The politicisation of national identity in Wales has increased dramatically since devolution. But political parties do not present a common version of ‘Welshness’, writes Sophie Williams. Each party expresses their own version instead, conflating national identity with their own political ideology in the process.
Late 2017 saw the effect that heightened calls for self-determination can have on the status quo. The constitutional crisis in Catalonia, votes for greater autonomy in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing impact of Brexit on relations between the UK nations served to highlight the impact of national identity politicisation. Though not a new phenomenon, these issues are growing in international importance, and no less so in Wales, where 20 years of devolved government has irrevocably changed the domestic political landscape.
Devolution in Wales was partly predicated on the idea that it would increase a sense of ‘Welshness’: that citizens would feel their existing identity more strongly when centred around their own government. This expectation has been challenged by quantitative data. Using the Moreno question, Roger Scully, Richard Wyn Jones, and Dafydd Trystan demonstrated that ‘Welsh and British’ remains the most common identification.
This conclusion then prompted Jonathan Bradbury and Rhys Andrews to investigate any causal links between devolution and increased politicisation of national identity. Their research found that devolution has not generated an increased sense of national identity. What has changed since devolution, they argued, is the level of national identity politicisation. Welshness dominates public discourse and is dominated by political parties who seek to assert their Welshness in different ways.
In light of this finding, Bradbury and Andrews sought to understand the reasoning behind this increased politicisation, and suggested that all parties seek to achieve the same aim: to converge on a shared sense of ‘civic Welshness’. They argued that this umbrella approach bridges different versions to create a broader Welshness, in order to counteract the inherent tensions that exist between overly exclusive visions of Welshness.
My own, more recent research has explored the politicisation of national identity, examining the facets of Bradbury and Andrews’ arguments. This research supports their first finding: that the politicisation of Welshness has increased, promoted by the main political parties in different ways. Devolution is identified as a key causal link, as highlighted in this excerpt:
Fifteen years ago, we had difficulty with the idea of Welsh Labour…those days are long gone…Welsh Labour probably now has a stronger Welsh identity than it has ever done. Welsh Labour Senior Assembly Member (7/11/2014)
Other parties were equally clear that devolution had provided a catalyst for the development and promotion of the Welshness of their branding. The Welsh Conservatives, for example, had felt the need to mobilise and respond to the new political arena, in order to achieve electoral success:
The Conservative Party over the past fifteen, twenty years, has developed its Welsh branch…certainly since the establishment of the Assembly, it certainly has had to become more Welsh… Welsh Conservative Assembly Member (18/8/14)
Bradbury and Andrews suggest that parties achieve this by presenting a common, palatable version of ‘civic Welshness’, one which transcends party boundaries and seeks to mitigate division. The accuracy of the theory is less certain. Do parties present a united front on the issue, or do they differ in their political mobilisation? My research has found that, instead of presenting a united national identity across the political spectrum, politicians instead conflate Welshness with their own party political ideology. Instead of converging on a shared meaning, political elites project their own visions of national identity, merging them with their particular set of political values.
For example, the Welsh Liberal Democrats present a vision of Welshness founded in the Liberal and federalist tradition, while the Welsh Conservatives argue the Conservatism and Welshness are inherently compatible. A Plaid Cymru interviewee argued that Plaid Cymru is the only truly Welsh party, while a Welsh Labour interviewee suggested that being Welsh and Labour was a ‘natural’ state of being. The Welsh Conservatives, in particular, were clear in that they had had to work the hardest to convince the electorate of their Welshness, and to counteract the historical view of the party as English and anti-Welsh.
In this way, Welsh political elites frame different versions of Welshness, conflating elements of their political ideologies with national identification. But, in so doing, they silence competing versions, for how can Welshness mean conservatism, Liberalism, socialism, and nationalism all at once? These findings directly challenge those of Bradbury and Andrews. Although it seems clear that elites are politicising national identity as never before, they are not presenting a shared civic version of Welshness, but are rather competing with one another in this effort.
