishness losing its gloss, with the ongoing decline of the Labour party as an electoral opposition and member estrangement from the PLP, Unionism is no longer second nature for many in Welsh Labour. The enthusiasm for independence amongst a large swathe of Labour voters in Scotland dealt it another blow, with the Labour for Independence campaign said to have peaked with around 2000 campaigners during the independence referendum and an estimated 40% of voters being pro-indy. Claiming Hardie as their precursor was, of course, a key rhetorical move. 

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The problem for Welsh Labour in trying to oppose an anti-Unionist strain within the party is that it has a genuine pedigree; indeed key figures who helped to establish the party here, and assembled around and were close to Hardie, were driven by a particularist view of Wales. David Thomas and TE Nicholas were the most high profile of these names. Figures such as SO Davies – Merthyr’s MP for nearly forty years – were also a practical embodiment of this tradition and demonstrated in practice how socialism and Welsh nationalism could be combined. As Martin Wright the historian puts it in his book Wales and Socialism this ‘dissident’ view is one that has now become increasingly relevant in the new political landscape. In particular it provides those who are now turning to independence with a place to locate themselves within a Labour narrative, circumventing any angst or self-doubt that they may somehow be turning their back on their party’s traditions. This whilst also providing a response to those who would seek to delegitimise them as Labour supporters. 

This tradition is one that should provide food for thought for Labour at a UK level, especially as Keir Starmer’s attempts to wrap himself in the Union Jack have rather seen him tie himself in knots. It is increasingly difficult to see how they can recuperate their vote in Scotland without embracing a form of independence – and if the vote cannot be recuperated in Scotland then a Labour government will require some sort of accommodation with the SNP. Simultaneously, in England they have singularly failed to halt the rise of what can at best be described as a jingoistic right-wing nationalism. With the aforementioned changes in the British economy and its lack of a UK-wide industrial base, thought needs to be given to how socialism can be reworked in a more communitarian spirit to ensure that it has the genuine social basis that it requires to flourish. Metropolitan and regional identities in England may be a more promising basis from which to start, likewise recasting the relationship between the separate parts of the British Isles in a way that promotes class solidarity, whilst allowing for the fracturing of the union. 

The same considerations are surely true for Welsh Labour; they now find themselves with a voting base that is split on an issue that may have had little influence on the latest election, but cannot be avoided in future – in particular as Scotland tries to find its way towards secession. Drakeford rather cleverly provided some constructive ambiguity in the lead up to the election, with contrasting pieces of rhetoric for Labour voters.  It is questionable however, for how long the idea of ‘radical federalism’ can hold. They must also surely recognise that much of the interest in Welsh independence is a symptom of the increasing helplessness many feel here and that Westminster looks ever more unlikely to provide the answer.

It is with some regret that I say that this is no longer a party that seems capable of boldness, one which has lost all sense of the social basis that once sustained it. In saying this I do not write as a neutral observer. I was brought up in the party, and even in the wilds of north Ceredigion it was in those days built on social praxis; I have distant memories of jumble sales and family outings with people who lived their politics. A lot later in life, I experienced the Labour Party from the perspective of someone on the outside, as I became embroiled in a local campaign; my respect for some of those with whom I dealt was dramatically overshadowed by a party machine that was typified by a culture of arrogance, entitlement and disdain, where communities and voters seemed like nothing more than objects to be manipulated. It is a party that has lost touch, one that, with the exception of Mark Drakeford and his supporters, never accepted here in Wales the possibilities of reconnection with its people. Rebuilding a social movement was and remains the only type of force capable of changing politics for the better in Wales. Indeed, despite an impressive endorsement from the Welsh electorate in taking a different approach to the pandemic, Drakeford’s ability to build the 21st century socialism he espoused in the leadership campaign is not only greatly curtailed by Westminster – it is also undermined by the culture of his own party.

It is very difficult not to interpret the same insipid, lifeless scepticism towards the surge in support for Welsh independence as another symptom of the party’s morbidity. Given recent events, the erosion of this historical ‘common sense’ embodied in these ten commandments is no surprise. Whilst it is clear why Welsh independence is becoming the new normal for so many Labour voters in Wales, the leadership of the Party have, largely, so far shown little ability to adjust. With a majority in Scotland looking to escape, and Irish reunification a genuine possibility, the Welsh Labour Party has only so long to adapt to the break up of Britain.

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Huw Williams is senior lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University with research interests in international political theory and the history of political thought. He has published two books on global justice, one with Carl Death and another monograph on John Rawls. He has also authored two Welsh-language books on the intellectual history of Wales, including his most recent book, Ysbryd Morgan (UWP, 2020). He has contributed to a number of online publications including Open Democracy, The Conversation, and the radical, Welsh online platform, undod.

A version of this article originally appeard in New Socialist in October 2020. It has been revised to reflect the May 6th election results. Verso thanks the original publishers for their kind permission to republish. 

This article is part of the Verso Roundtable on The Break-Up of Britain. Follow the link for other articles in the series.