Independence, YES. Nationalism, NO. The problem of “fictive ethnicity”.

As an Englishman, by accident of birth, it often causes raised eyebrows, at the very least, when people find out just how committed I have become to the cause of independence for Wales.

simplistic nationalismThis is in no small part because I have long been a vociferous critic of nationalism. I devoted a small chapter of my 2011 book, The Asylum of the Universe (now out of print), to this perspective, at a time when I was still far from convinced of the case for Welsh independence. I have to admit that this was an intellectual stumbling block to me getting my head around an unambiguous position in favour of independence.


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Leanne Wood’s ecosocialist manifesto, 2011.

In my time with the Green Party, and as an ecosocialist, I found myself having large amounts in common with fellow ecosocialists within Plaid Cymru, most notably its leader at the time, Leanne Wood. She and others all took considerable trouble to try and differentiate their form of cuddly ‘civic nationalism’ from the far more distasteful ‘ethnic nationalism’. This was kinda comforting, but doesn’t actually bear too close scrutiny. Only the other day, one of my Yes Cymru colleagues was jesting that I was ok for an Englishman as I have lived here long enough to have drunk enough Welsh water!

Civic v ethnic ppt

Nicked from a school ppt.

For a full exposition of why civic and ethnic nationalisms are false opposites, and actually little more than different conceptions of one ideology and movement, I would encourage the reading of this dissertation, False Opposites in Nationalism: An Examination of the Dichotomy of Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism in Modern Europe. From its conclusions:

“What these two different conceptions do however provide is different subjective or “ideological bonds” for their members, that provides the glue by which a community of people regard themselves as belonging and sharing a feeling of kinship, solidarity and unity. Citizenship is the key to the bonds within civic nationalisms, and ethnicity within ethnic nationalisms; the cement of civic nationalisms are legal codes and institutions, but within ethnic nationalisms it is customs, myths and symbols.”

The common denominator of the two is the apparatus used to support the ideology. Louis Althusser (French Marxist philosopher who, admittedly, ended up insane) recognised two key categories of this apparatus. On the one hand, we have the “repressive state apparatuses” of the the armed forces and police, which will use coercion where necessary to maintain order and/or repress opposition to the political establishment. And on the other hand, we have the “ideological state apparatuses” of the education system, media, churches and the like, which disseminate ideologies acceptable to the political establishment. Through these apparatuses you are identified as either a member, and incorporated, or an outsider, and ostracised. If you want ‘in’ but don’t share the ideology, Blaise Pascal offered this advice way back in the 16th century:
“Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe”

Whatever the prevailing balance between the expressions of civic and ethnic nationalism, not to mention all the other variants that I have no inclination to explore here, as they all are elements of the same whole, there can be little denying the role of the collective identities of nation and ethnicity in the worst episodes of history.

This is explored by Etienne Balibar ( a student of Althusser) in his influential 1988 essay, The Nation Form: History and Ideology. (Outlined here) He illuminates the common assertion that ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society, with his own concept of “fictive ethnicity. He argues that:

“No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them, are ethnicised.”

Human taxonomyThis is basic anthropology and ancient history. There were once no nations and no borders. Indeed there were once no people, and apart from the points of origin of our species (why stop there? Genus? Family? etc.), well, the point is that who belongs where is ALWAYS subjective and distorted by assertions of the significance of who actually was where at some arbitrary point in history. ‘Fictive ethnicity’ is therefore the idea that all the people who seek to ‘belong’ to the ‘nation’ are required to share certain characteristics, be they biological or cultural. This can be used to assert the distinctiveness of people at different scales: Coity v Wildmill, valleys v the vale, SE Wales v SW Wales, South Wales v North Wales, Wales v England, Britain v Ireland, UK v Europe, Europe v Asia, white people v the rest of the world.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.05.17

Not all these scales will seem relevant to concepts of nationhood, but they can be. We see supposed ‘nations’ at everything from city state to United States. There are no problems in applying civic nationalism concepts at all these scales. Ethnic nationalists will have greater issues with this notion of nationhood. This can be, and often is, the starting point for fascism.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 15.03.20

It is a surely a matter of personal choice whether I choose to identify as a Welsh, English, Polish, British or European. Most people would probably concede this. I have lived in Wales for nearly 30 years, was born and bred in England of an English mother and Polish father, who himself had some German ancestry. This would seem to give me some entitlement to that range of identities.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.07.50Strangely though, people start to have issues if I try to claim more than one and I would probably struggle to get away with claiming to be Icelandic, which would be my first choice, or Jamaican, for example, which also has some appeal. Ok, I may be getting a little facile, but my point is a serious one. Does ’national identity’ matter? Should it matter? And why?

I also agree with Balibar in asserting that nationalism, with its systems of inclusions and exclusions, can never fully coincide with national borders. In his 2002 essay “What is a border?”, he points out that borders represent only one part of a complex set of boundaries, shaped by the aspirations, and histories on either side of them. Take a look at the history of the border in Ireland, of Poland, of Monmouthshire, to grasp this point.

