The New Dissent

The Withering of “Welshness”

‘Smelling out a Rat’ by James Gillray, 1790 — An Image of Richard Price © Trustees of the British Museum

In a previous essay, I wrote about the political quietism that afflicts the Welsh political culture of Labour’s one-partyism, and how this has become an even more pronounced problem during this current crisis. Since then, with anxiety increasing, conditions worsening, and anger rising, there has been a noticeable change in tone and language in our public sphere. The most infamous example was not the type we may have hoped for. Vaughan Gething’s reference to fellow MS Jenny Rathbone was revealing — not least because it disclosed an aspect of the political quietism I had not referred to, namely its macho enforcement in the Labour movement. Gething’s unedifying response spoke volumes about his indignation that she should question him publicly, and what might await those in the party in private quarters for voicing legitimate criticisms.

Unlike Gething’s blunder, there’s no doubting the deliberate deployment of more robust language by others . Unions have spoken of a lack of PPE ‘killing’ their members. Childcare providers have complained of being ‘ignored’. The Older People’s Commissioner accused the Welsh Government of regarding care home residents as ‘collateral damage’. A nobel-prize winning scientist and former chancellor of Cardiff University, described inaction on behalf of the Welsh and UK governments as a ‘dereliction of duty ’. The Welsh Labour faction who’s campaign brought Mark Drakeford to the office of First Minister — the left-wing Welsh Labour Grassroots — itself launched a public letter warning the response risked serious questions ‘about the value of devolution and a Welsh Labour government’.

The rise in the political temperature (proportionate to the devastating rise in the death toll) has clearly caused a reaction — at least of a rhetorical nature — with the Welsh Government taking several opportunities to differentiate their policies from those of Number 10. Meanwhile, Jeremy Miles, arguably the most capable of Labour’s AMs and mooted as the next leader, has been appointed to take charge of Wales’ recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. In launching the brief there was talk of aligning with Welsh values and taking advantage of the dramatic changes wrought by the crisis.

An optimist might say that this could be an opportunity for Miles to change Wales dramatically, and reappropriate Welsh radicalism in a time of historical, fateful change.

Power in Denial

This is unlikely, however, not necessarily because Miles would not welcome such optimism, but because of the culture and politics that surrounds us. Despite the increased pressure there has been no great step change from the Welsh Government. Indeed, when Gething complained of the border and lack of Welsh media as obstacles to differentiated policy-making, there was a degree of inevitability in its revealing of the defeatism, impotency and denial of responsibility that lies at the heart of our politics (after 20 years of ignoring calls for the devolution of broadcasting, complaining about the situation is on a par with the well-worn tactic of Labour politicians campaigning against NHS closures in Wales). There are any number of different explanations for this condition, one which I have previously described as the New Dissent (Yr Ymneilltuaeth Newydd).

On a more mundane level Mark Drakeford must take his share of the blame for the current malaise, as a leader who came to power with a promise of 21st century socialism and a campaign supported by leftist Welsh Labour Grassroots. They might well complain that their service has been poorly rewarded by what is in effect a continuity administration; there is a major question around the decision not to radically reform the present group of ministers and advisors that has shown no sign of staking out a new direction for Wales, either before or during this crisis.

However, there are deeper conditioning issues here to consider.

Hegel’s analysis of the state and civil society, for example, encourages us to reflect on the conditioning nature of individuals’ roles in society. He discusses the different classes and the manner in which their role elicits certain behaviours; it is difficult not to consider his thoughts on these conditioning factors without the Welsh Government coming to mind.

Specifically it leads us to reflect on our politicians and how the lack of power and autonomy the Senedd wields may have inevitably created a political class that is less inclined to lead, because in practice policy making has never been about staking out a truly different path for Wales (for all the talk of Clear Red Water) but rather adding a Welsh veneer to Westminster policy making. This technocratic approach, materially rooted in a comparative lack of economic, financial and legal levers, has become painfully exposed during this time of crisis — where the incompetence and inhumanity of Westminster policy is clear and we are willing our politicians to take a different path — one they seem ill prepared to pursue.

There are also reasons to suppose that these attitudes have other, wider influences, in particular the general political culture that has emerged, in particular in the west, over the last quarter of a century. David Chandler’s theory in his book Empire in Denial was premised on the idea that the state-building programmes applied to failed states in the international context — like social inclusion agenda in the domestic context — were nothing more than ‘therapeutic’ measures that were put in place to give the impression of politicians acting. In reality, however, they did nothing to address the deep, structural conditioning factors that create failed states.

