Notes on Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru
[1981; south Wales IMG internal discussion document]
The Origins of Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru
There was an absence of a nationalist movement in Wales until the late nineteenth century. Marxists should reject the notion that the Llewelyns revolt of the thirteenth century, or Glyndwr's revolt of the fifteenth century were actually nationalist . Instead we should characterise them as disputes by feudal lords whose ambitions were essentially the enlargement of their territory. There was some play, especially by Glyndwr, of elements of the latent nationality, as in the proposal for a north and south university. But it remained a matter of enlarging the caste area of Glyndwr's domination.
Such movements as the circulating schools, or the Methodist and non-conformist revivals had essentially cultural rather than political aims. This resulted in severe limitations upon the nationalist aspects of these movements. These were responses to growing capitalism that sought to express certain differences of nationality while reconciling their followers to a unified British capitalist state. Cymru Fydd, which arose inside the Liberal Party in the 1880s, was basically the first nationalist movement. Amongst its aims was a parliament for Wales.
Cymru Fydd represented rising bourgeois, but overwhelmingly rural petty bourgeois, forces in Welsh society. Its collapse from 1896 can be tied to the growing capitalisation of the countryside and the opposition of substantial bourgeois forces in South Wales whose interests were linked to the consolidation of British Imperialism.
So once a nationalist movement is posed the forces that would lead it normally, i.e. bourgeois forces, are already. closely integrated into the powerful British imperial state. The relatively late development of capitalism in Wales made this assimilation inevitable.
The oppressed classes showed no desire in nineteenth-century Wales to strive for a separate national state. Their struggles - Jacobinism, Scotch Cattle, Rebecca, Merthyr insurrection, Chartism and trade unionism - were movements identical to those of oppressed classes throughout the British state. The land question in Wales, the motor force of national movements amongst the oppressed throughout the world, was one of bringing the landlords and gentry under the domination of the bourgeoisie. As such it was identical to the land struggle throughout Britain. It was not a matter of dealing with absentee landlords, catastrophic famines, massive emigration or foreign domination as in Ireland where a massive nationalist movement dominates the nineteenth-century struggles of the oppressed.
At the point when the question of a separate state was settled for the Welsh bourgeoisie so too it was settled for the proletariat in Wales. Cymru Fydd or a place in the Empire were the choices for the Welsh bourgeoisie. Support for the Liberals or their own party and unions were the parallel choices for Welsh workers. Class interests prevailed for both major classes over the 'national' interest of Wales. Cymru Fydd and the 1898 miners' strike are the signposts to the new divisions in Welsh society. The first a pathetic flicker of nationalism overshadowed by bigger career prospects and imperialist wealth. The second an announcement of the long struggle for political independence by a class from its 'national' partners in Wales.
The national question was not resolved equitably by the bourgeoisie. Land, language and church disestablishment were all subject to compromises between different class fractions, at the expense of the most oppressed classes. The workers' movement championed a limited number of these issues. Kier Hardie and the ILP in the first instance, later the Communist Party and the Labour Party took up some of the cudgels. But in so doing they assimilated these questions into a class movement; it would be wrong to describe this as nationalism - it was to finish that left unresolved in a future unified socialist state of Britain. The workers' movement in Wales was at the same time physically integrating thousands of English workers who moved to the booming coalfields. Further, the campaign for an all British Labour Party and unions were to the forefront of Welsh workers' concerns.
From 1911 a period of prolonged crisis opened for British imperialism. Recession in the economy led to war for markets. Even success in the war failed to prevent further recession in the 20s. The bourgeois parties faltered, with the Liberals completely fragmenting. Powerful new currents arose amongst the oppressed, particularly the suffragettes. Syndicalism emerged before the steep growth of the Labour Party dominated the trade unions. Internationally the struggle for Irish independence and especially the Russian Revolution had profound effects upon the workers, leading to the emergence of the Communist Party. This explosion of class forces, following the long boom of the 1890s and 1900s, shook up Welsh society as much as it did the rest of Britain.
