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How Unionists can save the UK (and why they’ve been getting it completely wrong so far)

10 Feb 2021 4 minute read
Picture by Luke Stackpoole.

Ifan Morgan Jones

The dominant form of national identity in Wales between around the Tudor period and the 2010s was what can be called ‘contributionist Welsh-British nationalism’.

This kind of nationalism is interesting because it wasn’t a binary between Welshness on one hand and Britishness on the other.

Rather it both recognised that Wales was fundamentally different to the rest of the UK but also that the different nations of the UK had most to gain by teaming up.

This kind of nationalism probably reached its apex around the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century when a number of prominent Liberal Welshmen made their mark on British politics.

They saw no contrast between Wales being culturally and linguistically different and also contributing to a wider British project (including, yes, the British Empire).

Image it as an almost a kind of Power Rangers or Voltron-style arrangement where the constituent parts of the UK were individuals but could slot together into a greater whole.

But as mentioned by Professor Russell Deacon on this site on Monday this kind of Welsh and British identity seems to be disappearing from the political realm.

The reason for this, I think is because Welshness and Britishness have increasingly come to be seen as binary choices rather than two identities that could be seen mutually reinforcing.

Part of this has come about because the centre – Westminster – since at least the late 70s (but arguably earlier) has seemed to care less and less about Wales.

It has pursued policies that have centralised political, economic and cultural power in London and the south-east of England.

That naturally gave rise to a feeling in Wales that we weren’t part of a team and that if we wanted to thrive we’d have to strike out on our own, leading to devolution – a vote lost in ’79 but won in ’97.


However, in the last few years, especially since the Brexit vote, we have seen the development of a kind of hyper-Westminster nationalism that thinks that Welshness and Britishness really is a zero-sum game.

It has given rise to a political mindset where different national identities within Britain are seen not as partners working with Westminster but as challengers to its power. And that only way to stop Britain breaking apart is to undermine these challengers as best possible.

In Wales this has led to a mindset that the best way of going about this is to do away with political institutions such as the Senedd and Welsh Government. They would do no doubt pursue this in Scotland too if they thought it had any chance of working.

But for anyone who wants to save the Union, this is in fact exactly the opposite approach anyone who wants to save the union should be pursuing.

Destroying Wales’ political institutions won’t work anyway. It has survived through centuries when it had no national institutions at all, and as soon as some semblance of democracy was introduced, so were its national institutions.

But if pursued regardless it will, in the end, drive Wales out of the Union altogether.

Ultimately, if Wales feels it can work as a team player within Britain, and have its contribution and its desire to contribute to its fullest potential recognised, it will continue to do so.

However, the less Welsh identity feels it can work with Westminster, the more it will seek to work independently.

Those who seek to undermine Wales, ignore it, abolish its institutions, seem to be on a singular mission to prove Welsh nationalists’ point – that Wales can’t work within Britain.

The ultimate impact of that will be to see a big growth in support for further powers, federalism and perhaps ultimately independence.

So if you’re reading this and you are a Unionist and want to keep the United Kingdom together, do not turn your ire on YesCymru but rather on those feeding YesCymru’s growth.

And that’s those who are economically neglecting Wales, not investing in the country, and attempting to suppress or ignore its democratic voice.

The real enemies of the Union are those people who don’t want Westminster to work with Wales, but rather against it.

It’s not playing as a team, and it’s why the UK is breaking up. Exactly the same dynamic applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland too.

Treat is at as a team of equals, and the UK will stay together. Treat Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as kinks that must be smoothed out or simply appendages that must respond to Westminster’s commands, and it will all fall apart.

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