This failure of statesmen and women to embrace their power and to set out a truly political agenda that seeks to reform basic structures — such as a global economic order dominated by the US — is in Chandler’s view, a symptom of our time. Politicians in the West are presented as incapable of taking a political rather than technocratic approach, ultimately because they no longer hold to an ideological, transformative approach to politics where there resides a belief that underlying conditions can actually be changed. This is despite them still benefiting from a neo-imperialist world order that endows them with great power.

Without bold, steadfast and principled beliefs, a politician’s interest will not be to lead and tackle the relevant underlying factors, but in fact to deny responsibility whilst appearing concerned through applying measures that treat symptoms rather than causes. This pervasive culture is perhaps one of the reasons the actions and attitude of Jacinda Aderne, Prime Minister of New Zealand (former President of the Internationalist Union of Socialist Youth), have appeared so stark, in her principled, uncompromising and unremitting response to the pandemic.

Non-nationalists

Given Welsh Labour’s very firm roots in the project of New Labour that Chandler uses as his domestic analogue of political power in denial, it is worth considering how this cautious, managerial, technocratic approach is ingrained in Welsh Labour — in particular when it is coupled with the perception that a more transformative politics is less of an expectation within a devolved context (although we should not forget that power over education and other policy areas could, in fact, be transformative — look at how certain areas, such as Preston, have changed politics fundamentally at a local level).

However, there are other, deep-lying historical and cultural factors particular to Wales that are worth reflecting upon, as other causes of a seeming unpreparedness to grasp and wield power. It has always been Welsh Labour’s way to try and strike a balance between soft nationalism that allows them to assert their Welsh identity and claim to being the party of Wales, whilst at the same time being free to accuse Plaid Cymru of narrow nationalism.

Part of this reflects a genuine historic tie to the union and the idea our interest ultimately lies in our contribution to the UK. Part of it also reflects complex internal contradictions about how far it should exercise a more identitarian and aggressive politics. This performative contradiction is most obviously illustrated in the current complaints from Labour about the lack of a Welsh media, and it often puts Wales in a perceived weaker position — as when the First Minister himself claimed in Brexit negotations that the lack of a bigger indy lobby weakened his hand.

What this crisis has highlighted is that despite its best efforts to appeal to ideas like ‘Welsh values’, when push comes to shove the Welsh Labour party does not have within it the makings of a genuine spirit and national consciousness strong enough or sufficiently self-informed to provide the basic psychological strength and steadfastness to drive a forceful change of direction. One might, of course, pass a similar comment with respect to our self-professed nationalist party and the question of a unifying narrative.

There has been some controversy recently over the relevance or aptness of postcolonial studies to Wales, and without wishing to wade into that debate, it is very difficult not to read Frantz Fanon’s reflections on the frailty of national consciousness in the global south following decolonization without thinking that some of the comments are equally applicable to a “national” government that is in perpetual service to its superiors. What Wales has in common with some of those nations is the fact that, until recently, national consciousness has never been tied to autonomous, national political structures, in any meaningful way. Moreover, Fanon’s insights raise difficult questions for our wider intellectual culture that informs our politics.

When Labour make yet another passing reference to Welsh values, without any notable substance, Fanon’s words ring true: “National consciousness,” he says “instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.”

Fanon is fairly blunt about where the problem lies. It is:

“the result of the intellectual laziness of the national middle class, of its spiritual penury, and of the profoundly cosmopolitan mold that its mind is set in.” These words bring to mind the type of cliches we seem to hear so often around Welsh ‘radicalism’ and ‘internationalism’ that are accepted but rarely interrogated, imbibed as they are from histories that are given elevated status in our public sphere.

Moreover, when we consider the hackneyed old stereotypes that are taken to represent us (heavy industry, rugby, a nation of singers and fire-breathers…), and whilst continue with our unwillingness even to accept the idea of a national history, his words have a particular resonance:

“A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.”

The New Dissent

The morbid intellectual and spiritual condition of Wales that can be read into Fanon’s descriptions are clearly gestured towards in the late work of Gwyn Alf Williams, when he was responding to the devastation of the 1979 referendum in Wales, Thatcher’s election, and of course the miner’s strike.

An important symptom of “The Welsh Predicament” for him was the rejection of what he called — following Gramsci — our organic intellectuals. These were the people “who exercised some organising, planning, expressive function — anyone in truth who was a ‘worker by brain’… Those people who whatever else they did, expressed, made historically operative, the consciousness of groups and classes coming into historical existence” in opposition to “the kind of moral hegemony which was as all-engulfing as the air we breathe.. which made some thoughts virtually unthinkable.”

