Kinnock’s attack on the Welsh independence campaign shows exactly why it’s needed

Stephen Kinnock MP. Picture by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, has penned an article for the Western Mail today addressing the growing calls for independence in Wales.

The article doesn’t seem to be online, so here is a screenshot if you’re happy to squint your eyes at it:

YesCymru will welcome articles such as Stephen Kinnock’s because they confirm that support for Welsh independence is growing.

By joining the conversation, MPs such as Kinnock accord the Welsh national movement credibility. He will know this, and will have considered the danger of not addressing the movement as greater than giving it the oxygen of publicity.

The next independence march, in Merthyr Tydfil on 7 September, might be hitting (quite literally) too close to home.

It’s worth noting however that while Stephen Kinnock’s article has been motivated by the rise of support for Welsh independence, it makes no attempt to really engage with any of the arguments put forward by YesCymru.

The first half of it is very much a colour-by-numbers, prefab article responding to any kind of call for autonomy from Westminster.

It could well have been copied and pasted from an article about Scottish independence, or indeed an article warning any of the 63 nations that have declared independence from Westminster since the 18th century.

In fact, the article makes this even starker by first of all attacking Scottish independence, before making the same arguments (again) about Welsh independence.

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments in the article and what they amount to.

Status quo

The first is that Welsh nationalism is a “divisive and dangerous ideology”, which is “regressive and isolationist” in contrast to a British “progressive patriotism”.

So, what’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism?

As one of the foremost academics writing about nationalism, Michael Billig, notes in his study ‘Banal Nationalism’, the reality is that ‘patriotism’ is really just a nicer word for ‘nationalism’ that people turn to when they want to differentiate their own feelings for their nation-state from that of others.

Some will argue that patriotism means ‘loving your country’ while nationalism means ‘thinking your country is better than others’.

But that’s bunkum, really – they both mean the same thing, which is that you have an opinion on the geography/institutions/culture of your nation.

If you prefer the status quo of the United Kingdom to one where Scotland is an independent country, then you are a nationalist.

If you believe the UK is better run by Westminster than, say, the French Assembly, you are a nationalist.

Supporting the status quo of things as they are in Britain today, where Westminster is the sovereign parliament, makes you a British nationalist.

So what Kinnock is really arguing for in his article is British nationalism – i.e. the belief that Britain should be the sovereign nation, rather than Wales or Scotland. The use of the word ‘patriotism’ is just smoke and mirrors. So, if nationalism is inherently “divisive and dangerous” then British nationalism is too.

And it can be, of course, in the wrong hands. Any nationalism can be a tool for divisiveness and even xenophobia. We’ve seen that in Europe and the United States.

But nationalism is not inherently bad, any more than any change of government is bad. Unions = good, independent nations = bad, is far too simplistic.

If a nation-state that has been governed poorly or evilly leaves a larger union and is then governed well and for the greater good of all, that cannot be a bad thing.

In contrasting a “progressive” British nationalism and “regressive” Welsh nationalism, Kinnock is recycling the arguments of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but they hold even less water since 2016 and the age of Brexit.

No longer can British nationalism claim to be an uniquely “internationalist” ideology – especially when Plaid Cymru and the SNP wish to stay in Europe while the unionist parties are far less keen on doing so.

If Kinnock’s own EU-supporting British nationalism is “progressive” then he must allow that the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s desire to stay in the EU rather than go down the Brexit rabbit hole with Westminster is just as “progressive”.

But if Kinnock would rather Wales remain under Westminster control come what may – even if that means leaving the EU, which now seems inevitable – then his nationalism is just as “regressive” of that of the Brexit supporting government which he chides.

Picture by Ifan Morgan Jones / Llinos Dafydd. (CC BY 2.0)

Money

The second segment to Kinnock’s article is the boilerplate ‘Wales is too poor’ argument.

First, he argues that access to the UK’s market is worth too much to Wales’ economy to leave the UK.

This might be a good argument if Wales planned to become a hermit kingdom and rebuild Offa’s Dyke. As it stands, I have not heard anyone suggest that Wales should turn its back, economically or otherwise, on the rest of the UK.

The argument for or against Welsh independence is about whether Westminster should retain political control over Wales.

Wales will always be part of the British isles, geographically, linguistically, culturally and – indeed – economically. Unless we find some way of reversing the Atlantic ocean’s continental drift in an extremely localised way, that isn’t going to change.

Unlike some of the arguments for Brexit which suggest that trade deals with the USA or Japan will replace those at their front door, supports of Welsh independence seem rather most sensible in that regard.

If Wales does become independent, it’s going to have to retain close economic ties with England.

The second economic argument is that there is a £15bn gap between what Wales raises in tax and spends.

There’s no point denying that there is a deficit. But if Wales can’t afford to be independent, neither can the UK as a whole. The UK has a deficit of £100 billion a year and is in debt to the tune of £1.83 trillion.

The United States has a deficit of £440 billion and a debt of £18.96 trillion.

And a lot of what is claimed to be ‘Wales’ deficit’ – around £14 billion – is actually Wales’ share of money spent on transport, infrastructure and the military across the UK.

Money spent on things like HS2 and even the Olympic Games in 2012 – mentioned in Kinnock’s article as the pinnacle of British “progressive” patriotism – is counted as money spent on Wales.

All the cash in the world is no good for Wales if it’s not spent for the benefit of the people of that nation. What Kinnock’s argument does not address is the advantage that Wales would get from being able to run an economy and spend its money purely in Wales’ interests.

The ability to borrow to spend would allow us to invest in things like infrastructure which creates further wealth down the line which pays for the borrowing.

Vow

According to Kinnock’s own article, Westminster has not invested sufficiently in Wales in this way.

In fact, in its second half the article takes an altogether unexpected turn. It is almost as if it has been written by someone completely different (and considering that it is often political and communications advisors who often write these articles, rather then the MPs themselves, that may well be the case).

After attacking nationalists as “regressive” and “divisive”, he now concedes that they had a point all along.

“The rising tide of anti-Westminster sentiment in Wales and Scotland is understandable,” he says. “The UK Government has done far too little for Wales over the past 40 years.”

He then argues that the UK should devolve new powers, including the powers to raise tax, and reform the House of Lords and set up citizens’ assemblies to ensure that Wales has a much greater say at Westminster.

It’s worth noting that such suggestions in and of themselves, coming from a Labour MP, show the intrinsic worth of having an independence campaign.

Far from being “dangerous”, it admits that Welsh nationalists’ arguments have merit and that MPs do react to political pressure put on Westminster by groups such as YesCymru.

The problem is that the wishlist outlined in Kinnock’s article has not happened in and will not happen. Reform of the House of Lords has been on the cards for 200 years. Rather than devolve new powers, Westminster seems intent on actually clawing them back.

Rather ironically, Kinnock ends by quoting Gordon Brown during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum campaign.

Brown was one of the authors of the ‘Vow’ – a promise to Scotland that things would change as long as they stayed in the union. The Vow was, of course, broken.

Kinnock and other Labour MPs are therefore either extremely naïve about how likely Westminster is to change, or are happy to promise a fairer settlement somewhere in the future that they will know will never come about in order to pacify Wales and Scotland.

If the latter is true, and if they’re willing to accept virtually anything Westminster throws at Wales in the name of retaining the union, are Welsh independence supporters really the “dangerous and divisive” and “regressive” nationalists?

A nationalism that keeps us in the hands of a “hard-right” government which will turn Britain into a “deregulated off-shore tax haven” – Kinnock’s words, not mine – would seem rather more dangerous to me.

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