Merlin Gable, Raymond Williams Revisited: Culture, Community and Modern Welsh Identity

I speak a different idiom, but I think of these same things.

– Raymond Williams

The 2015 general election for the Westminster Parliament – regardless of its other enduring effects, which we will have the space to dissect and resist over the next five years – may be considered the moment the English met Leanne Wood. Their ‘discovery’ of her in the leaders’ debates produced, as a recent Guardian article observed, ‘a raft of “Who is Leanne Wood?” features in the newspapers’, in notable contrast to the usual ‘distinct lack of prominent coverage’ of Welsh politics in national news.1 For those of us who situate ourselves physically or mentally west of Offa’s Dyke, Wood, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales Central, is of course for the most part a familiar figure, and her translation onto the national stage has been one of great interest. A party which might once have been the first to, as Welsh cultural critic and novelist Raymond Williams gibed in a speech at one of their conferences, ‘reach for … fancy dress’ ‘when [they] hear the word “culture”’,2 Plaid under Wood’s leadership has perhaps begun instead to fulfil Williams’s call in another lecture addressed to the party for a

move from a merely retrospective nationalist politics to a truly prospective politics [characterised by …] affirmative thinking.3

Wood’s nationalism is rationalised within an understanding of Wales as systematically and continuously economically and socially disadvantaged by the influence of the English central government. It is a tacit acceptance of Welsh culture as something constituted as much by post-industrial jobless communities and modern cosmopolitan Cardiff, regenerated by EU funding, as by the Mabinogion, ‘folk culture’ on S4C or the northern rural populations which have historically made claims to a more genuine and continuous Welsh identity on genealogical and linguistic grounds. Regarding Cardiff: it has never, indeed, been more appropriate to call oneself, as Williams did, a ‘Welsh European’ than when the ‘feature[s], natural or manmade’ that Williams argued gave ‘the sense of where we live’ – Cardiff Bay, the Senedd, restoration work of civic buildings in every town and the funding of Cadw – are funded by European money. Our cultural forms, which ‘express the community’s sense of itself, some value it held in common’,4 are inscribed with European money, offering a way around the neo-imperial Westminster influence and the Barnett formula – which always did feel slightly like money for the deserving poor.5

One might contend that Wood represents the arrival of Welsh nationalist politics at a point of comfort with its own identity, a tacit acceptance of the hybridity of a Welsh identity which may ‘speak of both Welsh and English as foreigners, as “not us”’.6 Williams makes this statement in Politics and Letters when speaking of the culture of the ‘border country’ in which he grew up; but Wood too is a non-native Welsh speaker and it must be acknowledged that the history of South Wales is one of rural-to-urban migration from across Britain and abroad to create a society with as much claim to hybridity as contiguity – these statements may not be reserved only for those who live in close geographical proximity to the English. Given this shift in Welsh identity, and following Wood’s wide exposure in media interviews, it is perhaps time to revisit Raymond Williams’s far-reaching and important observations regarding the intersections of identity, culture and community in the context of modern Wales. What does increasing Welsh governmental autonomy, an ever growing political gap between Wales and England, and the continued lack of economic regeneration in South Wales mean for Welsh identity, and what reciprocally can Welsh identity mean for these issues?

Raymond Williams’s theories of culture form the basis of his fictional, critical and political writing. For Williams, culture is a thing ‘done’ not a thing that ‘is’; it is a set of ‘common meanings’ that are ‘the product of a whole people’; and in this respect Williams archly resists attempts to limit the definitions of culture, instead casting it as a passive term descriptive of a totality of expressions and communicative artefacts regardless of their forms (he comments that ‘it is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed’).7 In other words, Williams attempts to remove a sense of (literary) valuation from conceptions of culture, informed by his working-class and rural upbringing and experiencing the routine exclusion of these two peoples from more conventional understandings of culture: the ‘English bourgeois culture … in close contact with the actual centres of power’.8 This conception of culture as a conglomeration of ‘shared meanings’ lies alongside a strong idea of the community in which it is disseminated. The knowable communities so integral to Williams’s lived experience and his work form the basis of this system of culture. In ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (1958), Williams repeats the title over and over as if a mantra – ‘Culture is ordinary: through every change let us hold fast to that’ – and it seems that repetition, in its simultaneous reciprocal capacity, is established as the system of judging a ‘cultural norm’ (for Williams’s model inevitably requires some moment of judgement). Meanings are ‘shared’ and can thus be a ‘culture’ by reciprocal and equal understanding; we can only ‘mean’ if others mean roughly the same thing. The capacity for cognitive dissonance that these processes could have for Williams forms the experiential starting point of his critique:

