Simon Brooks surveys the political landscape and sees, now that the storm has passed, a very different constituency.
The Conservative’s general election win was a very good thing for Wales indeed. Or, at least, it was a very good thing for those who think they speak for Wales, and want to break up the United Kingdom, for this indeed is how states break up.
The glue which binds multi-national states together is not that of Queen, Church and Country, but of universalism, most often presented in the form of supposedly transnational ideas like socialism and liberalism. It is the British Labour Party and its allies – trade unionism, Bevan’s NHS, the communitarianism of a British working class; popular culture too, the BBC in particular, and also, as well, the English language – which, for a century, has held Britain together. Welsh nationalists have never understood this, believing erroneously that wicked Tories are at fault. The road to national emancipation lies through the destruction of the British Left – delanda est Carthago, as they might say in Glasgow. Fortuitously, on 7 May 2015, thanks to the national movements of Scotland and England, the British Left was indeed destroyed.
When Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for the Rhondda tweeted, ‘Truth is, when the left divides the Tories win’, he tweeted the truth. It was Nicola Sturgeon who put David Cameron back in Downing Street. The rise of Scottish nationalism must of necessity provoke a counter reaction. The General Election result is best understood not as a schism between Left and Right, but as home rule all round.
Wales was not part of this process for an unpalatable reason. The country is far more similar to England than we might care to admit: certainly, Wales is closer to England than to Scotland. This is unsurprising given the rather different Welsh historical experience of having been part of England. The Welsh relaxed and enjoyed life in the England-incorporating-Wales Tudor State, and may well imagine they could do so again. And so the Welsh reaction to Scotland is rather English in sentiment.
Labour’s losses to the Conservatives in Wales (Gower in particular) reflect an Anglo-Cambrian concern with the consequences of two Scottish revolutions. Labour’s defeat in the Vale of Clwyd suggests too that the acculturation of Wales as western England continues apace. Of late, this has begun to effect the reproduction of Welsh Labourite culture, whereas previously its main impact was on Plaid Cymru, but perhaps sharing the pain is no bad thing. No amount of bluster about ‘civic nationalism’ can change demographic facts on the ground.
The Tories had a fantastic election in Wales. Gower is half in, half out a Valleys seat: the Tory victory there is the most stunning Conservative win for a generation. It is reminiscent of the Conservative high water mark of 1983 when the party took Bridgend. Wales is a far more conservative country than the Welsh Left would care to admit. Indeed, much support for the Labour Party, in particular in some Valleys communities, is based on social conservatism.
There has always been a tradition of racism, and right radicalism, in south Wales. This has been ignored because it suits no one in Welsh historiography, neither Labour nor nationalists, nor as it happens racists themselves, to draw attention to this rather obvious fact. The worst anti-Irish and anti-Semitic riots of British industrialisation took place in the south-Wales coalfield. The authoritarian New Party polled over 10,000 votes in Merthyr in 1931 (it was later to become fascist, although not overtly so at the time); indeed Merthyr was the Thanet of its day. Is it wholly insignificant that Blaenau Gwent elected Peter Law as MP in 2005 on an anti-New Left and anti-feminist ticket? The large Ukip vote in constituencies like these, where the party came second, shows that Reaction within deprived, working-class communities is part of a cultural continuity.
What then of Plaid Cymru? Within the context of the Scottish revolutions, the result can only be regarded as an abject failure. To come in behind Ukip in the popular vote is a humiliation. As an ideology, Welsh nationalism has become weak. Local successes, such as increasing the vote in Arfon, Rhondda and Cardiff West, are a tribute to the commitment of local campaigners, not a harbinger of national advance.
Plaid Cymru’s political narrative lies far to the left of the centre ground of Welsh politics. While the SNP appeals across the board, from the far Left to the centre right (it even had a former Tory elected as an MP), Plaid Cymru seems set on becoming a Welsh version of the Green Party. The party is uncritical of the British Left outside the Labour Party, and fawns on the words of metropolitan commentators in a way unimaginable in successful leftist national movements like Sinn Féin, or the abertzale parties of the Basque Country. Leanne Wood is hugely appealing as a personality, but her politics mean that Plaid Cymru will struggle more at the ballot box than needs to be the case.
Simon Brooks' book on the past, and future, of Welsh nationalism, Pam na fu Cymru (Why Wales never happened) is published in June (UWP).
If you liked this you may also like:
James Luchte on anti-austerity measures.
Neil Thomas gives a short guide to the causes of national debt.
Where are we with fracking in Wales? - Kelvin Mason