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Performing the Welsh State

Cymru at the United Nations (Image: Gwalia)

Becoming a nation state is not a single event but rather an ongoing process. The journey has already begun and will continue beyond any formal declaration of independence following a successful referendum.

It’s a journey without a terminus, but nevertheless a journey with many stations; some larger and more significant than others. The 1997 devolution referendum was one such station; the 2011 referendum another.

This much was not lost on Ron Davies, former Secretary of State for Wales and so-called “architect of devolution”, who wrote in a pamphlet ahead of the very first Senedd election in 1999: “devolution is a process. It is not an event and neither is it a journey with a fixed end-point."

Some argue that the journey to becoming an independent nation state began with the devolution referendum in 1997, others with the 1979 defeat, still others point to the Welsh Church Act of 1914, or some other historical date altogether.

But regardless of when the journey to statehood began, what matters is where it is heading. Ahead of us lie many forks in the track. The only thing that can be known for certain is that the landscape, both political and societal, is forever changing. Independence should not be a goal unto itself, but a vehicle for real, palpable change; and hopefully change for the better.

Welsh statehood won’t manifest itself spontaneously; nor is it guaranteed. The whole project could be derailed at any point. The good news is that we, the people of this land, are more than just passengers.

To become a bona fide state, we have to act in the here and now as though we are already independent. It’s a collective effort; and certainly not the duty of a lone statesperson. The people of Cymru have to perform the Welsh state into being by projecting de facto statehood out into the world. We must bring the Welsh state into being through repeated expressions of statehood. But what does this mean in practice?

In 1955, the philosopher of language, J.L. Austin elaborated his theory of the “performative utterance” to describe a sentence that begets a given reality, rather than merely describing an already existing one. The example he gives is the sentence “I now pronounce you man and wife”, which through its very utterance creates a new state of reality; a reality in which two people have taken on a new status.

By the same token, the Welsh nation state is only real insofar as it is “performed” repeatedly. Take the trappings and paraphernalia of our country: Y Ddraig Goch, the leek and daffodil, or our national anthem. However small or unimportant they might seem to some, they’re nevertheless expressions of our unique Welsh identity, without which we would lose our mark of difference. Each time we participate in Eisteddfodau or speak our own language— our most valuable asset— we reaffirm our existence. We tell the world “ry’n ni yma o hyd”.

Nobel Prize nominee Saunders Lewis was well aware of the need to perform the Welsh nation into existence: "The only proof that the Welsh nation exists is that there are some who act as if it did exist", he once wrote.

Our current institutions need developing, and new ones need to be created. We have national sports teams (except cricket), we have our own parliament, our own opera company, and soon we’ll have our own bank! But we still lack our own justice system, our own public broadcaster, our own currency, and much else besides.

The Welsh Government has to raise its game. Just compare and contrast Nicola Sturgeon’s glossy press briefings with ours! The Welsh Government must look into the feasibility of opening consulates in cities in Europe and beyond, following the example of the Scottish Government. While the Welsh Government has already developed relationships with nations such as Brittany, Québec, Flanders, and the Basque Country, and has signed memoranda of understanding, and conducted trade missions, it still has further to go.

In the party's manifesto for the 2021 Senedd election, Plaid Cymru pledged to prepare a bid to host the Commonwealth Games and seek membership into Eurovision. Far from being trivial, these things matter; they set us apart as a nation in our own right on the world stage.

We should also develop our own unique brand and identity. Scotland, once again, is leaps and bounds ahead of us in this department, with its new national brand ‘Scotland is Now’. While we're at it, why don't the Celtic nations go one step further and develop a more encompassing "Celtic Aesthetic" to rival the Scandinavians? A sort of visual language that could permeate everything from stationery to architecture. This instantly recognisable style could act as a sort of visual shorthand, communicating a shared set of values, while binding us together like a Celtic knot. In short, we need ambition. We have to take ourselves seriously as a nation or nobody else ever will; our very existence depends upon it.



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