I even made a fool of myself, or was made to think so, when after a lecture in which the usual point was made that ‘neighbour’ now does not mean what it did to Shakespeare, I said – imagine! – that to me it did. (When my father was dying, this year, one man came in and dug his garden; another loaded and delivered a lorry of sleepers for firewood; another came and chopped the sleepers into blocks; another – I don’t know who, it was never said – left a sack of potatoes at the back door; a woman came in and took away a basket of washing.)9

The radical differences between the meanings with which communities live is laid bare in Williams’s contrasting of the lack of understanding of Shakespeare’s expanded meaning of ‘neighbour’ by the Cambridge academic elite, who cannot perceive the series of social obligations and moral codes which underpin the word for both Williams and Shakespeare, with the (still current) capacity of the literary academy to create rarefied meanings for culture. That is, they cause the death of that meaning, in some degree, by their abstracted study of it precisely as a dead cultural artefact. Williams is suggesting that they are part of ‘the smart, busy, commercial culture’ that the non-metropolitan person still feels they, in different ways, have ‘to catch up with’, a pressure which can easily mean the abandonment of previous cultural meanings.10

One may ask which way around the diagram goes for Williams: does culture constitute community or is a community the cornerstone of any identifiable culture? Always grounded in usage (again these shared meanings), Williams notes in his Keywords that ‘community’ may be ‘the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships’ that are grounded in ‘immediacy or locality’; the recognised contemporary meaning emerged in the nineteenth century ‘in the context of larger and more complex industrial societies’.11 Labelling a ‘community’, then, is in some ways a rhetorical act, and certainly a descriptive one, rather than one which defines or actively creates community – it happens, as it were, after the event. Clearly it is culture that precedes it; we find therefore the hunt for shared meanings to be the starting point of building communicative networks (and these are clearly far less limited now than they were in Williams’s time). What Williams contends, however, is that whereas most people think of these quotidian forms of communication that characterise interactions within a community as ‘the news after the event’ (‘first there is reality and then there is communication about reality’), in fact ‘certain communication patterns’ are ‘deeply involved … in the shape of our society’.12 The ways in which we communicate – and by communicate here we must include the sorts of communicative actions that Williams lists as ‘mutual obligation, and common betterment’ – form the ‘message’ as much as the content itself.13 Hywel Dix summarises Williams’s theories of cultural materialism, which remained central to his academic positions, as recognising an ‘important relationship between what is happening in a society and the content of the cultural forms produced by it’.14 People’s lived experiences (the communities ‘before’ their naming as such) relate directly and intricately to the ways in which and the things that they communicate. These methods are man-made and must be ‘relearned by every new generation’.15 There is a clear temporal aspect here. Though Williams attempted always to ground his theories of communications in what he called ‘this unprecedented dislocating mobile society’,16 it is undeniable that changing modes of communication, particularly the transition from transmission-based mass communication (television) to the transactional, interactive and discursive forms that characterise the internet communications that have arisen since his death have the capacity to radically challenge some of Williams’s assumptions. Yet there remains an inarguable significance, and it seems compelling this will always remain, in geographically located communities: the need for a smaller sphere of travel due to environmental concerns will only enable this further. It is these communities which have the power to most radically transform people’s lived experiences.

