As Wales loses its cultural distinctiveness, will a civic identity sustain us?

Wales from space. Picture by NASA

Ifan Morgan Jones

Why does such a thing as Wales exist? If you looked down on Wales from space, there would be nothing to designate that Wales was a country apart.

Yes, there is quite clearly a prominent land mass of note sticking out of the island of which it is a part. But the proturbations known as East Anglia and South West England are equally noteworthy.

Countries are there for historical cultural and economic reasons. In Wales’ case, we have half a nation-state because we have half the justification for being a country.

We have maintained a tenuous hold of nationhood because of a linguistic and religious heritage that has bubbled up out of the past and laid the foundations for a modern nation-state, but without the economic independence that would take us all the way to national independence.

Wales, at the start of the age of modern nation-states in the 19th century, was a Welsh speaking, nonconformist, country in an English-speaking, Anglican union.

As power shifted from the Anglicised landowners to the bourgeois middle-class, as Christendom cracked into modern nation-states, that was all the difference needed to begin crow-barring England and Wales, fused together since the 16th century, apart again.

In the 19th century, liberal Welsh nonconformists argued that Wales’ religious identity meant that it was more than a county of England – that it was a country deserving of its own national institutions (which they, naturally, would be in charge of).

We got a University of Wales, a National Library, a National Museum, our own rugby and football teams.

By the late 20th century, the religious argument was already largely gone. But there was enough left of the historical, cultural entity to serve the best interests of the Labour party, who saw an opportunity to establish a permanent electoral fortress.

As a result, we got our own parliament. These civic institutions may have been an end in themselves but, absent an economic argument for separation, they needed the justification of the linguistic and cultural template which came before them.

Civic nationalism

But the cultural, linguistic, religious and political argument that Wales is a country apart is slowly withering away. We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our neighbours over the border.

Some herald this as a shift from an exclusive, ethnic nationalism to an inclusive, civic nationalism.

But there is a danger here too. If you’re a country just because you’re a country – that you have all these national institutions and it would be too much bother to shut them down – you’re in a very dangerous place.

As Brexit has shown us, the public has no qualms about shutting down political institutions when the mood takes them.

Without Wales’ cultural heritage, Wales actually makes little sense as a country. It has no integrated economy or transport system. One could forgive those in the north of Wales for wondering what hold Cardiff has over them, and why.

The point I’m making is that there’s nothing inevitable about Wales. Countries are made by people and people can unmake them whenever they see fit.

Wales has been killed off before, has been resurrected, and could easily be killed off again. We may like to think of nations as permanent fixtures, but in truth the only continuity is change.

Those who benefit most from the existence of Wales as a separate country need to realise that if they want their civic institutions to flourish they can’t neglect the cultural cement which fundamentally makes Wales a country apart.

Neglect

The survival of a unique Welsh language and culture up until the early days of the modern nation-state was a historical accident. It dodged many bullets to get there, but did. Phew.

But since then its survival or demise has been a matter that’s in the hands of the state.

Throughout the 19th century and up until the second half of the 20th, the state was actively opposed to its existence, and since then, supportive but neglectful.

Wales’ language and culture are now altogether a subject for our own devolved parliament. It can choose to save, or it can choose to kill, or it can choose to neglect.

So far it seems to be happy to do the latter. The government may set lofty goals, such as 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, but there’s been no fundamental change of strategy that would halt the current decline.

I’m all for civic nationalism. But it can’t be ignored that those nations that preach civic nationalism are those whose cultural and linguistic identity is already secure.

Once that cultural identity does come under threat, the nation acts swiftly – as we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, which is more than anything a backlash against a (primarily imaginary, in those cases) threat to the nation’s dominant culture.

Wales’ cultural identity is anything but safe. Our language is an endangered species. In many parts of Wales, it can be seen fading away as a community language in real-time.

Its industrial heritage too, is slowly ebbing away as living memory fades and as the valleys continue their demographic and economic decline. The laissez-faire approach won’t do.

There are many who bristle at the suggestion that you need the Welsh language, or the Welsh culture, to be Welsh.

That’s perfectly true, on an individual level. If you live or have lived in Wales and believe yourself to be Welsh then you are, in my opinion.

But if we feel we can do without the cultural markers that have sustained us in the past we need to articulate, on a national level, what replaces them.

What does set Wales apart? In the absence of these unique characteristics, why are we a country?


Notice: the_widget was called incorrectly. Widgets need to be registered using register_widget(), before they can be displayed. Please see Debugging in WordPress for more information. (This message was added in version 4.9.0.) in /var/www/vhosts/nation.cymru/dev.nation.cymru/wp-includes/functions.php on line 4231

We do not moderate comments before they appear. The views expressed in the comments are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nation. Cymru. Please read our community standards and participation guidelines before contributing.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Bradlet Jones
Guest
Bradlet Jones

Erthygl wych.

The Bellwether
Guest
The Bellwether

Excellent and well thought through article. But (there’s always a but..) being a bit thick and somewhat ‘uncultured’ I could really do with an explanation of what is meant by Welsh ‘culture’. I understand and agree with the language bit and possibly ‘civic identity’ but culture ‘markers’? Eistedfodae? Literary? Visual/musical arts? Barking at the moon? Worship of a pagan God?

aledrobertt
Guest

I believe there are no degrees of Welshness, therefore you are as Welsh as you want to or consider yourself to be.
However, I have been told often that I come across Welshier than others but I don’t endorse that.

Efnisien fab Euroswydd
Guest
Efnisien fab Euroswydd

What an awful, defeatist, article. Straight from Plaid’s leftist Leannite school of thought.

Nation.cymru filled many of us with hope. Alas, another false dawn. Another one bites the dust.

Get your head out of the Plaid leadership’s backside, Ifan, and at least pretend to be a journalist.

