The Welsh Interregnum (or reasons not to be cheerful)

Worried thoughts on Wales and what is to be done.

Dan Evans
1 September 2016
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru

In some previous blogs I’ve spoken about why Wales voted Leave. Here I’ll continue to speculate on what the future might hold for Wales in a post-Brexit UK.

Last time I said that given the existing balance of forces, it is more likely that Wales moves closer to England than it is for Wales to move further away. The last blog suggested quite a bleak if not completely dystopian future. However, I think it’s important to be cynical, because I think many in Plaid Cymru possess a streak of naïve optimism which often seems to cloud their judgement.

With Brexit triggering another potential crisis of the Union, I think this way of thinking has reared its head again. I can sense an optimism about Wales’ future bubbling up- this notion that if Scotland goes, Wales will surely follow.

There is a saying associated with Antonio Gramsci: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Pessimism of the intellect simply means you have to accurately and ruthlessly assess the scale of the challenges in front of you. This is obviously extremely hard to do on an emotional and psychological level: it is far easier to suppress facts that don’t fit your narrative, to only listen to people you agree with and who tell you what you want to hear. Only follow people you agree with on twitter. Only speak to people in your small social circle. Shout down people who you disagree with, ignore their substantive points.

Optimism of the will is hard. It involves avoiding the cognitive dissonance which is so common in politics. It is a real challenge to break out of your comfort zone, to take on board uncomfortable truths, and to keep struggling even though the task at hand may now seem 100 times harder than you previously thought. Yet whilst it is hard it is necessary- those who don’t understand what they are up against, who refuse to reflect, always lose (see the Remain Campaign, the Labour Party in Scotland).

Anyway, back to Wales.

Now, even if there was a radical groundswell of public opinion towards further devolution/independence, the way devolution has been organized means that any change ‘at the top’ has to proceed at a snail’s pace: any mass movement would be retarded by the actual mechanisms of devolution which would entail the drafting of more legislation, which would then be sent to Westminster for approval, have to get past Welsh MPs who are notoriously hostile to devolution. Even if public opinion became deafening (highly unlikely), this energy would likely be co-opted by the Labour party (again) and transformed into watered down demands, perhaps a Welsh parliament with tax raising powers- but a situation still short of independence.

How would a Welsh independence referendum even come about? What is the mechanism for achieving it? For Wales to become independent Plaid would need to win a majority in the Assembly with a referendum on independence a central part of their manifesto, as the SNP did. Of course, not only was the Assembly voting system designed to make a Plaid majority unlikely if not impossible (this was the case in Scotland too, but the SNP beat the system), Labour have the Unions, the Welsh Media and other organizations all in their pocket. Gramsci calls these ‘apolitical’ arenas the ‘ outer trenches’ which support dominant parties and the state: power and influence does not just lie in the Assembly or at Westminster but is diffused throughout political and civil society. These forces can all be mobilized at a moment’s notice to attack Plaid and the concept of independence, as they were in Scotland during their referendum. The Unions in particular are simply mouthpieces for the Labour party and represent a huge bulwark against any progressive movement.

Plaid have little to no presence in these ‘capillary’ fields of power which comprise hegemony. If they want to gain power through a ‘long march though the institutions’, then they have a long way to go.

Moreover, there is currently no alternative media or public sphere in Wales which could facilitate a realistic challenge to Labour, which could challenge their intellectual dominance or challenge the prevailing logic about independence (with notable exceptions). In Scotland, alternative media forms like Wings over Scotland and Bella Caledonia were central to the independence movement, providing a loud and effective voice against ‘project fear’ and generally helping to invigorate Scotland’s national conversation about its future. Of course, even these prominent alternative media forms could not sway the result in Scotland, so consider how much work has to be done in Wales.

Know your enemy

Something I have been shocked by is a naïve assumption by some nationalists that Labour will also think that a Wangland-style future would be bad, that everyone else will start to panic about the prospect of Wales being absorbed culturally and politically into England. Labour is wedded to the Union far more than even the Tories (who I believe would be perfectly ok to let Scotland break away now they are likely guaranteed to be in power in England for a generation). Observe the calls by ‘progressive’ Corbynites to win back Scotland. Labour need Scotland and Wales if they have any chance of gaining power in Westminster. This is why Labour have always been so uneasy about forms of Welshness which extend beyond the rugby pitch or the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

If Scotland goes, Wales will be Labour’s last outpost which it will continue to guard jealously (providing, of course, there is a Labour party then). Therefore further Welsh devolution makes zero sense for them, especially if it could give succour to nationalists (they will look to Scotland and see what went wrong there).

In other words, once Scotland leaves, Labour will fight even harder to cling onto Wales than they did with Scotland: there will be no automatic loosening of the ties that bind Wales to whatever is left of the UK, in fact they may get tighter.

The interregnum

The reality is that talk of ‘absorption’ (Wangland) or independence are probably equally hyperbolic. The likelihood is that the current purgatory in Wales will continue.

Brexit may not signal any mass re-engagement with politics by the mass of disaffected people in Wales. The simple ‘fuck you’ yes/no format of the referendum may have been a one-off outlet for their anger. People may well slink back to their poverty to suffer in silence once more. To be clear: a situation of mass detachment and despair is perfectly tolerable for Welsh Labour as long as it does not translate into an electoral challenge to them. As long as people stay away from Welsh Assembly elections, they can think what they like.

However, in the event that the anger behind the leave vote does translate into votes for UKIP (or the Tories), and Labour continue have their base eroded, they will tack to the right to try and win back the disaffected, rather than attempt to change the narrative. This process has already begun. Of course, trying to out UKIP UKIP and talking about ‘valid concerns’ about immigration in areas where there are no immigrants does nothing other than fuel racism and xenophobia.

So, Wales will continue to exist as a rugby team and as a football team, and most people will be perfectly happy with this. The Assembly will limp on, gaining more small, meaningless powers every five years or so. Labour will likely continue to rule because of tradition and voting arithmetic, but the last vestiges of the communitarianism which sustained the old radicalism in the former industrial areas will disappear completely. So on the surface little will change, but the ‘morbid symptoms’ will continue to bubble away under it like a tumour. Over time xenophobia will become normalised in Wales, meaning that Independence will likely not be the main political issue – instead it may well be about combatting the rise of the far right.

This may sound depressing, but without an insurgent, truly radical Plaid Cymru, without a popular independence movement, without a Welsh public sphere or media, this is what will happen.

This piece first appeared on Dan's Medium page

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