Independence – a gift to the Other

In the first article of our series on independence, Simon Brooks cautions against the loss of intellectual independence in progressive Welsh thought, arguing that a particular Anglo-American discourse of identity politics renders Welsh-speaking communities invisible. While an inclusive, independent future for Wales remains a possibility, do Welsh-speaking communities face inevitable erasure?

What then of independence? The Plaid Cymru leadership election was disheartening. I opposed the left consensus around Leanne Wood, and of course knew that all my campus friends were backing her, and among my friends back home in Porthmadog only one. It was an unpleasant and demeaning affair, horrible in all its aspects. It affected me greatly. It affected others more. Nevertheless it was necessary, and that was the worst part of all..

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak rightly cautioned in an 1991 interview referencing campus politics that the term ‘subaltern’ should not be appropriated by oppressed but nevertheless recognised groups: ‘Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word ‘subaltern’ ... They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are, and since they can speak ... they’re within the hegemonic discourse wanting a piece of the pie and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern...’ The cadres on Twitter think otherwise: for what is pronounced in the name of subalternity and identity politics at an American university on Monday is lapping up among the Tuesday brine at Bristol, on a demonstration in Cathays by Wednesday, and come Thursday, as you walk through a Welsh-speaking post-industrial community four hours drive from Cardiff, people are shouting at you in English about ‘privilege’. Quite unnerving, although I suppose it is true.

I have a lot of sympathy, being a member of a minority myself. But I can’t help but think that this great wave of American identity politics which has swept over our country has displaced our own intellectual tradition and discourse. I have read every single reference to ethnic minorities ever to appear in the archive in Welsh, and a great many in English, and some in German too (we really are a Moby Dick of a nation; our archives are as encyclopaedic as those of that great American novel, illuminating a Welsh-language civilization, as worthy of respect as any other). They taught me that history is complex; but identity politics today is about essentialism and ontological certainty, and I am good and you are bad, and not really about the emancipation of minority communities at all.

That is not independence. Not intellectual independence anyway, and if our political life is merely to mimic that of America, to reproduce ideas forged somewhere else within their historical conditions and their society, then what is the point of independence at all?

So Adam Price’s victory was not just about independence, it was about a crisis of independence. Leanne didn’t lose because she championed so-called niche issues, but because the Plaid membership resides predominantly in ‘Welsh-speaking communities’, and these are so niche in left-wing thought, they don’t exist at all. But non-existent places can gain a certain temporality in elections, as Brexit showed. Indeed Leanne’s defeat was the Welsh-speaking Brexit, a vote by Welsh-speaking communities to reject being forgotten by Civic Wales. For why would linguistically Othered communities wish to support a universalist leftism which refuses to acknowledge their existence?

When Welsh-speaking culture was cast out of the citadel by the Enlightenment, its speakers were latterly permitted to re-enter the Civic as individuals but never as community. Welsh-speaking communities lost their right to speak, for outside the Civic how could they be defined? (‘What is a Welsh-speaking community? Where are they? Does not Welsh belong to all?’) In liberal thought, the Civic is a unified whole within which individual diversity may be expressed (‘I am a woman. I am bisexual etc.). But in this universe of individual rights, defined today by a Cartesianism of the Left, communitarian and material formations (aka communities) have no place.

And if communities themselves were to be awarded rights (if Welsh-speaking communities could be entities in and of themselves, i.e. if they became mini Québecs), would they not then constitute an alternative Civic? How might that be? It would be a threat to Cardiff! A threat to the Welsh State! Wales would be divided! And so Welsh-speaking communities have become apparitions in the political realm. Nineteen years after devolution they have been granted neither policies nor recognition: ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.’

When I say that Welsh-speaking communities are subaltern, I do not imply that Welsh-speaking individuals from otherwise advantaged backgrounds are more oppressed than say women of colour, or sexual minorities, although speaking English is of course one form of privilege.

It is simply that Welsh-speaking communities cannot find an elocution within the discourse of Anglophone Civic Wales: ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’, ‘intersectionality’. They are not formed of that epistemology. Welsh can be intersectional in Cardiff where it is an add-on, an ‘attribute’. Intersect my language with your protected characteristic and, hey, we have hybridity!

But it is different in Gwynedd where the entire structure of the society is predicated on the language and everything else has a secondary role. The Welsh-language community is diverse here in every aspect internally, but there can be no intersectionality in which Welsh is reduced to one ‘attribute’ among others. That would open the door to bargaining away the language community, via the relativity of an Anglocentric league table of ‘oppression’ in which language might not trump all other considerations. How would that not undermine a territorial minoritised language community, as indeed it undermines certain other communitarian identities excluded from the Anglophone Civic; i.e. that of indigenous peoples?

Welsh as a community language requires others to speak Welsh too, and Porthmadog Town Council, of which I am a member, will not supply minutes in English, a fact of which I am proud. For it is a belated attempt to create a Welsh-speaking Civic, although in reality there can be no Welsh-speaking communities in devolved Wales. For what then of the rights of other Welsh citizens to traverse them?

But the rural Welsh-speaker has little interest in individual rights. The community is a material reality, and its acculturation to Anglophone norms via capital, the Civic and in- and out-migration is a displacement. Liberal left universalism has nothing to say about that either, other than to remind the Welsh-speaker that he or she is the worst type of racist.

The idea of Welsh self-governance was launched in the late nineteenth century as a survival strategy for a Welsh-speaking nation. Independence meant one thing, and one thing alone: a creation of a Civic, our Civic. But it is more and more difficult to maintain a Welsh-language Civic, even here in Gwynedd. As we peruse the inevitable failure, it is best to do so without bitterness although I am bitter. The independent Wales of the future will be tolerant, inclusive, liberal, and it will speak English. It will be civic, but it will be your Civic, not mine.

I think of it as a gift from Welsh-speaking civilization to the Other.

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