When Gwyn Alf speaks of the Welsh organic intellectual, he speaks of a group that have been essential to the history of the Welsh — he speaks of the Gogynfeirdd, the Tudor humanists, Iolo Morgannwg and the Gwyneddigion, and the ‘over-production’ of ministers, writers, teachers and industrial leaders in the modern age. “It is possible” he says, “and, I believe, necessary to write the history of the Welsh in terms of their organic intellectuals”.

For Williams, the No Vote in 1979 and the general elections of 1983 were votes that were the political manifestation of no less than the elimination of Wales and the Welsh from history through the developments of late capitalism. The rejection of its intellectuals was one of the more obvious symptoms “along with the concurrent bankruptcy of every political tradition to which the modern Welsh have given their allegiance, of the terminal nature of the crisis which now faces the Welsh nation and even more catastrophically, the Welsh people.”

To survive, Williams believed that we needed a movement that would restore organic intellectuals, those that could fight back against the hegemony through our reconstruction and retranslation. It is here that his famous characterization of the Welsh peoples comes to the fore: the idea of us as a people constantly in crisis since 383AD, who have survived through our constant reinvention.

Was the campaign for, and then the creation of the Assembly ever the grounds for such a reinvention — a genuine intellectual and spiritual recovery? It is difficult to believe so if we look at what has followed since. Yes, there has been incremental increases in the powers of the Assembly, and recently of course a new name, but much of that smacks of an attempt to make good the shortcomings of the original institutional settlement rather than a desire for power to fundamentally change Wales. Neither has there been a groundswell of grassroots political activity or the reinstatement of the organic intellectual that suggests anything close to what Gwyn Alf thought was required.

Instead, in fact, we seem to have the opposite — the denial of the will, a desire to turn away from the possibility of remaking the history of Wales and a thoroughgoing anti-utopianism. To call it the New Dissent mimics the manner in which we are always so keen to attribute our traditions and assumed values to the present but in a way that rings hollow. Rather than a dynamic, creative movement and crucible for the reinvention of the nation (as Gwyn Alf describes the form of Dissent that emerged around the turn of the 19th century) — in actual fact it describes a dissent against politics that has emerged in our era; a rejection of its core activity, which is the wielding of power, and the transformative potential therein.

It is also a reference to the Old Dissent of the Baptists and Independents — Yr Hen Ymneilltuwyr — that Iorwerth Peate reflected upon, arguing it was reformed beyond recognition by the Methodists. To him, the Methodists performed a corruption of tradition, in particular in their aspiration to engage with the world, reform it and transform it. The true spirit of the original Nonconformity was to distance oneself from the world, seek salvation in the next life, and carry the burden of this life with dignity and patience.

This spirit seems to typify our contemporary response to the ongoing crisis of capitalism: an acceptance of the system and the circumstances it creates, a rejection of the idea that we can engage and transform the world leading us only to work within its constraints, and a pervasive attitude that we are seeking only some form of individual contentment. We see only occasional exceptions to this attitude: a display of the will to struggle, an acceptance of responsibility, and attempt to try to bend the world to our will. And of course, whilst the old dissenters crucially held to a justificatory belief in the promise of the afterlife and the eternal soul, no such salvation is offered up in the New Dissent. Just a meek, arid acceptance of a materialism that offers nothing but spiritual penury.

Now or Never?

It should be recognised that this is not an affliction merely of the Labour Party. One of the most deflating examples was Plaid Cymru’s response in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn when the Local Development Plan was under review. The justifications for supporting housing schemes shown to be potentially damaging for the Welsh language community reflected either a tendency to deny responsibility or to bow to the inevitable predominance of the market: some argued there was little that could be done to rail against the Welsh Government‘s diktat, while others argued that thousands of houses were required, in order for the market to operate for the benefit of local people by maintaining a large supply that would lower prices.

If our opposition party, borne from a single-minded desire to protect and maintain our language and identity, can be prepared to subside to the apparently predetermining forces of neoliberalism, one is left asking the question raised by Gwyn Alf Williams; “whether any kind of real Wales and real Welsh can survive?” It would be the irony of all ironies if this small collection of people, bound together by a millennium and a half of perpetual crisis, should lose its will to endure, at the very moment a global crisis suggests the collapse of those structures that has kept it on the brink, for so very long.

The original version of this article was published in Welsh under the title ‘Yr Ymneilltuaeth Newydd’ with O’r Pedwar Gwynt.

Academic. Cymraeg. Politics of the Left. Philosophy. Bois y Dole.