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Issue 46

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Issue 46, April 2000

A quiet political earthquake?

    The Welsh nation
    The Welsh Nationalist Party
    Wales post-war
    Plaid Cymru in action

The ousting of the Blairite favourite, Alun Michael, as first secretary of the Welsh Assembly, was another symptom of an underlying shift in consciousness taking place in Welsh society. GEOFF JONES places the current developments in their context in the history of Welsh nationalism.

LAST YEAR'S WELSH Assembly election results came as a considerable shock to political pundits. The nationalist party, Plaid Cymru/The Party of Wales, took nearly 30% of the votes, only 7-8% behind Labour, to become the second largest party with seventeen seats, as compared with the Tories nine seats and the Liberal Democrats six. This result was repeated in the Euro-elections a month later when Plaid Cymru polled 30% compared with Labour's 32%. In the 1997 general election, Plaid Cymru had only taken a 10% share, behind both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

The turnout in these two elections was very low, but the actual number of people voting for Plaid Cymru nearly doubled between 1997 and 1999. More important, their vote increased dramatically in the working-class areas of South East Wales.

Does this change represent a 'quiet political earthquake', in the words of Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley? Or is it merely a mid-term warning to New Labour from Labour supporters, as suggested by New Labour's Peter Hain?


top     The Welsh nation

NATIONALIST MOVEMENTS ARISE in any country or part of a country when people feel themselves repressed or exploited by an outside force or nation. All such movements have the same basic demands for independence, or self-determination, but the political form of these demands and the support any group receives, depend specifically on the history and class composition of the country in question. In Wales, nationalism takes a very different form from other parts of the British Isles.

Even before legal annexation by England in 1532, Welsh history had been a history of division. Mediaeval Wales had been a patchwork of competing kingdoms, with petty 'kings' giving allegiance or defiance to Welsh or English overlords. Only a few leaders managed temporarily to gain overall control of the majority of the land west of Offa's Dyke. Even at that time, there was a major division between the strong kingdoms based on Gwynedd in the mountainous and easily defensible North West and the marches of the South and East (present day Powys, Glamorgan and Monmouth), easily accessible from England.

The industrial revolution intensified this North West/South East division. From the beginning of the nineteenth century the discovery of iron ore and coal transformed the sparsely populated area now known as the Welsh Valleys. Hundreds of thousands of people poured in from rural Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England, to work in the ironworks and in the mines. The town of Merthyr Tydfil is an example. Before the turn of the nineteenth century there was no such place, only a scattering of small hill farms at the top of the valleys. Then coal and iron were discovered. In ten years, Merthyr became one of the largest towns in Britain, with getting on for 100,000 people. It was a dangerous and exciting town, bigger than Edinburgh or Dublin, with a young and growing working class prepared to take direct action against their bosses. In 1831, an attempt by an ironmaster to cut wages sparked a workers' uprising; the town was only recaptured by troops after a week of bitter fighting. This was not a mere explosion of mob rule. Its leaders were educated and knew what they were fighting for. It gave the working class the beginnings of a tradition, its first martyrs, and its symbol, the red flag.


But it also marked the deepening of the rift between North West and South East Wales. The old rural Wales was relatively untouched by the industrial revolution; the South was completely transformed. The huge influx of workers weakened the Welsh language and traditional culture, with English being adopted as the lingua franca over the large part of the coalfield. By the end of the century over two thirds of the Welsh population lived in the industrial South East. Between 1801 and 1911 Wales saw a fourfold increase in population, with a two-fold increase in number of Welsh speakers but a twelve-fold increase in monoglot English.

The headlong pace of development, the riches being made from the international export of coal and steel, and the parallel growth in strength and confidence of the working class, had its high point at the beginning of the twentieth century. The 1920s and 1930s saw a number of defeats for the working class but strengthened its support for the Labour Party and socialist politics. The idea of Welsh nationhood, or of Welsh political independence, had little meaning to workers who read Marx, sang the Internationale, and saw themselves as part of a wider movement.

top     The Welsh Nationalist Party

NORTH AND WEST Wales had seen their own battles, from the toll-gate smashers of the 'Hosts of Rebecca' to the bitter strikes in the North Wales quarries and the battles against English landlords, but the area had not seen the same huge influx of population. It remained generally rural, Welsh-speaking, and very separate from the industrial south. Politically liberal not socialist, its most famous representative, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) flirted with the idea of Welsh independence before world war one.


The ideas which inspired the struggle for Irish Home Rule in the 1880s had led to the setting up of an organisation 'Cymru Fydd' (The Wales to Be). Made up essentially of middle-class intellectuals, it aimed at the renaissance of Welsh culture and the Welsh language, but also for a legislative assembly for Wales. Lloyd George aimed to stitch together Cymru Fydd with the Liberal Party in Wales to form a mass nationalist movement. At first wildly successful, the dream crashed in Newport in 1896, when the South Wales Liberal Federation rancorously opposed any idea of being ruled by Welsh ideas. Lloyd George gave up on Cymru Fydd and pursued his career to become leader of the Liberal Party in Westminster, and saviour of British imperialism in world war one.