Tellyesin
Guest
Tellyesin

Then come up with an alternative. Complaining is no longer enough. If you disagree, come up with a better argument!

Tellyesin
Guest
Tellyesin

The answer to your question is no. A civic identity is not what the Scots are pushing for. They are pushing for a civic identity that serves the people of Scotland. I want a Welsh civic identity that serves us all, including my friends in Abertillery who refuse to speak Welsh and the lovely Turkish brothers who cut my hair. This is not a binary situation – either we protect the language or we have a Welsh police force. We do both. We do it by supporting institutions that work at a Welsh level rather than asking UK institutions to… Read more »

Hannah
Guest
Hannah

“We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our neighbours over the border.” This reveals part of the problem: the idea that we only have ‘one’ border, which is ‘the’ border (note that neither the neighbours nor the border are made explicit, and so our unconscious attitudes have to be reinforced in order to provide the relevant information. Let’s rewrite this sentence: ‘We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our English neighbours over the eastern border, and in many ways our Irish neighbours to the West.’ It would be good also to include reference (implicit or explicit) to other… Read more »

Craig
Guest
Craig

There is no need for a civic identity because many English first language speakers born in Wales still consider themselves Welsh. Just like how anglicised Scotland and Ireland still consider themselves to be Irish and Scottish. Wales is the least anglicised out of them all yet Scotland and Ireland have had a stronger identity. They have a stronger foundation of institutions behind them.

leigh richards
Guest

“Those who benefit most from the existence of Wales as a separate country need to realise that if they want their civic institutions to flourish they can’t neglect the cultural cement which fundamentally makes Wales a country apart” i can honestly say i dont know of anyone promoting welsh civic institutions that wants to neglect welsh culture ifan. Support for welsh civic institutions and welsh culture surely go together like a ‘horse and carriage’.

Pen-Cloch
Guest
Pen-Cloch

We know that we are approaching Wales on the M4 because we have a bridge to cross and currently a toll to pay but blink and you will miss the red dragon on the bridge that brings you in from Manchester and Liverpool through Deeside. This would be irrelevant were it not for the Welsh Language which I believe readers of Nation.Cymru have prioritised as top in maintaining Welsh Identity. In another article “It’s one-way bilingualism, not immigration, that’s killing the Welsh language”. Have ‘we’ the arbiters of cultural distinctiveness taken our eye of the ball for such a long… Read more »

The Bellwether
Guest
The Bellwether

Forget politics, civic pride, wishy washy nationalism, elections, cultural sensibilities (duh); we, the sheeple, love to follow a Leader. Throughout history these ‘leaders’ (that are remembered and become icons of er..culture) have often been ‘warrior’ kings of some sort ie.royalty. We have Owain Glyndŵr. King Arthur and please feel free to list the many others. Tom Robbins, author of ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’, postulated in another terrific book ‘Jitterbug Perfume’, that Nations should always have and be defined by a King/Queen to rule over them. His thesis, as far as I understand it, is that this monarch should be… Read more »

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Celtic Kings didn’t work like that. Warriors they were yes but many dynasties swapped out the Kingship among themselves. What that meant was when a King died it’d pass to another branch of the family (Primogeniture) – not necessarily the previous Kings son. In fact I’d say certain Welsh leaders brought about the downfall of our nation by trying to Normanise the succession from the traditional: the Lord Rhys tried to skip his eldest son who was a bastard by Christian terms (even though that mattered diddly squat in Brythonic law), as did Llywelyn ap Iorwerth by skipping his son… Read more »

Billprice
Guest
Billprice

Small detail, I believe the image is by Commander Chris Hadfield and I recall it appearing on Twitter around St. Georges Day. I was amused by this.

Gethin ap Gruffydd
Guest
Gethin ap Gruffydd

Excellent article but my for my own hard and fast views, see WEXIT Blog http://gruffyddgethin.blogspot.co.uk/

Dafis
Guest
Dafis

Terrible reflection on the newer generation of “bright young things” that most of the real imaginative writing about freedom,liberty etc comes from people who were caught up in that brief ( too brief) flurry of activity in the mid/late 60’s. The boys locked up by Jock Wilson & Co, and some who got away, were just a symptom of the real feeling around the place then, but it all faded away, except for the slow burn (bad pun) of Meibion Glyndwr. Gethin is right, we have softened, been conditioned into a semi compliant comatose condition where to rebel now is… Read more »

T
Guest
T

An example of a civic institution that is happy to neglect Welsh culture has to be the Welsh Government and the Labour party in Wales ( Jac O North makes a strong argument about the role of the third sector and housing associations in particular in undermining Welsh culture). Maybe you could include most of education, especially higher education in this list. The analysis is good, I do think we need to, as suggested above by others look at our other neighbours, and try to reimagine Wales not from an English only perspective. The argument that national identity and cultural… Read more »

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

We need to be setting the agenda and stop undermining some of the many good things that we have. Some things are non-debatable and we should even be debating them. What is Welsh culture? – Who cares – it just is, end of. What is French culture, what is English Culture? They are all layers of romantic nonsense at the end of the day and nothing to be gained in debating them or trying to justify them, except to undermine them. So what if we have some pettiness and drop into parochialism from time to time – it is part… Read more »

henacynflin
Guest

Welsh culture is what the people of Wales do, just as Scottish culture is what Scots do and English culture what the people over the border do. Give us the power to run our own lives and our culture will continue to develop and change. Rule over us, either at home or from abroad, and our culture will continue to die.

Gethin ap Gruffydd
Guest
Gethin ap Gruffydd

should this nterest us? (Finnancial Times)New centre-right political party vows to ‘reboot’ Ireland

Fragmenting political landscape throws outcome of next general election wide open