It set adrift, hardly noticed then, class fractions whose traditional representatives no longer seemed to represent them. In Wales these were especially petty bourgeois and rural forces. Forces who for the most part had supported the Liberals one hundred per cent, up to and including the first Imperialist war. With the collapse of Liberalism and the emergence of the Labour Party their interests were apparently undefended. The key layer here was a section of the Welsh speaking intelligentsia. Despite Church Disestablishment, land reforms, the establishment of the University of Wales and the Welsh Education Department, in other words the completion of some of the planks of Cymru Fydd, the position of rural Welsh-speaking Wales remained dire. The weakness of the Labour Party and labour in general in rural Wales, the remorseless retreat of the Liberals throughout the British state, and the deepening division between town and country (increasing notable in language terms) meant that no abatement in the decline in the language or impoverishment of the countryside was in sight.
Plaid Cymru thus came into being as a defensive reflex by a section of the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia, whose traditional role as social spokespersons for rural society was evaporating with the decimation of Liberalism and the ascendancy of city and town capitalism. What labour support they gained, from farm labourers and quarry workers, can be seen as based on the failure of the Labour Party to champion their cause. Nationalism for such workers had an attraction because of the failings of Labour, not because of its own strength. Thus although Labour remained committed to Parliaments for Wales and Scotland through the 1929 General Election, this remained a pa per commitment, hardly likely to secure the allegiance of the social forces behind the second wave of nationalism.
Plaid Cymru and the Second Wave of Welsh Nationalism
The origins of Plaid then lie in the first long crisis of British Imperialism. Its initial composition was a layer of the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia mostly drawn from the University of Wales, a section of non-conformist clergy, whose position in an increasingly anglicised and depopulated countryside was being undermined, small farmers, Welsh teachers and artists, and small numbers of rural workers who had little impact upon the party. What united these layers was the destruction of the rural way of life and the erosion of the Welsh language. Plaid's programme reflected this petty-bourgeois domination by placing cultural matters ever economic matters, and even over the question of self-government. The initial aims of Plaid were to make Welsh mandatory in the language of local and official authority in Wales, and to make Welsh the language of the education system from elementary school to university. It was not until 1932, 7 years after its formation, that self-government became part of the platform of Plaid. Since that time Plaid members have united on three objectives - self-government, defence of the language and culture, and Welsh representation at the League of Nations (UN today).
Plaid's economic policy too reflected, once formulated, the dominance of the petty bourgeoisie in the party. Rejecting the bourgeoisie's competition, and the proletariat's collectivism, they settled for 'co-operation'. In the words of D J Davies, whose ideas on economics dominated the party until the 60s, 'Co-operation is a system which, without violent revolution and without injuring anybody, can grow within the capitalist system and gradually undermine it and transform it from within, and which experience has shown to be practically immune from capitalist attacks.' The explanation for the ability of the nationalist party to exist for over 35 years without an economic policy broaching reality to any degree resides within the social forces leading the Plaid. Essentially they were Christian, conservative and Welsh speaking defenders of the traditions of Wales much more than party politicians. Such forays as they made into economics before the 60s were confined to such questions as fighting to get Wales treated as a single unit by the Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council in I942.
Despite these many conservative features their nationalism was underpinned by radicalism. The social layers represented were layers whose conditions were critical in the continued development of Welsh and British society. Wasting away with no future respite these layers could no longer identify with British Imperialism as the Welsh nationalism of Gladstone and Lloyd George's time had led them to. Now it was a question of a separate party, state and future in defence of the 'gwerin' (folk/people).
The social processes fuelling Plaid's growth initially are clear. The state under imperialism entered now into the remotest farm, conscripting farm youth whose death would be relayed in a foreign language, English, to the same farm. The First World War, allegedly in defence of 'small nations', became in retrospect an affront to small nations in the hands of the 'defenders' of national rights at Versailles, Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson. The programme of land reform initiated from the 1880s and completed after the first imperialist war resulted. in the growth of owner-occupiers whose indebtedness had become pronounced by the end of the 1920s. The language securely spoken by the majority of people in Wales at the beginning of the century, as indicated by the census returns for 1911, 21 and 31, entered into a steep decline. Rural depopulation increased rather than stabilising after the land reforms. The quarry workers were decimated in the decade before the war, and this continued with the workers heading south to the mining valleys. All these dislocations in rural society were largely led by the major parties. The Labour Party had few roots in rural Wales, and no leaders in the south prepared to fight for an alliance of the southern workers with those forces in rural Wales becoming impoverished. And although the Liberal Party, embracing Keynesianism in the early 30's, retained some hold still it was. manifestly unable to achieve anything for rural Wales. So, when the great rise in the Labour Party in Wales became really marked in the I924 General Election the shattering of the Liberals in Wales caused one fragment of its base to declare for a nationalist party.