The failure of Cymru Fydd was a failure to build a capitalist party of independence in opposition to English capitalism. Specifically, the close integration of business in the most economically powerful and dynamic part of Wales with that same English capitalism, meant that the wealthy Welsh upper middle-class had no need of political autonomy to further their material or political interests.

Because of this, the nationalist movement which developed between the two world wars was a petit-bourgeois movement, more concerned with preserving and developing Welsh culture, a culture specifically defined by the Welsh language. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (Welsh Nationalist Party) was established in 1925. Its founding policy was the achievement of a Welsh-speaking Wales, and Welsh was to be the only medium of party activity. This second fact in itself cut the party off from the non-Welsh speaking majority (whom most of the party did not anyway accept as being Welsh). The party's policies were inevitably reactionary and elitist. Saunders Lewis, president from 1926 to 1939, called for a return to the peasant societies of the Middle Ages and, taking the policy to its logical conclusion, for the 'de- industrialisation' of South Wales.


With policies such as these, the Welsh Nationalist Party remained a tiny group until the jailing of three of its leaders in 1937. The previous year, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had set up a bombing range in Penyberth in North West Wales, in the teeth of mass popular protest. Lewis and two colleagues carried out a symbolic act of sabotage against the range and were jailed. The severity of the sentences and the subsequent hounding of Lewis from his job led to an increase in sympathy for the Nationalist Party in North and West Wales, a sympathy which continued despite the nationalists' position of neutrality in world war two.

top     Wales post-war

THE YEARS FOLLOWING world war two saw a second flowering of the confidence of the working class of South Wales, perhaps most fully expressed in the person of the Labour left-winger Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960). Bevan, a leader of the Welsh miners in the 1926 general strike, was health minister in the 1945 Labour government. He introduced the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 but resigned from the cabinet in 1951, to lead a left-wing opposition in the Labour Party. It is no accident that Bevan's monument on the hillside above Ebbw Vale is inscribed, 'Here Aneurin Bevan spoke to his people and to the world'.

The Welsh Labour leaders hostility to nationalism ranged the spectrum from Bevan's belief that Welsh workers were best served as part of a democratic socialist Britain to the fawning worship of British royalty, personified by George Thomas (later Viscount Tonypandy). At the same time, Labour increased its near monopoly control of local government in industrial Wales. In this context, the 1945 Labour government dropped the Labour Party's long-time commitment to Welsh and Scottish home rule.


The Welsh Nationalist Party, still largely confined to rural Wales, dropped the more extreme of Lewis' policies. Changing its name to 'Plaid Cymru' (The Party of Wales), it called for 'dominion status within the British commonwealth' and relaxed its 'Welsh only' rule. During the 1950s and 1960s Plaid Cymru slowly increased its share of votes in parliamentary elections to around the 10% mark, gaining councillors in rural Wales and winning a parliamentary seat in Carmarthen in 1966. Plaid also came to be seen for the first time by workers in industrial Wales as a means for expressing dissatisfaction with the activities of the Labour government, in by-elections in Rhondda West in 1967 and Caerffili in 1968.

Plaid's moderate and 'electoralist' programme produced splits. In the early 1950s, Mudiad Gweriniaethol Cymru (Welsh Republican Movement), based in South Wales, called for full independence and a socialist/co-operative programme. The 1960s and 1970s also saw strong local opposition to a number of schemes touching on a sensitive nerve - the flooding of valleys and displacement of population to provide reservoirs for English cities. This produced a number of 'direct action' organisations ranging from the comic-opera 'Free Wales Army' to more serious groups which sabotaged pipelines from Welsh reservoirs and bombed the government Welsh Office building and Tory Party offices.

More important were struggles over the Welsh Language. In 1962, Cymdaithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) was founded to gain official recognition of the Welsh language by direct action. Their campaign was modestly successful, resulting in the Welsh Language Act of 1993 which gave equal status to Welsh and English in all public bodies. Perhaps more important, a hunger strike by Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans forced the Thatcher government to implement a 1979 election pledge to establish a Welsh-language TV channel. At the same time, the demand for independence came once again to be part of Plaid's programme.


Over the last century the question of the Welsh language has been the touchstone of nationalist thinking. Census returns show the number of Welsh speakers declining steadily from 37% of the population in 1921 to 18.9% in 1981 and 18.5% in 1991. However, the statistics show a definite stabilisation over the past twenty years. Previously the proportion of Welsh speakers was highest in the older age groups - a sure index of a declining language. This, however, has now flattened out.

