“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. So wrote the late Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books back in February 2010. I read those words half way through my PhD, which had, by accident rather than by design, eschewed the enormously fashionable drive towards identity study. A word search for identity in my PhD typescript shows its use a mere 27 times, slightly more than consciousness at 17 times, but rather less than society at a 150 uses, and labour at well over 600 or Wales at in excess of 750! Mind my thesis was about Wales… In any case, Judt’s essay reinforced in my mind the propensity towards boxes inherent in identity studies, as he writes:
Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. [http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/feb/23/edge-people/]
I might add, I suppose, we Welsh are just about the only ones to study the Welsh.
Now, I should confess that my first realisation that identity was problematic and was getting really in the way was as a master’s student in Canada. My supervisor’s influence on me has been enormous and far outweighs my PhD supervisor, the normal godfather of a person’s research outlook. Chatting one day, he brings up on screen Tony Judt’s essay ‘a clown in regal purple’, which attacked the tendency apparent in social history at the time of its publication (in the late 1970s) towards the stuff of post-modernism, something for which neither of us had any time for. We still don’t.
The chat that day was an academic one, but in my head I’d been pondering the question of my own ‘identity’ for quite a long time. As a child I’d been the same as everyone else, right down to the fairly thick Valleys-Welsh accent we all had in primary school. But as a teenager I came to think of myself not as Welsh like everyone else, but as English. This was expressed defiantly enough by the wearing of an English rugby jersey and the flattening of my accent. My parents were English, which was one part of it; but looking back know I think I was also deliberately rubbing against the imposition of a certain type of Welshness from above. We were forced to learn Welsh in secondary school, even after making our choice of subjects at 14, something I still think is counter-intuitive, and that official Welshness floated through society like a miasma. It suffocated facts and what could not be killed off was resolved into myth. The Welsh Not was imposed on us by evil dictators from England (it wasn’t), the Welsh language was murdered by the English (it wasn’t), and so on it went. In a sense, I was a bit like Gwyn Thomas, only much less funny.
This faux-Englishness survived until I got to Oxford when it was shaken out of me pretty fast. In fact, within a term (just 8 weeks long) I knew it was impossible to be English for I was not really English in a social or cultural sense. Never again have I felt a modicum of Englishness, not one scrap of Anglic uttering. And yet I remain a fiery critic of top-down impositions of Welshness, and of the dream of the nationalists to make Wales rather like Ireland, a conservative country which privileges a language of the few to the willing exclusion of the many. For that, today, is one of the real consequences of the Welsh nationalist project and it feeds on the many myths and legends of that invented tradition of exploitation. The miners of the Rhondda were not forced to give up their Welsh, they chose to give it up, democratically, in a meeting. The democratic which has ever been denied to their descendants who have had Welsh re-imposed upon them from above. I don’t say that lightly, I quite enjoy being able to think in a language other than English – I’ve learnt four others – and I enjoy travelling to Ireland, say, and spotting the commonalities of structure and form. And yes, it does make for a useful entrée into an academic paper to start by saying shw’mae, rather than simply hello; and yes it also makes for a clear sense of the consequences of British history to be able to read a great many sources that are not in English. But I do not shy away from the consequences of telling people how to feel.
If you’ve been reading through the lines, you may have spotted the unuttered theme at the heart of what I’ve been talking about: power. For identity is all about power. To fit oneself into the boxes of identity is to grasp onto a particular form of power, or to reject it. Recently, the BBC ran an article about Britishness and its collapse in parts of the country. The poorest parts of Scotland and Wales were firmly allied not to Britishness but to Scottishness and Welshness (respectively). The Rhondda, so the report claimed, is the Welshest part of the British Isles in terms of self-ascription. I’m not surprised: Britishness is too frequently associated with the official power of the state which has treated the people of the Rhondda and the Valleys as a whole pretty badly since the outbreak of the First World War. The rise of Welshness is effectively about the failure of Britishness and of Britain as an official project of unity. We simply don’t share in the project any longer. To adapt Judt’s words, when I think or speak of the British, I instinctively use the third person, I don’t identify with them.
And yet if people ask me I will always say that I’m South Walian, Welsh if I have to, because I take a particular pride in its history. South Wales was a cosmopolitan place where Jews, Italians, Spaniards, English, Irish, Polish, French, Yorkshire, Scottish, Somalians, Haitians, Argentinians, Americans, Chinese, and many more, could all settle and live, albeit not entirely without difficulty, in relative harmony and peace in order to make a new society all for themselves. In such a society, it was not the narrowness of one identity that came to define but the spirit of internationalism. Why did men go to fight in Spain, why did the communities here fundraise what little they had – even down to their last farthings – to send food and clothing to Spain, why did men go to fight in Ireland, why did communities save to be able to send food and clothing to aid their locked out and starving comrades? Why did they march against nuclear weapons and get Wales declared a nuclear free zone? I could go on but I think the point is that they did so because the cause of internationalism came to outweigh the narrow parameters of any single, dangerous identity. And so, yes, I am South Walian but that’s because it’s a short-hand for something a whole lot more important.
When I spoke a few weeks ago at the Northern Identities conference, I expressed in my paper something along these lines – that identity was problematic. The audience didn’t really react, I suspect they felt I was a little mad, perhaps I am, but in rejecting the current fashion of historians to obsess with identity it begs the question of what to think about in its place. But, that’s a story for another day.