Despite a slow rate of growth there was a steady movement of the leaders of rural opinion into the Plaid. In 1930 - 500 members; in 1939 - 2000 members; in 1945 - 2,500 members. These were forces who could not identify their interests with British parties and the state; who were prepared to applaud the burning of an RAF training school in 1936 by three Plaid leaders; to oppose the Coronation of 1937; and to take a 'neutral' stand in the so-called 'People's War' in 1939.
Radical nationalism already displayed its limits and contradictions. It was heterogeneous: Saunders Lewis' support for Catholicism and very rightist intellectual currents (in France these were actually fellow travellers of fascism) could co-exist with Gwynfor Evans' non-conformity and Ghandian pacifism. Even on issues at the heart of its existence it has been unclear. Initially it was for an 'all-Welsh' Wales, but increasingly bilingualism was canvassed. Never though has it been clear whether this was a stage to an 'all-Welsh' Wales or an end in itself. Similarly, self-government has been a disposable aim, in so far as electoral advance may be made by shedding it in elections in the south. Generally it remains completely obscure as to the social forces that can be instrumental in achieving its Programme. It retains a strategy that once a majority of Welsh MPs (i.e. 19 in total out of 36) are Plaid members then British imperialism, having supposedly learnt its lesson from Ireland, will concede self-government to Wales. Trying to retain some cohesion between such a strategy and its critique of the impersonal and anti-democratic forces of the British state is indeed an exercise in mental gymnastics.
The forces of nationalism and Plaid Cymru could make no headway in the Welsh workers movement during the second wave. Not only was the Labour Party more advanced, at least until 1932, in terms of at least having a paper policy for parliaments for Scotland and Wales but also the stance of Plaid distanced them from a workers' movement preoccupied with such secular concerns as wage cuts, unemployment and the means test. Plaid leaders were disdainful of the actions of the southern workers movement. The South Wales' Miners Federation were distrusted for their link to the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. In Saunders Lewis' words in 1955, 'Pentecostal Utopianism ... was the curse of the country' (this being a reference to southern workers. It is hardly surprising then that Plaid exercised no attraction for these workers. Its social base lay outside the workers' movement in the south and north east of Wales, and was to remain so until the 1960s.
Plaid continued to evolve after 1945 along the paths mapped out in the 1938 conference. Then Gwynfor Evans moved a resolution in favour of non-violent action legal and illegal, to compliment the parliamentary strategy. Evans' election as President confirmed a shift in the Plaid to a leadership more pragmatic, less Catholic and based more on the farming communities than the University bloc of Lewis and Bebb. This shift led to some growth - 7,750 members by 1957 - and some further clarification of programme. A position of separation with Dominion status in a British Common Market was adopted in the early 60s.
These new forces had been won through supporting the 'Parliament for Wales' campaign, opposing the drowning of Tryweryn valley, and various illegal actions, although these were exceptional in these years. Such actions included a sit-down outside the army camp at Trawsfyndd in 1951 and some slogan painting. The Plaid attempted to act as a voice for social layers who otherwise were underrepresented. It did attempt to broaden its base through supporting CND, and in the south was prepared to tone down its nationalism and concentrate on the economic discontent in the Valleys. Yet it remained marginal by the early 60s.
The Third Wave of Nationalism, and the Last?
During and since the second imperialist war a large scale restructuring of the British economy has been visible. In Wales this meant that the major extractive industries declined steeply in numbers employed, while manufacturing, construction and service industries rose steeply. Agriculture employed 9% of the Welsh population in 1921 - by 1951 this was 8.3%, and 5.9% by 1961. Mining and quarrying employed 26.4% of the population in 1921 - by 1951 this was 12.7%, and 9.7% by 1961. Manufacturing employed 17% in 1921 - by 1951 this reached 27%, and by 1961 it was 28.1%. Construction and service industries employed 47.6% in 1921, 53.9% in 1951 and 56.3% in 1961. In the Service industries the highest rises were in building and construction, distribution and professional services, while transport suffered a large decline.
