The failure of Glyndŵr’s rebellion further constricted Wales and meant that the idea of national autonomy wouldn’t emerge in a meaningful way for some centuries. Many Welshmen decided instead to try to influence the new English state which was emerging, and also support the efforts to safeguard the Welsh language and Welsh culture. Some feel that these efforts were boosted when Henry Tudor (Henry VII), who was of Welsh descent, became king in 1485, in part because of the support given by the Welsh to his campaign to win the throne. Later, his notorious son Henry VIII passed the Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542 which formalized the counties of Wales as part of the English state. During the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I, several Welshmen were prominent in shaping that state; for example, John Dee who coined the term ‘The British Empire’.
Michael D Jones and nineteenth century nationalism
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Scotland and Ireland had also been incorporated and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was created. During this century, the state tightened its grip on people’s lives – mainly due to the upheaval and protest which arose from the Industrial Revolution – and there was a concerted effort to create and expand a sense of British identify. As a result, the Welsh language and culture of Wales came under increasing pressure; the populace of Wales faced extremely difficult living conditions and the English Church became the target of fierce opposition throughout a nation which had turned towards the nonconformist denominations.
It is therefore unsurprising that a figure such as Michael D, Jones (1822-1898) – according to some, the father of modern Welsh nationalism – came to the fore. Today, he is mainly known as the leader of the campaign to establish a Welsh Settlement in Patagonia in Argentina, but his nationalistic viewpoints went far deeper than that. He argued that English majority culture, through civic establishments such as the law and government, but also through the economy, was undermining the prospects of Wales and the Welsh language. According to Jones, who was an Independent minister, the language was a key element in Welsh national identity but also fundamental to the country’s faith – he believed that losing the language would undermine the native Welsh culture, but that it would also lead to a loss of religion among the Welsh. For these reasons, he argued that it was essential to withstand the English state and if that wasn’t possible, then there should be a concerted effort to establish a new Welsh order in another part of the world in which the Welsh language could be established as the only official administrative language.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, several other important figures followed Michael D. Jones – including Emrys ap Iwan – and by 1886, Cymru Fydd was formed. This movement led a campaign in favour of Welsh self-government and was supported by prominent Welsh Liberals such as J.E. Lloyd, O.M. Edwards, T.E. Ellis and Lloyd George. This movement had limited success and was wound up by the end of the century, mainly due to disagreement between members in south and north Wales. However, the idea of self-government continued to be discussed at the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, as part of the campaign by E.T John, a Welsh Member of Parliament, or in the efforts of socialists such as T.E. Niclas and David Thomas to form a Welsh Labour Party which supported self-government. However, it’s important to emphasise that full independence was never the aim of various campaigns in favour of self-government towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century but rather ensuring a measure of self-government for Wales as a ‘dominion’ within the international structure of the British Empire.
Saunders Lewis and the development of Plaid Cymru
Following the First World War, the nationalistic movement in Wales changed direction as figures such as Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) argued for complete independence and stated that there was a demand for a Welsh nationalistic party to achieve that. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (the National Party of Wales’ original name) was formed in Pwllheli in 1925 and Saunders Lewis served as its president until 1939. He is known as a brilliant scholar and writer, but his political leadership was less popular. He espoused a very conservative form of nationalism. He placed great emphasis on history and expressed grave doubts about the merits of the modern industrial age – to such an extent that he argued that Plaid Cymru should promote an economic policy which supported the de-industrialization of the South Wales valleys. He also converted to Catholicism in 1932, a decision which proved very controversial in a country of nonconformist chapel goers. Through all of this, the one fundamental and consistent element in his vision was the need to revive the Welsh language and the aim of creating a monolingual Welsh-speaking nation.
The differences between Saunders Lewis and his successor, Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005) are often highlighted. Whereas one was a Catholic, conservative and willing to espouse militaristic viewpoints, the other was nonconformist, a social liberal and also a keen pacifist. Indeed, Gwynfor’s firm pacifism was one of the key factors in ensuring that Welsh nationalism, in its collective form, diverged from the Irish form of nationalism. Despite these differences, both men were also similar in many ways. For example, both agreed that history played a significant role in the nationalistic struggle and also that defending the Welsh language was essential in creating a separate Welsh identify. Furthermore, both maintained that Welsh nationalism should be interpreted as a profound political ideology – one that offered an alternative choice to market capitalism on one hand and socialism on the other.
