Thursday, 23 August 2007

Why Wales (2)

So, what makes Wales a nation?

Part of the answer is history. I don't mean the history of (a glorious, independent insert here whatever adjectives you wish) Wales prior to the conquest by the (wicked, evil, insert here etc.) English. That isn’t the reality. Welsh unity was a rare commodity – the Welsh, just like the English, were somewhat prone to fighting amongst themselves much of the time, and for most of its pre-Union history, Wales was a collection of warring princedoms, with an occasional flash of something approaching unity. Nothing exceptional in that – much of England’s history (and for that matter, most of Europe) looks pretty much the same, although England seems to have achieved a greater degree of unity earlier in its history.

Paradoxically, it seems to me that the part of history which establishes what ‘Wales’ is is precisely the part which was intended to extinguish it – namely the Act of Union itself. It was that which defined our territory – not on the basis of language or descent, for many 'Welsh' people of the day would have found themselves in England – but on the basis of a de facto recognition of where authority lay at the time. To be Welsh in this sense is to come from the territory marked out as Wales at a particular point in time, no more, no less.

History is also about shared experiences, some of which are capable of detailed examination, and some of which become a sort of folklore. But a common understanding of where 'we' came from is certainly a major part of the definition of nationality.

The second part, and probably the more important, is self-identity. We are Welsh because we believe ourselves to be so. We may have three million different reasons for so believing – some use language, others geography, others their interpretation or understanding of history. We support the national teams when it comes to sport, we (mostly) support the idea that the Welsh language belongs to this piece of geography in some vague way even if we don’t speak it, we take a certain pride in our national flag and other symbols of nationhood.

That combination of geography and self-identity gives us some sort of common cause, and means that most of us would oppose any attempt to ‘regionalise’ the UK on any basis which did not recognise the historic border, even if we are not nationalists in the classic sense.

But just as we have to selective about our history to justify where Wales is, we also have to be selective about self-identification to justify the concept of Wales as a nation. What if the people of Ynys Môn, for instance – an insular breed at the best of times – decided to self-identify as a distinct nation? Would that be enough to make them a nation? Or what if the Welsh-speaking majority in a handful of counties in the West and North decided that they were a different nation, and wanted an Assembly to run their own affairs? If ‘self-identity’ is ultimately the most important factor in determining nationality, what is the logical basis for rejecting either of these scenarios?

Of course, the boundaries of the UK are the result of the same sort of historical processes as formed the boundaries of Wales, and self-identifying as ‘British’ therefore seems to me to be every bit as valid as self-identifying as ‘Welsh’. And apart from some of the more strident nationalists, who ever decided that people cannot self-identify with two ‘nations’ at the same time?

‘Identity’, or more specifically, ‘national identity’, seems to be something for which many humans yearn, but it is ultimately nothing more than a human construct, based on territorial boundaries (established as a result of wars and accidents), an element of shared history and culture following the establishment of those boundaries, and a large degree of self-identification.

The political debate should surely be less about nationality as such and more about how and where we take the key decisions which affect our lives.

12 comments:

hafod said...

Interesting and thoughtful post. The continued existence of a Welsh identity is pretty illogical by most measurements. There is no material basis to that identity, just as there is no economic basis for the existence of the Welsh language.
But here we are in 2007 and arguably Welsh identity is stronger now than it was in 1957 or 1907. Even more remarkably, that's in the face of massive in-migration (30% of the Welsh population were born in England).
Is it cos we're stubborn bastards? Or is it because that Welsh identity adds something to our lives, no matter how intangible? How else do you explain people sending their kids to a Welsh-medium school when they don't speak the language? Why else support Wales in the footie when you know Bodin's going to miss that pen or Joe Jordan's going to handle the ball (you could be glorying in England's latest, er, success instead)? On a political level, why vote - just - for an assembly?

Anonymous said...

hafod,

As the sergeant said in the film Zulu...."It's because you are here boy!"....and not there ;-)

alanindyfed said...

However, accept the fact or not Cer : Britain IS not a nation except in the minds of those who *believe* that they are "British". Factually, it has never existed.

Anonymous said...

.....a nation gives people something to be proud about.....a feeling of belonging etc etc. You can question the basis of all nations I suppose. I don't understand this continuous questioning of the right of the Welsh nation to exist? Somebody said...I think it was Ceredig that we shouln't be looking at things from a nation point of view but from which powers etc at which level are we best served. You'll next be saying that we join the English and form an EnglandandWales rugby team because that will be stronger and serve us better. Muppet.

Nell's son said...

Your post shows that you have knowledge of Gwyn Alf's book "When Was Wales"

If you want to prove that you are the most academic blogger going - the only one who studies premise and logic rather than heart and gut; shouldn't you, at least, follow the most basic academic courtesy of acknowledging your sources?

alanindyfed said...

Nationalism is the urge to establish a political home for those who in the past have been abused, disregarded, neglected, exploited and intmidated.
The natural reaction to indignities such as these is an emotional one.

Ceredig said...