Throughout the twentieth century a process of administrative devolution has been underway. The very decrepitude of existing state structures, and the inexperience of the bourgeoisie with any handling of federalism, meant that this process has developed in a faltering, almost irrelevant, manner. In Wales prior to 1939 this devolution had hardly begun, being confined to a separate education department, local administration of the insurance acts, and similar welfare questions. The Government tended not to intervene directly in economic management, although government pressure secured the new Ebbw Vale steelworks in 1938. This broke down as Keynesian ideas began to be employed by the bourgeoisie. Government bodies such as the Welsh Advisory Council of the Ministry of Reconstruction began to work out policies which could combine the restructuring of the economy with the maintenance of social peace.
This process was common to Britain but a defiant 'regional' policy began to emerge, although in a distinctly unplanned manner. Thus a single Welsh Gas board was set up, while electricity was divided between a South Wales board, and a North West board including Merseyside. The whole of south Wales was scheduled as a development area, its administration passing to the Board of Trade with a separate Welsh controller. Measures were taken to back this up through encouraging capital investment via Industrial Development Certificates, Government sponsored factories, and the setting up of a Welsh Industrial Estate Corporation. This has to be seen alongside the substantial number of nationalisation's and general government support for industry.
Under the Wilson Government of 64-70 this policy reached the point of giving the whole of Wales, except for the South East around Cardiff and Newport, development status in 1966: in 1969 this was extended to the whole of the region apart from Chepstow. In economic planning regional employment premiums had been introduced to subsidise labour costs. Further Government offices were transferred from London: the Royal Mint to Llantrisant, the M.O.T. registration and licence centre to Swansea, the Passport Office to Newport and the Investment Grant Centre to Cardiff. In addition there was a substantial expansion of regional broadcasting in radio and TV, by both the BBC and private concerns.
This new government policy was tied to a continuous discussion on government administration by the major parties. The first post-war Labour Government came under pressure from the Welsh Labour Party (a Regional Council of Labour was set up in 1947) to consider Welsh issues in central government. Requesting a Secretariat of State for Wales, these forces had to accept a compromise solution, the setting up of a non-governmental, purely advisory Council for Wales. It was not until 1959 that Labour supported a Secretary of State for Wales, and it was the 1964 Government which introduced the post. In the same year the Labour Government introduced the Welsh Office, whose role in the administration of the state has risen steadily since that time. This discussion began to peak with the formation of the Kilbrandon Commission on the constitution in 1969. No party could be untouched by its support for Welsh and Scottish Assemblies when it finally reported in 1973. It is often suggested that the whole devolution exercise was a manoeuvre to deal with the rising threat of nationalism. In fact at its core was an attempt to bring government practice into line with state and business administration, the inadequacies of which were some of the grounds for growth by the nationalist parties.
What needs stressing here is that these two major developments - the restructuring of the economy and the restructuring of the state - created wider social forces who had a material interest in a separate or more powerful state structure in Wales. These essentially petty-bourgeois and white collar worker forces were able to connect with other social forces, especially radicalising students and some proletarian layers, to make up the most powerful wave of Welsh nationalism yet seen. They achieved this by turning the Plaid into a substantial party, and by making the Welsh Language Society a mass campaigning body in defence of the language. This separating out allowed the resolution of the long-standing ambiguity - 'party or language first?'. These forces could play this role because the workers movement, essentially here the Labour Party, was not rising to the defence of Welsh national rights. Today the decline of nationalism is pronounced enough to envisage its fragmentation. Only if the workers' movement is unable to champion the cause of the social layers sustaining nationalism would we expect its revival.
