Huw Williams looks for a path toward a political maturity in Wales after the EU referendum exposed a lack of faith and direction.
And there is for us a terrible warning. For when the regime of profit comes to a point where it can no longer be doctored, it shall easily fall upon us that we are facing a new period of fascist counter-revolution. Yes, even in Britain. Under new names and titles of course. Not the fascism of Jordan or Oswald Moseley, because we can recognise its tones and we will not be fooled by it, but some movement that will have to it enough socialist, folk-worshipping camouflage, hiding its malevolence to sufficient enough degree to blind the people once more. From this terrible fate the signs of the times warn us, against being pre-conditioned to the slaughter, softened up and nullified, sucked from our veins all vestiges of nonconformity and protest.
These are the prophetic sentiments of the Welsh philosopher, J.R. Jones, in his text Yr Argyfwng Gwacter Ystyr (The Crisis of Meaninglessness). He was speaking about Wales in 1963. The words may lose some of their rhetorical force in translation, but in our present circumstances, none of their excruciating relevance.
Are we to understand our current malaise – brutally exposed in a Brexit vote fuelled by UKIP’s xenophobia and racism – as the symptom of a society where an emptiness of meaning has penetrated deep enough and wide enough to denude us of the ability to recognise neo-facism, let alone fight back? It is worth at least considering this possibility, for there is something deeply unsettling and perplexing about how it has been allowed to happen in this way.
Beyond the structural issues and cyclical patterns (read further by authorsJohn Van Reenen, Richard Wyn Jones and Dan Evans), it feels as if something further is at stake. Could it be that we are facing a crisis of morality and identity, a vacuum of beliefs and values exposed by the collapse of neo-liberalism? The way UKIP have been given a free run by the media, the EU electorate, and finally, fatefully for us in Wales, in the Assembly election, there is a deep foreboding that we are as a society adrift of our moorings, unsure of ourselves and our values and unable to confront that which is bad.
The welcome for UKIP in the seat of our fledgling democracy is also concerning. Not ignored, blackballed or decried; rather, they are legitimised as a bargaining chip in coalition politics and then installed unquestioningly on various committees. If our politicians welcome in such people, we cannot be surprised that hatred and racism flourishes in our communities.
Let us not pretend we have been duped (if only Farage had grown that moustache earlier, we would have been on to him…). Even before their vile politics reached its zenith during the EU campaign, it had long been public knowledge that their former leader is a racist and their membership is packed with equally unsavoury characters.
In Wales the current crisis not only heralds the extinguishing of the Nonconformist spirit in Wales, typified by a radical, dynamic belief in humanity and the hope of salvation. The (sometimes) secular faith of socialism that carried so many with it and which was previously so vibrant and progressive – actually lived-in – is equally married to the post-war generation who are losing their grip. Many of these communities are now a shell of their former selves, and in the same way that they have been hollowed out by abuse and then neglect, their sense of self and much vaunted solidarity and cosmopolitanism appear to have been eroded and disfigured.
No good, it seems, can come from looking to our preaching ministers of the present; our political leaders have acquiesced. They show a timidity and an insecurity that speaks of a complete lack of faith. The Tories seem to have given up on the idea of Wales in its entirety. In our civic society, the loss of communal structures, industry and a way of life has represented a fracturing that has inevitably lead to a loss of identity and attendant values. The chapels, the unions, the working mens’ clubs, and political parties that represented the Welsh public sphere some decades ago have shrunk or dissipated and it is clear we have very little that is comparable to replace them.
For many within the Welsh chapel the condition we find ourselves today is no doubt proof that the Nonconformist spirit cannot live on indefinitely without the religiosity that inspired it. If this is the case then they must do more to rekindle it and show their communities what it has to offer.
There is an even greater challenge for others to demonstrate that the touchstone of religious faith is not a necessity. We must as a society ask ourselves the basic questions about who we are, who we would like to be, and where we think we should go in the future. Surely it is time to take hold of our cultural and intellectual heritage and to be true to our more exalted and progressive traditions. As Calvin Jones has outlined in his recent inspiring article there are any number of policies and decisions we could make, but in order to do that we need to find a ‘common language’.
If we are to do so our universities have a role to play in motivating and leading the type of discussion that we need in order to ‘find ourselves’. There is also a role for schools and the WJEC to take on, buttressing and adapting our curricula in history, religious studies, geography and the Welsh Bacc. especially to educate our children about what Wales has been in the distant and recent past, and arm them with the possibilities of the future.
There is also the perennial question about the media in Wales. We will get nowhere in this respect without a change in psychology where producers and consumers of news in Wales think in terms of a genuine national media; readers must reject London’s view of the world as the default and journalists need to feed off each others’ stories and create an atmosphere where Wales is where it’s at.
To address our crisis of identity and morality more than anything we require a spark, some form of public debate that makes us search deep into our collective soul and allows us to reinvent ourselves. A referendum on income tax won’t do this, but perhaps a Referendum on EU membership – for Wales alone (advisory of course, like the last one) – could be the starting point for a meaningful conversation.
This is a desperate situation, and nothing would do us more good than an opportunity to debate on our own terms what we would like from the EU and how we should relate to it. More importantly we need the opportunity to reflect properly on who we are as a people, find out the various versions of our destiny that people imagine, and more than anything, rekindle the spirit in us that has shied away.
Is this really a civilisational crisis for us in Wales? Have we so lost our way that we are quickly disappearing beyond the point of redemption? Have the values and assumptions that animated our past so dispersed and disintegrated that we can do nothing except follow our neighbours to the brink? We can sit back and find out, or we can do something to prove that it is no such thing. To end with some words of solace from J.R. Jones:
There is not one renaissance, not one return to the root, not one attempt to rescue civilisation from obliteration that is not possible in the world of man.
Huw Williams is an academic and author, with research interests in egalitarian political philosophy and the history of ideas in Wales. His volume, Creodau'r Cymry, was published by UWP summer 2016, and he is also a co-author of the publication Global Justice: The Basics, with Routledge.
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