It is not only borders that move around, of course. Human populations have always been migratory in nature, going all the way back to our hunter-gatherer roots, with major migrations in response to resource pressures. These pressures still exist, of course, but with the invention of nation-states and borders, it has been like putting a lid on a pressure cooker. The combinations of man-made and natural calamities (oft intertwined) will never cease to crank up these pressures. The result is the ever greater refugee crises we see. The story of these crises always shines a light on the fundamental immorality of nationalism and nationhood.

It has to be recognised that all nationalisms are particular and the enemies they choose vary. Balibar does, however, recognise a competitive mimicry in much of it. Johnson, Farage, Trump, Bolsanoro, et al, all employ similar rhetoric and slogans, targeting locally identifiable scapegoats. But is it fair to label these people as nationalists rather than fascists? It is a fine line at best. Balibar’s contemporary, Alain Badiou expresses well:

“When the state starts being concerned about the legitimacy of people’s identities, it can only mean we are in a period of darkest reaction, as historical experience has shown …. This is because an identity-based definition of the population runs up against the fact that since every population in the world today is composite, heterogenous and multi-faceted, the only reality such a definition will have is a negative one.”


Thus, I hope I have adequately laid out my position with regards to any form of nationalism. I reject it. So how can I be so committed to the campaign for Welsh independence? It’s actually pretty straightforward. It is built on a belief in certain forms of localism, rather than nationalism, and on a conviction that we need to have a far more effective form of democracy. These two things go hand in hand.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.02.25Like nationalism, localism describes a range of related political philosophies that can range from the far left to the far right. My localism comes from the more anarchic, environmentalist end of the spectrum. In general terms, localism supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and promotion of local culture and identity.

It promotes deliberative democracy that seeks to engage as many people was possible in the decision making that effects them. It seeks more than just an X in a box and strives for consensus, or at least clear overall majorities. It leans heavily on the principle of subsidiarity that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution. This in turn will lead to a general rejection of economic globalisation. Production and consumption at local level is founded on sound environmental arguments, with a drive for self-sufficiency having a range of other benefits too. This is not to deny that there are not downsides and negatives to this approach. It needs to be focused on environmental sustainability and respect of every individual (i.e. left wing priorities) rather than economic sustainability and the wishes of dominant groups (i.e. right wing priorities)

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.07.08Independence for Wales is not necessarily going to achieve these aspirations in itself , but it is a huge stepping stone towards it. Is there anything that effects the lives of people in Wales that is inherently better decided in Westminster at a UK scale, than in Cardiff (or somewhere else in Wales – I’m not convinced that Cardiff is the most appropriate location for whole-of-Wales decision-making) for Wales or even at more local level where practicable? It is, at best, cumbersome and inefficient (a bit like that last sentence!) and at worst, prejudicial, detrimental and anti-democratic. Wales has never backed a Tory government in Westminster, yet has suffered immeasurably from the consequences of being ruled by one. If nothing else, it has created a degree of subservience and sapped the self-belief from the people of Wales. I have explored this recently in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Independence based on these principles is not insular and self-serving. It is not about denying ourselves bananas and coffee, for example. But where we do get involved in international trade it should respect and maintain the same principles in the areas we go to for trade. Cut out the big multinational corporations. Foster relationships built on fair trade principles and mutual respect with local suppliers of bananas or coffee or whatever. Utilise environmentally friendly routes and modes of transport wherever possible. Likewise, trade our surpluses in accordance with similar ethics. Recognise and celebrate the diversity that exists in our communities, with very few people in Wales having welsh roots that go back more than a few generations at best. Extend the culture of our cities of sanctuary‘ across the whole country. Equally, recognise and celebrate the culture and traditions that have evolved in this part of the world that enrich us rather than diminish us.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.26This is beginning to sound like a manifesto for the a new Welsh republic, and it is of sorts. I have a dream! But none of this is assured in an independent Wales. Far from it. In the hands of the far-right it would look utterly different. But the essential point is that it is all possible in an Independent Wales and virtually impossible in a Wales tied to a deeply conservative/Conservative England. Whereas ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity may be dangerous goals, political consensus must be a worthwhile aspiration. There is obviously some overlap in this, but it is patently easier to achieve in smaller countries than big ones.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.03The late 20th century saw the breaking up of many unwieldy, fractured blocs, such as Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and parts of east Africa. The early 21st century has seen growing pressure for independence of viable smaller countries in many parts of the world, from here in the UK, across many parts of Europe and beyond.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.21.06Few would surely argue that the breaking up of the supposed superpowers of USA, Russia and China, along with perhaps massive countries like Brazil and India, would not be of huge benefit to the whole planet. In the history of the breaking up of empires I have yet to find an example of a country anywhere, at any time, gaining independence from an imperial power that ever regretted it and asked to return.

On this basis, so long as nationalist extremism is kept at bay, it is hard to see how independence for Wales cannot be the way to go.

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