Leanne Wood describes the same obligations of community as foundational to her politics, in her case engendered by living in a mining village:

My political values are drawn from my community, of which I am extremely proud. Born and brought up in the Rhondda, where I still live, family and personal experiences have combined to nurture my love of Wales, my socialism and my republicanism.17

It is, I think, no great coincidence that the Rhondda Valley remains one of the most staunchly Labour-voting areas of Britain – despite what this party might actually mean today for the lives of the people there. It encodes a lasting form of cultural identification – perhaps now démodé in post-industrial Britain –with ‘a way of life determined by the National Coal Board, the British Steel Corporation, the Milk Marketing Board, the Co-op and Marks & Spencer, the BBC, the Labour Party, the EEC, NATO’; even though many of the state institutions Williams lists are defunct, one gets a feeling, walking through what were once mining towns, of the state-enforced mode of community that nationalised industry and union loyalty engendered.18 It is the failure of this model of community, one defined from the metropole outwards, that is central to the ever more apparent modern-day crisis of the Labour Party. These outside structuring forces leave and the Valleys collapse: ‘What socialism offered was the priority of one kind of bonding – trade unionism, the class bond – this cancelled all other bonds’.19 This is not to put shame upon their populations, but rather to illustrate the effects of state withdrawal from communities without the economic base for cultural self-sufficiency (this is why, too, for now Wales must necessarily remain within the British unitary state). We realise the need, as Williams observes, for community as a cultural force, and we are left asking how this might come about. Wales still retains an above-average public-sector employment rate as a percentage of the workforce, despite a consistently less employed population than the UK at large.20 Manufacturing, despite the neoliberal structural changes in the economy set in motion thirty years ago, the epicentre of which were the Welsh coal mines, accounts for a larger percentage of jobs and economic activity than in the rest of the UK.21 These are as much part of the cultural fabric of Wales as any linguistic or literary continuity with a British population circa the sixth century; to deny this is to deny ‘large parts of our social experience’.22 What Williams argued even before the 1984 Miners’ Strike still applies, showing just how much the economic life of the Valleys facilitated its social life. ‘You can see this whole model: the uneconomic collieries, the out-of-date heavy industry, the marginal farms.’23 The long-term plan for the Valleys, supposedly enabled by the electrification and subsequent reduction in travel times of the Valleys Line railway, is to establish the area as a commuter belt for Cardiff.24 What this does, of course, is reproduce in the terms of neoliberal modes of employment the same dynamics of community and economy which has arrested the Valleys today – the controlling metropole and the dependent, almost parasitic, periphery. ‘Poor old Wales’ indeed.25

To an extent, Williams’s novels attempt to work through these problems in the subject positions and lives of the working Welsh. Dai Smith argues of Second Generation that ‘it sees change as growth that is rooted, pruned and fostered by communities who strive to make choices for their culture in their own local and national terms’.26 Plaid Cymru set out in their Greenprint for the Valleys an alternative model of ‘local jobs in flourishing and vibrant communities’ through the pooling of ‘natural, human and communal resources’; they envisage a local economy driven by investment in green technology and local self-sufficiency.27 Clearly this alternative model of development is preferable. Green technology, particularly solar panels, takes on a symbolic weight for the necessary self-sufficiency of a community to endure.

But community is a cultural form. Williams recalls a news reporter’s throwaway description of ‘a nation trying to become a people’, but in many ways Wales still lacks an unproblematic relationship even with nationhood.28 All too frequently one is informed by well-meaning English friends that Wales is not a country; it cannot be – the United Kingdom is a country. We are informed instead of our status as a ‘principality’ as if nationhood somehow depends upon nuclear deterrent and foreign embassies. In pre-industrial history, Williams suggests, ‘a nation … was unproblematic[:] … a group of people who shared a native land’.29 Eric P. Hamp’s proposed etymology for lloegr – by which one means England, broadly speaking – is ‘having a nearby border, living near the border’ or, even, those over the border.30 Cymru, though, existing in the ‘Welsh’ imagination long past any reflection of it in the political control of land, is by no means limited to modern Wales or anything close to it. Historically, it was everything except lloegr that was south of the Scottish people’s lands. The Welsh word used to describe the modern nation has a far more slippery history; it is that which is not England – geographically located – and yet also descriptive of those who are not Saxons: Britons. After the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, when Wales ceased to exist in a distinct legal sense, would it have been meaningless to refer to a Welsh people? Of course not.