Hafod,

Indeed. Welsh nationality and identity exist because we choose for them to exist. They are an integral part of what we are; but so is our identity as British, European – and human. I’m happy to consider myself as being all four of those things, but none of them lead me to an unbending view of where political power should lie or where decisions should be taken. All four levels have relevance. I want to debate those issues on a utilitarian basis as well, rather than solely on the basis of a self-selected nationality. That nationality (or even those nationalities) are a part of that debate inevitably – structures should surely recognise human feelings or attachments such as community and nation. But what I’m challenging is the idea, which seems to be common in some nationalist circles, that one is either a Welsh-Nat or a Brit-Nat. I think that’s an unhelpful over-simplification - and I admit to being deliberately provocative in challenging it.

Alan,

Again, I’m afraid, I feel that you are stating opinion as fact. The Welsh nation exists because those of us who are Welsh want it to exist, based on history, geography etc. I may have been provocative and challenging in my arguments, but I do fully accept that Wales is a nation. However, part of the point that I have been trying to make is that I can see no basis for recognising that Wales is a nation which cannot equally be used to define Britain as a nation. Dismissing those who take that view as being just plain wrong is no way to engage in debate.

Anon 20:24,

In no way do I question the right of the Welsh nation to exist, nor that nationality should be part of the discussion about political structures. What I do question is the assumption that structures should be automatically based on nationality. I am also questioning why it is impossible to be both Welsh and British - after all, as far as I can see, most people in Wales actually believe themselves to be both. Starting from the assumption that the majority of the people of Wales are deluded as to their national identity has never seemed to me like a terribly good idea.

Nel’s son,

I’ll happily admit to ownership of a copy of Gwyn Alf’s excellent book, although it is some years since I read it. I wasn’t conscious that I was drawing that heavily upon it, but I’ll take your word for that. I’m not trying to ‘prove’ anything, though, sorry.

alanindyfed said...

I still maintain that Britain is not a nation, but practically all have been conditioned to believe that it is. We all grew up not aware of the difference. If Britain is composed of three (some would say four) nations), how is it possible that Britain is also a nation?
Please answer with logic, not belief.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Britain come into existence as a term some time after the Union of Scotland with EnglandandWales? When the Scots go, as they will....then we will be left with EnglanandWales. I suppose you will be arguing for the validity of that entity come that time......

Ceredig said...

Alan,

You make it quite difficult for anyone to debate with you if you start from the position that anyone who disagrees with your view of the world has been brainwashed. But I’ll try anyway.

You maintain that everyone can have one, and only one, nationality, and since Wales, England, and Scotland are nations, it is therefore impossible for there to be any such thing as ‘British’ nationality. Perfectly logical, as far as it goes – but it depends entirely on accepting your definition of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’. You are defining nationality in a pretty exclusive way, I fear. I start from the viewpoint that, if most of the population of Wales consider themselves to be both British and Welsh, then the idea of a more fluid definition of nationality, including overlapping or multiple nationalities, is something which we must at least consider, since the alternative is telling the majority of our compatriots that they are deluded (or brainwashed, as you might say).

One of the key components of nationality is shared history or experience. Now, of course, Wales joined the union by conquest rather than by agreement (as, incidentally, did most of the former smaller kingdoms in the area we now call England), but that doesn't change the fact that, in the centuries since then, there has been much shared experience and history - much of which brings the peoples of these islands closer together, some of which divides them. The result of those centuries – during which many Welsh men and women were as fervent in support of the Empire as were their English colleagues, for example – is that most people in Wales believe that they are in some way both British and Welsh. (If you wanted to argue that for most people in England, the words 'English’ and ‘British’ are more or less synonymous, I wouldn't disagree with you; but here in Wales, most people do understand that there is a difference – but they still espouse both, and we have to recognise that fact.)

As it happens, I think that there is a strong case for further devolution of powers to Wales (as well as within Wales), and possibly even for Independence. But if that case depends on some quasi-religious experience of looking inside ourselves to find the light and truth, or on simply re-affirming the mantra ‘Wales is a nation, therefore we must be independent’, then it will fail to convince the majority of the people of Wales. Any debate on the future of Wales has to be conducted in terms which accept, rather than deny, the ‘British’ identity which many Welsh people feel.

Anonymous,

My argument is that we have to recognise the potential validity of any unit with which people choose to self-identify. Carpenters might call it ‘working with the grain’.

alanindyfed said...

"As it happens, I think that there is a strong case for further devolution of powers to Wales (as well as within Wales), and possibly even for Independence."

I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies.

(also, see today's "Western Mail".)

Tartini said...

In your post Ceredig and in various responses I'm surprised to see so little referance to the concept of Welsh nationhood which is the bulwark of Welsh language culture. Despite being at loggerheads with each other in the past (and possibly present) throughout the centuries Cymru has been an undisputed reality. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerallt Gymro)composed his Itinerarium Kambriae referring of course to his journey throughout Wales. Years later one of the bards mourning our last Prince of Wales called our country "Cymru Fawr". What a vision he mut have had of our land and people! How various parts of Wales was governed or controlled was irrelevant - the whole mass of our land - o Fôn i Fynwy - was and is called Cymru. Place names also form another adjunct to our understanding of belonging to Wales as do folk songs, stories and a common history, also taking into account the fact that most Welsh people today do not speak Welsh. I'm not Welsh because I am, but rather because I acknowledge the above mentioned as part of my personal background, my culture.