A wider part of this research considered people’s understandings of Welshness and their attitudes to politicians, to assess whether or not attempts by politicians to appear more Welsh had had a positive impact on their electoral prospects in the minds of voters. This work requires further scrutiny, but there was a contemporaneous consensus amongst participants that politicians are untrustworthy.
Politicising national identity in Wales has increased dramatically since devolution, although, contrary to Bradbury and Andrews’ initial suggestions, it seems that the parties compete with one another to express the ‘true’ vision of Welshness and Welsh values, conflating national identity with their own political ideology. The question remains as to how effective this is as an electoral strategy. Welsh Labour in particular remains steadfastly popular across large parts of Wales, as seen in the 2017 General Election result, while the Welsh Liberal Democrats have struggled to remain politically relevant. The introduction of UKIP to Welsh politics may have further altered the dynamic. This is, then, a changing picture, and it will be interesting to see the development of Welsh national and the role it plays in shaping Wales’ political future.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.
Sophie Williams holds a PhD from Swansea University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.
People screaming against nationalism …. sometimes express the most dogmatic UK nationalism going.
What is wrong with grassroots self rule in a connected world …. for all humans?
This obsession that London and English culture must dominate Britain is a perverse throwback to imperialism
An interesting find, but readers must take care to understand it in a Welsh politics context. Passages like ‘Welsh political elites frame different versions of Welshness…they silence competing versions,’ or ‘it seems that the parties compete with one another to express the “true” vision of Welshness and Welsh values,’ seem to indicate a clash of ideas and principles that one Welshness cannot cover. Yet rarely in manifestos, plenary debates, or committee meetings do we see large policy differences or clashes between these four Welsh parties. They do generally tend to converge, so the different images of civic Welsh identity and what parties present as good Welsh values, especially when applied to devolved policy areas, (e.g. improved access to healthcare, higher education standards, effective delivery of public services, etc.), are unlikely to be much dissimilar.
How does one define ‘Welshness’? Or Scottishness OR Englishness? Or Britishness?
Very difficult. I as someone who regards himself ats BRITISH as opposed to Welsh, English or Scots (Farther Llewellyn married to Mother called Jones) wants to keep the UK UNITED. That means NO independence for Cornwall or Scotland or Wales but by all means keep cultural identities as on the Tyne or The Ouse of the Dee.
I don’t hear any voices crying for The Isle of Wight to be self governing!
Tell every single nation that has become free from a foreign power/empire that nationalism is evil. India, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Kenya to name a few. Conflating the struggle for national liberation movements with extreme hostile and xenophobic nationalism (My nation is independent and not an exploited backwater VS My country is better than your’s and all foreigners are inferior) is not only factually incorrect and frustrating but the exact cheap conflation used by proponents of unionism (consciously or not British/English Nationalism) against the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation struggles in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
What about EU nationalism?
And by the way, we’ve been Welsh and Welsh speaking for over a thousand years.
Finally, Europe and the EU are not the same thing. Any Neanderthal (or beaker person) would know that
Given that the majority of the Welsh electorate (55% to 60%) aren’t even convinced enough to vote in Assembly elections, it would be fair to assume that the entire political class, of all party stripes, fail to resonate enough with the living Welsh nation.
“…increase a sense of ‘Welshness’”
Nationalism is evil and just plain wrong. German nationalism produced only wars and destruction. Nationalist socialism was Adolf’s twisted coinage as are the modern totalitarian dictatorships who use the term “democracy”. The Welsh identity is something that is borne of the study of history, nothing else. That is, until science enters. There are, for example, no Celts anywhere on the British isles. Archological and genetics put paid to that myth. We are all of us Beaker people. We are, all of us, European people. Turning our backs on the EU is turning our backs on ourselves. End of.
Tell every single nation that has become free from a foreign power/empire that nationalism is evil. India, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Kenya to name a few might disagree with you. Conflating the struggle for national liberation movements with extreme hostile and xenophobic nationalism (My nation is independent and not an exploited backwater VS My country is better than your’s and all foreigners are inferior) is not only factually incorrect and frustrating but the exact cheap conflation used by proponents of unionism (consciously or not British/English Nationalism) against the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation struggles in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.