This is not to argue for a conception of the Welsh nation along the lines of those who deny it to us, but rather to illustrate the malleability of the concept of nation – we need not be bounded by the stencil of the British state. This is a true radical nationalism: one ‘which questions the whole basis of the unitary British state’.31 Wales has always been defined against England: the eisteddfodau, St Fagans, S4C all have their place, but they simultaneously participate in ‘an essential cultural continuity’ of difference. We have Welsh television, we preserve ‘traditional Welsh culture’. We risk existing in the same ‘enamelled world’ that Williams deplored in Renaissance pastoral poetry.32 It is the quite reasonable sign of a cultural mentality that has been threatened by suppression for at least seven hundred years and contrives to give a sense of ‘maintenance, stability and continuity to the Welsh identity’ and thus ‘Welsh nationhood’.33 But this Wales seems to do nothing for the economic deprivation of the urban south, little for the lack of infrastructure in rural areas in the north and elsewhere. It is the ‘fancy dress’ accusation that once could have been levelled against Plaid Cymru. Williams gestures towards a link between the two ‘truths’, as he calls them, of Welsh identity, calling it ‘a stand of old values against a destructive industrial civilisation’.34 However, this pressure, cultural in the ‘Welsh nots’ of Victorian education and economic in the systematic extraction of labour and material capital from the mines, can lead, by reaction, to a retreat into the easy tropes of Welsh identity. Clearly, for the furtherance of the process of devolution and eventual autonomy from the erstwhile colonial power, we cannot accept this as a full enough realisation of Welsh identity.

Our Wales is invented; but does that mean we cannot give truth to the lie of the contiguous, continuous Welsh nation? Community is transactional, and the modern forms of dissemination and communication of this constructed identity – the bilingual street signs, Pobl y Cwm (which we all know even if we never watch), mandatory Welsh lessons – serve as a unifying cultural experience which is necessarily hybrid.35 Between 19 and 25 per cent of the people of Wales speak Welsh; even more are familiar enough with its shapes to participate to some degree in its ubiquity. Those who attack the ‘artificial’ continuation of the language, which undoubtedly is dying out as a mother tongue, do not understand its modern, hybrid role.36 One small thing the modern Welsh language agenda has done is create a web of shared meanings continuous, for the first time even, across Wales. The ubiquitous signs of modern life – supermarkets, post offices, the artefacts of common culture (culture is ordinary) – are used as a medium for the establishment of another set of meanings. These are not really to be read at face value so much as signs of a cultural unity of vague understanding, a metonym for our hazy knowledge of our own histories. They show that the meanings of everyday life can be rendered in a language that simultaneously pays homage to cultural continuity and signs its own artificial nature. It creates what Benedict Anderson might have called an imagined community:

a large-scale socially cohesive entity of which its members may feel themselves to be a part even though they may not, indeed probably will not, meet, encounter or learn of the existence of the majority of other members.37

Anderson describes these communities, particularly the nation, which we must at this point realise in its potential as a web of shared meanings, as culture on a sufficient scale to identify itself in opposition to its other, ‘a deep, horizontal comradeship’.38 To admit to this hybrid, modern Welsh culture is not only useful or interesting but necessary. It is not completely, John Osmond assures us, ‘the abandonment of “Welshness” in some singular and unitary form’; such an active lexis for the passive process of identification of culture seems inappropriate.39 Instead, it is the starting point of the regeneration of geographical communities, but also the shared community of Wales which mandates the government to spread wealth and enable communal regeneration through a common local and national endeavour. It would, after all, be disastrous to simply transplant the forms of domination we have experienced externally and reproduce them once again ourselves.

Merlin Gable is an undergraduate student reading English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford. He lives in Monmouthshire, Wales and is a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial collective.

1 Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, ‘Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru’, The Guardian, 10 April 2015 <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/10/leanne-wood-plaid-cymru-interview&gt; [accessed 11 May 2015], para. 3.

2 Raymond Williams, ‘Welsh Culture’ [September 1975], Culture and Politics: Plaid Cymru’s Challenge to Wales (Plaid Cymru, 1975); repr. in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, ed. Robin Gable (London: Verso, 1989), p. 99. Further references to work contained in this volume will give dates for the original lecture as well as publication details if previously published elsewhere but appear as reprinted in and with the pagination of this edition.

3 Raymond Williams, ‘The Importance of Community’ [July 1977], in Resources of Hope, p. 118; originally published in Radical Wales, 18 (Summer 1988).

4 Raymond Williams, ‘Community and Communications’ [April 1961], in Resources of Hope, p. 22. Originally delivered as a lecture.