Furthermore, the number of officially registered adult Welsh learners has increased dramatically from 13,000 in 1993-94 to 21,000 in 1997-98. There has been a continuing campaign for more schools where children are taught through the medium of Welsh. To a certain extent, this is a middle-class phenomenon. Fluent Welsh is a passport to the cushy jobs in the media and cultural industries. Often, the call for new Welsh-only schools can be a ploy to get privileged access to educational resources. Nevertheless it is beyond doubt that the decline in the Welsh language has halted and is coupled with a new national consciousness which includes industrial Wales as well as rural Wales. But it is clear that in the foreseeable future not more than a quarter of Welsh people will be fluent in Welsh. Plaid Cymru acknowledged that fact, and the need to widen their appeal in South Wales, by changing their name in 1998 to the bi-lingual form, 'Plaid Cymru/The Party of Wales'.

top     Plaid Cymru in action


THE 1979 REFERENDUM on the setting up of a Welsh Assembly was a low point for Plaid Cymru. Out of a turnout of 58%, nearly 80% voted against. There was no great support even in rural Wales and massive opposition in industrial areas. Some nationalists forecast the end of Welsh history and Welsh nationality.

But 1979 also marked the beginning of the final destruction of the old industrial Wales. The number of coal miners had slipped from over 100,000 in 1951 to less than 30,000 in the 1970s. By the 1990s it was less than 4,000. Steel and other heavy industries were similarly massacred. At the same time, Labour councils were atrophying into complacent nepotistic bodies, unable or unwilling to fight for their communities against Tory attacks. To workers disgusted with the incompetence of their own councils and the unwillingness of Labour MPs to fight with them in the industrial battles of the 1980s, a protest vote for Plaid Cymru seemed the only viable option in the absence of any socialist alternative. The party started to pick up council seats in the South East. Their manifesto for the 1997 election was well to the left of Labour. However, in the typhoon of opposition to the Tories, their vote only increased slightly.

Since 1997, New Labour's cutting itself off from the working class, and its unwillingness to provide much more than soothing words for the social disaster areas of South Wales, has sickened many working class Labour supporters. This was coupled with the imposition by Labour's Westminster HQ of an 'electoral college; system to select the Labour leader in the new assembly. With the votes of MPs and unions outweighing the votes of individual party members, Blair's favoured candidate, Alun Michael, was narrowly selected. Socialist groupings were too weak to provide a pole of attraction. Plaid Cymru was the only alternative.


Plaid Cymru, as a nationalist party, aims to unite on the basis of nationality, rather than class. Ironically, but inevitably, when successful, it finds itself riven along class lines. In the 1999 elections Plaid put forward a programme of reforms as a left opposition to New Labour. But already a report by a Plaid researcher has castigated the most successful programme in their history as 'dated socialistic waffle'. The writer obviously sees Plaid's future as Welsh Blairism ('Blerwch Cymraeg?'). More critically, Plaid's long-term supporters in the North and West object to the apparent dilution of the demand for independence and Welsh-language culture. Already a split has occurred under the name of Cymru Unedig/Welsh Solidarity.

Even worse, workers in the ex-industrial areas who joined Plaid as a reaction against dishonest and cowardly Labour councils are being rapidly disillusioned. Plaid Cymru is very radical in words, but much more conservative in deeds. They claimed to have 'played a leading role within Wales' in the 1990 battle against the poll tax. In fact, in Taff Ely, the one council they controlled at that time in coalition with the Liberals, bailiffs were sent in and non-payers harassed and imprisoned. In other areas, Plaid councillors paid up after token opposition. In 1999, Plaid Cymru won control of Rhondda Cynon Taff council by opposing cuts in services and on the back of a local campaign against a filthy and dangerous local rubbish tip. In opposition, Plaid promised to close the tip immediately. In power, they reneged on this promise, and propose to solve the council's financial problems by sacking workers.


The national assembly is an acid test of Plaid Cymru's policies. The Welsh Labour Party, shocked at the election results, proposed a 'new', 'inclusive' form of politics, meaning that they wanted to lure Plaid into supporting the New Labour agenda. The parachuting in of Alun Michael as a mouthpiece for Westminster derailed this policy, but his subsequent dumping, engineered by Plaid with the passive support of some Labour assembly members (AMs), has put it back on course. For Plaid's leadership, as for the 'Welsh Labour' current headed by AMs Rhodri Morgan and Ron Davies, 'Objective One' funding from the EU will enable the revitalisation of a Welsh capitalist economy along the lines of Ireland - closing their eyes, of course, to the massive social crisis developing in that 'successful' economy.

There is no social basis for Plaid to establish itself as a bourgeois nationalist party as Fianna Fail did, in different historical circumstances, in Ireland. As a petit-bourgeois grouping it runs the risk of drifting towards more extreme forms of nationalism. But in Plaid's rank and file, a whole layer of young workers, many drawn in on the basis of opposition to New Labour's sell out to capitalism, will not be prepared to settle for blaming all our woes on 'The English' or on 'foreigners' in general.

The scene will be set for a split or an exodus of activists looking for socialist policies to solve the crisis which faces all sections of Wales - agriculture and industry, the hill farms and the valleys. Any real solutions will involve a program far wider than a narrow nationalist perspective, and the search for such solutions will lay the basis of a mass Welsh socialist movement linked with similar movements throughout the Isles and in Europe.


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