These new petty bourgeois forces drawn to nationalism swamped the older groupings in the party. They professionalised the party, rescuing it from the benign ineptitude of 'Gwynfor's Court'. A clear economic policy was adopted. Bilingualism was adopted. Constituency Committees were set up throughout Wales. Youth organisations were set up, though these tended to fold with the continued pull of the Welsh Language Society. Campaigns were held against unemployment, the use of Welsh water by English corporations, for language expansion in government, education and broadcasting, for support for Welsh farmers, against the EEC (although not without an ambiguous position on renogotiations for Wales). These forces, which still dominate the Plaid today, identified their project as the continued expansion of the Welsh economy despite recession in the British and world economies. It is hardly surprising then that at this time we can see the first bourgeois forces being attracted to Plaid, albeit in far more individual way than the bourgeois forces which took over the SNP at this time. The party reached a membership of 20,000 by 1970. With three MPs in the minority Labour Government of 1974-9, the party was able to gain substantial concessions. Its membership was still at 17,000 at the end of 1979. However, the limited base of the party asserted itself following the referendum and the local, national and EEC elections in 1979. The third wave of nationalism has reached its limits, having failed to secure a lasting base in the working class outside the rural areas.
The rise of the third wave of Welsh nationalism became clear during the 64-70 Labour Government. The onset of recession triggered the movement of social forces that had been accumulating for 25 years. In this Government, Plaid acting as a radical opposition were able to get their first MP, and to run the Labour Party a very close second in such bastions as Rhondda West and Caerphilly. The Welsh Language Society had as a result of its first five years of campaigning the victory of the 1967 Welsh Language Act, and the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia had the Gittings report support the Welsh Schools movement.
It appeared that the Labour Government could not solve the problems of Wales. Labour voters became nationalists in opposition to the decline of the Valleys, rather than in support of the Welsh language. Much of this support for nationalism evaporated as quickly as it had congealed. The fact that radical nationalism as such had no alternative itself did the most to limit the growth of nationalism in the workers' movement. This became crystal clear during the 74-79 Labour Government. Plaid had begun to make inroads into Labour support in local government: they won Merthyr and were the largest group in the Rhymney Valley. Not only did they not fight the cuts, but they touted job creation projects as though they were some radical invention of Plaid. If they had no alternative en a local level then the workers who supported them were clearly better off supporting a Party that in government could introduce further measures like the Job Creation Scheme, that is the Labour Party. And hence the collapse of Plaid in local government in the industrial areas. Where the Plaid has maintained a base in local government, i.e. in rural areas such as Gwynedd county, it is because it is part of the dominant social force in the area, the rural petty bourgeoisie, and is thus locked into local concerns. In the south and the north east it has acted as an opposition to Labour, rather than as a genuine nationalist formation.
The impossibility of radical nationalism standing as a genuine option for either of the major classes in Wales became clearest in the 1979 referendum and its aftermath. With the bourgeoisie extremely hostile and the working class split on the question, Plaid proved incapable of leading an independent line of action. So afraid was it of breaking the links it had made with sections of the reformist bureaucracy that it hid as far as it could its separatist programme in supporting the Assembly proposals. Yet that section of the reformist bureaucracy around Kinnock and Abse who opposed the Assembly tarred the whole project with a nationalist brush. Plaid publicly denied it, evaded it and avoided it; despite the fact that its actual project in supporting the Assembly, as clearly laid out in its 1978 conference, was to use the Assembly as a first step to independence.
The final crisis of nationalism in Wales arises from the impossibility of it constructing a social base for separation that has the power to carry through such a project. The bourgeois forces in Wales are nearly 100% behind a single UK state, and the working class is overwhelmingly in favour of all-British (if net all UK) organisations.