5 The formula allocates hypothecated departmental spending based on comparative levels of provision and population (the numbers are actually inaccurate here), giving the Welsh Government no autonomy over prioritisation of different areas of its budget. The lack of choice, and the presumption that the Westminster Government knows best how to distribute the funds, is of course highly patronising to the devolved powers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

6 Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (London: New Left Books, 1979), p. 26.

7 Raymond Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, in Resources of Hope, p. 8; originally published in Conviction, ed. Norman Mackenzie (London: MacGibbon and Gee, 1958).

8 Ibid., p. 7.

9 Ibid., p. 9.

10 Ibid.

11 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. edn (London: Fontana, 1983), p. 76, 75.

12 ‘Communications and Community’, p. 21.

13 ‘Culture is Ordinary’, p. 8.

14 Hywel Dix, After Raymond Williams: Cultural Materialism and the Break-Up of Britain (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), p. 1.

15 ‘Communications and Community’, p. 21.

16 Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (London: Chatto & Windus, 1970), p. 191.

17 Plaid Cymru, ‘Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood’ <https://www.partyof.wales/leader/&gt; [accessed 11 May 2015], para. 1.

18 ‘Welsh Culture’, p. 99.

19 Raymond Williams, ‘Decentralism and the Politics of Place’, in Resources of Hope, p. 241; originally published in Society and Space, 2.4 (1984).

20 Statistics for Wales, ‘Key economic statistics – May 2015’ (2015) <http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2015/150515-key-economic-may-2015-en.pdf&gt; [accessed 15 May 2015], p. 3.

21 Ibid., p. 7.

22 ‘Welsh Culture’, p. 99.

23 Ibid., p. 101.

24 See Gareth Abrahams’s report for the Welsh Government on the economic effects of the electrification plans, ‘Will the VLE strategy reduce the bariers to employment for the economically inactive living in the poorest parts of the Valleys?’ (2013) <http://gov.wales/docs/caecd/research/130313-valley-line-electrification-strategy-en.pdf&gt; [accessed 15 May 2015], esp. pp. 6–7.

25 ‘Welsh Culture’, p. 101.

26 Dai Smith, ‘Relating to Wales’, in Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives, ed. Terry Eagleton (Cambridge: Polity Press with Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 38.

27 Plaid Cymru, A Greenprint for Wales <http://issuu.com/plaid/docs/greenprint_publisher?e=1420648/2613320&gt; [accessed 15 May 2015], p. 3.

28 ‘The Importance of Community’, p. 111.

29 Ibid., p. 111.

30 Eric P. Hamp, ‘“Lloegr”: The Welsh Name for England’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 4 (Winter, 1982), 83–85, p. 83. The validity of this proposed etymology, however, is by no means undisputed.

31 ‘Decentralism and the Politics of Place’, p. 238.

32 Jan Gorak points this out in The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams (Columbia, MI: University of Missouri Press, 1988), p. 116. Gorak’s assessment of Williams’s work as characterised more by ‘alienation, rather than national or doctrinal affiliation’ (p. 7). Of course, what theories of alienation set up is a value judgement, or at least an index point, between the dominant and marginalised cultural position. For reasons that are hopefully obvious, this seems an unproductive approach to Williams’s output.

33 Raymond Williams, ‘Community’, in What I Came To Say (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), p. 58; originally published as a series of book reviews, amalgamated for this volume.

34 ‘Community’, p. 59.

35 The genius, perhaps, of the Welsh Government’s Welsh language programme is the encouragement given to private businesses to produce bilingual signs and literature, removing the dynamic of state-sanctioned culture of the old models of community in the Valleys detailed above.

36 Comfort speaking in Welsh rather than English is higher in older people and the percentage of fluent speakers dropped by one percent between 2004–06 and 2013–14. See Statistics for Wales, ‘National Survey for Wales, 2013-14: Welsh Language Use Survey’ (2015) <http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2015/150129-welsh-language-use-survey-en.pdf > [accessed 16 May 2015], pp. 8, 4. Arguably what is happening is the death of the idea of the mother tongue in Wales. Those fluent in Welsh may speak it interchangeably with or in the same sentence as English, using each in a purely practical sense.

37 Dix, p. 10. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

38 Anderson, p. 7.

39 John Osmon, The National Question Again: Welsh Political Identity in the 1980s (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1985), p. 30.

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