The politicization of national identity in Wales has increased dramatically since devolution. But political parties do not present a common version of “Welsh”, writes Sophie williams. Rather, each party expresses its own version, confusing national identity with its own political ideology in the process.
The end of 2017 saw the effect that increased calls for self-determination can have on the status quo. The constitutional crisis in Catalonia, the votes for greater autonomy in Northern Ireland and the continued impact of Brexit on relations between British nations have served to highlight the impact of the politicization of national identity. Although not a new phenomenon, these issues are growing in importance internationally, and equally so in Wales, where 20 years of decentralized government have irrevocably changed the national political landscape.
Part of the decentralization in Wales was based on the idea that it would increase the feeling of ‘Welsh’: that citizens would feel more strongly about their existing identity when they were centered on their own government. This expectation has been challenged by the quantitative data. Using Moreno’s question, Roger Scully, Richard Wyn Jones and Dafydd Trystan demonstrated that “Welsh and British” remains the most common identification.
This finding then prompted Jonathan Bradbury and Rhys Andrews to investigate the causal links between decentralization and the increased politicization of national identity. Their research revealed that devolution has not generated an increased sense of national identity. What has changed since devolution, they argued, is the level of politicization of national identity. Welsh dominates public discourse and is dominated by political parties who seek to assert their Welsh in different ways.
In light of this finding, Bradbury and Andrews sought to understand the reasoning behind this increased politicization and suggested that all parties seek the same goal: to converge on a common sense of “Welsh citizenship”. They argued that this umbrella approach connects different versions to create a broader Welsh, in order to counter the inherent tensions that exist between overly exclusive visions of Welsh.
My own, more recent research has explored the politicization of national identity, examining facets of Bradbury and Andrews’ arguments. This research supports their first finding: that the politicization of Welsh has increased, promoted by the main political parties in different ways. Devolution is identified as a key causal link, as this excerpt points out:
Fifteen years ago we were struggling with the idea of Welsh Labor… those days are long gone… Welsh Labor probably now has a stronger Welsh identity than it ever did. Main member of the Welsh Labor Assembly (7/11/2014)
Other parties were also clear that decentralization had provided a catalyst for the development and promotion of their branding image. The Welsh Conservatives, for example, had felt the need to mobilize and respond to the new political arena, in order to achieve electoral success:
The Conservative Party over the last fifteen, twenty years has developed its Welsh branch … certainly since the establishment of the Assembly, it must have certainly become more Welsh … Member of the Welsh Conservative Assembly (18/8/14)
Bradbury and Andrews suggest that parties achieve this by presenting a common and acceptable version of ‘civic Welsh’, one that transcends party lines and seeks to smooth out divisions. The correctness of the theory is less certain. Do the parties present a united front on the issue or do they differ in their political mobilization? My research has revealed that instead of presenting a united national identity across the political spectrum, politicians instead confuse Welsh with their own 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 Welsh rooted in the liberal and federalist tradition, while the Welsh Conservatives argue that conservatism and Welsh are intrinsically compatible. An interviewee at Plaid Cymru argued that Plaid Cymru is the only true Welsh party, while a Welsh Labor interviewee suggested that being Welsh and Labor was a state of being ‘natural’. The Welsh Tories, in particular, were clear that they had to work the hardest to convince the electorate of their Welsh and thwart the party’s historic view as English and anti-Welsh.
In this way, Welsh political elites frame different versions of Welsh, amalgamating elements of their political ideologies with national identification. But in doing so, they silence the competing versions, for how can Welsh mean both conservatism, liberalism, socialism and nationalism? These findings directly call into question those of Bradbury and Andrews. While it seems clear that the elites are politicizing national identity like never before, they do not present a shared civic version of Welsh, but rather compete with each other in this effort.
A larger part of this research looked at people’s understanding of Welsh and their attitudes towards politicians, in order to assess whether politicians’ attempts to appear more Welsh had a positive impact on their electoral prospects in the mind. voters. This work requires further examination, but there was a contemporary consensus among participants that politicians are not trustworthy.
The politicization of national identity in Wales has increased considerably since devolution, although, contrary to the initial suggestions of Bradbury and Andrews, it appears that the parties are competing to express the ‘real’ view of Welsh and Welsh values, confusing national identity with their own political ideology. The question remains as to its effectiveness as an electoral strategy. Welsh Labor in particular remain very popular across much of Wales, as the 2017 general election results show, while Welsh Liberal Democrats have struggled to remain politically relevant. The introduction of UKIP into Welsh politics may have changed the dynamics further. So this is a changing picture, and it will be interesting to see the development of Welsh citizenship and the role it plays in shaping the political future of Wales.
Note: The above is based on work published by the author in Parliamentary Affairs.
About the Author
Sophie williams holds a PhD from Swansea University.
All articles published on this blog represent the point of view 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.