Our Orientation Towards Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru
A general summing up of Welsh nationalism is that this is the nationalism of a people assimilated into the British state where certain national inequalities remain. It is not the nationalism of an oppressed people. It is a nationalism contradictory in character, in some respects progressive but only insofar as certain issues have not been integrated into the aims of the Welsh workers' and British workers' movement. But in most aspects it is overwhelmingly regressive, seeking a mythical unity of interests of a Welsh people long since differentiated into antagonistic classes
Its contradictory character is the key to its radicalism, rather than some supposed unbroken tradition of Welshness equated with radicalism. The social position of the forces composing nationalism in Wales is unstable. This is why it has a radical programme. Those petty bourgeois forces, no longer served by imperialism, which dominate nationalism are a potential ally of the proletariat, and those workers supporting nationalism cannot be won to a more consistent radicalism, i.e. revolutionary Marxism and the promise of socialism, without an alliance on the questions that animate these layers. Thus the aim of uniting the forces of the workers movement with the nationalist movement is a necessary tactical theme in our strategy. To achieve this we have to fight for the workers' movement in Wales, and throughout Britain, to become the best defenders of the national rights of Wales, i.e. self-determination, for an extensive democratisation of local and regional self-government, in support of the Welsh language, special measures for housing and farming in rural Wales, etc. Winning the workers' movement to such a programme will involve a preparedness to propose united labour and nationalist action around specific questions. Such a policy is the best method of contributing to a resolution of the national inequalities, and thus undermining the basis of separatist nationalism within the oppressed in Wales.
To make this orientation more precise we need to take into account what the nationalist movement is, and what its relationship to the workers' movement is. Over the last 10 years there has been a turn in the workers' movement to the issues the nationalists have raised, and there is the beginning of a turn within the nationalist movement to the working class.
Inside the working class the issues of the Assembly, the Welsh language, etc. have proved divisive. This became clearest at the time of the referendum when sections of the workers' leadership campaigned on different sides. Further, the defeat of the Assembly proposal has resulted in a botching of these divisions rather than their resolution in a clear policy. The issues that divided the workers' movement in 1979 retain their force, but with an even more politically clouded perspective for their resolution. Our position must be that a proletarian defence of national rights is a factor in unifying the working class in struggle against the Tories.
The actual divisions between sections of the reformist bureaucracy should be used tactically by revolutionaries. For example, in standing against the retreat made by the 1980 Labour Party conference in Wales on Welsh in education we must also stand for the removal of Kinnock as shadow education minister. The fact that not only is he unprepared to fight the cuts, but also has deeply compromised the possibility of winning Welsh speaking workers to Labour's education programme means he is actually a bloc to fighting the Tories. In general we will see an unwillingness by Foot and others to reopen discussion on such issues as the Assembly and the education policy. We cannot respect this attempt to hide behind 'unity' a deeply reactionary programme. 0ur campaign for national rights will be part of our struggle to forge a minority opposition inside the Labour Party and trade unions.
Inside the nationalist movement the question of which social forces should be orientated to is almost a touchstone of the divisions. The activists of the Welsh Language Society continue to retain an orientation to youth, especially students, and to petty bourgeois layers. There has been a definite move towards socialism and the workers' movement in the past five years. But the weakness of the workers' movement on the language question, the fact that the Society has almost acted as a youth organisation for Plaid, as well as a youthful aberration in quite a few careers, means that this move has remained a wish more than a reality. Indeed the 'community' character of the Society's socialism has acted as a further conservative force, given the rural character of much of the Welsh-speaking community. Inside the Plaid the current divisions are based on the social forces that can best defend the questions raised by the nationalist movement. Dayfydd Wigley and the 'rightist', while having to accept 'socialism' as part of the basis of Plaid, see the future of Plaid in terms of an anti-Labour alliance which has the possibility of a parliamentary majority, or at least a decisive balance in Parliament. The growth of the Liberal/SDP alliance gives this a realistic basis. Ellis Thomas and the 'leftists' see a straight fight in the trade unions against Labour, a possibility remote but strengthened by all the weaknesses of the Labour leadership both in actively opposing the Tories and in retreating on the defence of national rights for Wales.
Our orientation is to promote those tendencies within the nationalist movement moving towards the workers' movement, at the expense of those moving further away. The removal of the nationalist bloc in the political evolution of the Welsh workers' movement is the purpose of such an orientation. While this tactical approach has less importance than many other questions we will be raising in the workers' movement it does mean that in our press and propaganda we should keep our finger on the pulse of the nationalist movement. We should be prepared to raise slogans which pose directly to Ellis Thomas and his supporters the need for unity with the Labour Party and trade unions.
Finally, after the aggregate discussion the commission on the nationalist movement should be wound up. The aggregate should decide whether to have the document on the WSRM and this document edited down for inclusion in International, or to submit the documents as they are to the next national conference.
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