For David Lloyd George, nationhood was “nothing to do with geography” but “a state of mind”.
The sentiment of Wales’ most famous son, who was born in Manchester, captures how our need to understand and define our identity is a national obsession; one that is central to Welsh character and personality, probably more than any other European nation. The construction of our ideas about identity rest on interpretations of history, the Welsh language and arguably most of all, our relationship with England.
Coronavirus has certainly tested the ancient links between our two nations, a political and latterly a constitutionally legal bond that has endured to this day. Because of our devolved powers, what this pandemic has done is give the Welsh Government an opportunity to “flex its muscles”, as The Guardian put it, for the first time in decades. And the opinion polls show how effectively the public, on both sides of the border, think that the Welsh government can operate if it has the tools to do so.
As has been outlined by Nation Cymru’s editor, the difficult task now facing the First Minister is the balancing act between re-opening the economy and safeguarding public health. The disgraceful scenes in Ogmore-by-Sea only reaffirmed in Mark Drakeford’s mind that restrictions can only be lifted if the public are following the advice. But the actions of a few rule-breakers will not strike as much concern as the mass abandonment of social distancing rules across English tourist spots over the last week.
As Wales’ badly-damaged hospitality industry is set to welcome tourists from July, the scenes in England should set alarm bells ringing and, consequently, an urgent reconsideration of what safeguards are in place to ensure those scenes from Bournemouth and Dorset are not repeated in Wales.
The possibility of a second wave is, after all, a terrifying prospect for our nation. This is exactly why a stronger Welsh border – with an increase in police checks on specific crossing points – would possibly avoid a calamitous scenario in many Welsh communities.
There is, of course, no doubt how challenging an enforced border would be to implement: we have dozens of roads that seamlessly connect our two countries, and arguably an insufficient number of officers to ensure cover of all points of entry. It will also cause further disruption for many businesses that would struggle with lower numbers of visitors, who without checks would surely be happy to travel into Wales for an unnecessary leisurely stroll or to visit their favourite little Welsh café by the seaside.
Police patrols on our main border crossings would at least ensure there is some order in regard to the visitors who are driving into Wales, and that they are doing so in a safe and controlled manner. Although the political Right has, true to form, been hopelessly been out-of-step with the mood of the Welsh public when it comes to easing lockdown restrictions, they are right to raise concerns over the re-opening of the economy.
Checks at a strengthened Welsh border should not deter those who are able to enjoy the beauty of our country from visiting, therefore contributing to our economy, but it will certainly make some think twice about trying their luck to visit Wales. Many rural Welsh regions, unlike many English counties, do not have the infrastructure in place to cope with such major incidents that a potential influx of coronavirus brings. This is why the strength Anglo-Welsh border is now the crucial factor in defeating the virus in Wales.
The contention around national boundaries during coronavirus is also a political issue. Borders have, of course, dominated European and North American politics for years, but over recent weeks there has been marked difference political difference between the Welsh and the English.
Wales does not have the constitutional powers to close its borders, and nor should it, but it is clear that we cannot re-open our country with such haste and with the lack of precautions as England and the United States have done. Strengthening our border should not be interpreted as anti-English, although it will undoubtedly be seen as such in some conservative quarters.
Above all, these complexities illustrate how this pandemic has raised again raised the issue of what determines Welsh identity.
Citizenship is now increasingly tied up with the government rules applicable to people. Identity, therefore, has gone beyond a “state of mind” and has increasingly become an issue of geography and your location on the map.
So, maybe the Welsh Wizard was wrong, after all?