Another important figure worthy of consideration in discussing the ideological development of the nationalist movement in Wales in the twentieth century is J.R. Jones (1911-1970). Jones did not ever have a formal political role as party leader – he was an academic who became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Swansea. During the 1960s, he published several notable essays which gave philosophical expression to some of the core elements of Welsh nationalism. Like Saunders Lewis and Gwynfor Evans, J.R. Jones believed that the Welsh language was integral to the continuation of the idea of a Welsh nation. He argued that it was possible to define the essence of the idea of a nation by referring to three key elements, namely territory, language and state, along with the ties between them. He also introduced the concept of ‘cydymdreiddiad’ (‘interpenetration’) between language and territory, a historical process which allows a nation’s national language to evolve in harmony with its territory, thereby forming the spirit of the people (i.e. members of the nation). However, in the absence of a state, Jones argued that is wouldn’t be possible to ensure the survival of the language nor the people’s unique spirit. In his view, Wales’ problem was that the Welsh people lived within a state which had no ties to their territory or their spirit; he argued that the United Kingdom was to all purposes a state which had historic ties to England’s territory and language, and therefore that state was concerned with assimilating the Welsh, rather than safeguarding their traditions. Without independence and indigenous state establishments, the language and spirit of Wales would slowly fade, and ultimately, with the language extinct, there would be no Welsh people remaining.
The Age of Devolution
No discussion of nationalism in context of Wales is complete without acknowledging the conflict with British nationalism. When opposing Welsh nationalism, members of the big parties – the Conservatives and Labour Party – would invariably espouse a form of British nationalism. This wouldn’t necessarily involve questioning the existence of a Welsh identity, but would emphasise the political nature of Britishness, whilst allowing Welshness to exist as solely a cultural attachment. Even so, the situation became more complex during devolution and the establishment of the National Assembly at the end of the 1990s. There was now pressure on the ‘British’ parties to adopt a more Welsh outlook in order to respond to the electoral challenges and the policy challenges which arose from the new political context. This was very evident in the case of the Labour Party between 1999 and 2003. Following Plaid Cymru’s unexpected success in the first Assembly elections in 1999, the Labour Party endeavoured to adopt a more Welsh image in Wales – a process partly inspired by its leader in Wales at the time, Rhodri Morgan. The Welsh Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also took similar action. It’s therefore possible to argue that almost all of the main parties represented in the Assembly (with the exception of UKIP) have adopted some form of Welsh nationalism, in the sense that they are committed to upholding a Welsh governing system. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all parties are likely to support steps which would move Wales further along the constitutional path towards independence. However, there is now consensus in terms of the need to treat Welsh politics within a specific Welsh framework.
It’s possible to initiate a discussion about the influence of nationalistic ideas on Welsh politics by looking back at the time of Owain Glyndŵr. Glyndŵr‘s rebellion began in 1400 and reached its climax in 1405, before the tide turned away from him. From a nationalistic viewpoint, one of significant features of his campaign is the way in which extensive use was made of mythology and history, and in particular the emphasis on Glyndŵr’s lineage and his connections with the House of Aberffraw. Furthermore, Glyndŵr’s great emphasis on the need to create inherently Welsh establishments, such as a parliament, universities and an ecclesiastical system, echoed important nationalistic themes. More generally, in view of his campaign, it can be argued that the experience of fighting the Normans and the Saxons had prompted the Welsh people to develop a sense of national identify at an early stage – much earlier than the case with several other peoples across Europe. For example, a cohesive sense of English identity wasn’t evident until the beginning of the fifteenth century. To a great extent, the nationalism seen during this period was a fairly primitive form, in which national identity was mainly based on factors such as language, history and mythology. However, the memory of native Welsh laws – the laws of Hywel Dda from the tenth century – was also part of the legacy which Owain Glyndŵr was eager to harness in recruiting support for his rebellion.