‘Muscular Unionism’ is only succeeding in tearing the UK apart
Ifan Morgan Jones
The First Minister delivered a withering put down to the UK Government’s ‘One Britain One Nation’ drive at yesterday’s Covid press conference when he remarked that they ‘had managed to unite the UK – in laughter’.
It’s hard not to like drôle Mark Drakeford. But there is a serious point to be made here too which is that this new form of ‘muscular unionism’ increasingly employed by Conservatives and others just isn’t working.
The ‘One Nation One Britain’ event promoted by the UK (England) Department of Education was indicative of this.
By encouraging school kids across the UK to chant ‘Strong Britain, Great Nation’ it inspired completely the opposite effect: schools across Wales had their children dress up in Welsh football tops and sing Hen Wlad fy Nhadau instead.
Another example of this was the suggestion by Conservative Home news editor Henry Hill that the four independent football nations were causing ‘division’.
A greater gift to the Welsh and Scottish independence movements would be harder to imagine than any suggestion that their football and rugby teams were about to be done away with.
In this context, the UK Government’s attack on devolution is another ‘own goal’. Whatever they may say, there is an obvious project at work to try and undermine the devolved administrations and draw powers back to the centre.
Welsh Secretary Simon Hart made this approach clear at the Welsh Affairs Committee in which he was asked about the “fundamentally different visions of the future of the union” between himself and Mark Drakeford.
He answered: “Where I disagree with Mark Drakeford is that I get the impression—I hope he will tell me that I am wrong—that when he says he is a unionist, I sometimes think he is saying he is a unionist, but on his terms.
“He is a unionist as long as everything goes through him; he is a unionist as long as everything is decided by the Welsh Government; he is a unionist as long as he retains complete control over the levers of influence.”
This is a bizarre statement because Mark Drakeford isn’t some random pointy-elbowed politician attempting to hoard power for himself.
He is the First Minister of Wales, re-elected with a bigger mandate just back in May.
I didn’t vote for him. But Wales did. In fact, Labour have won every election in Wales for over 100 years.
The idea that Mark Drakeford’s insistence that “everything goes through him” in a Welsh political context is somehow unreasonable is an extremely strange one.
The only way it can be justified is through the belief that the democratic will of the people of Wales somehow just doesn’t count. And that is obviously not going to be a popular point of view in a Wales where support for devolution has a huge majority.
This clumsy approach suggests that for all their ‘hyper-unionism’ those advocating a ‘muscular’ approach to the UK simply haven’t really understood what held the Union together in the first place.
If you look back in history at a time when the Union was in its ‘pomp’ in the late 19th century and early 20th century the approach to what the Union meant was completely different.
Welsh Unionists were not hyper-centralisers who wanted everything run from London. Their nationalism was best described by Ned Thomas as ‘contributionist’.
That is, they were Welsh-British nationalists who were proudly Welsh but believed that the Union was a team of equals whose common interests were sustained by working together.
There was no desire there to abolish themselves as a distinct nation and be completely subsumed as part of something else. Even then, in a newly industrialised Britain, they were busily creating their own national institutions so they could run their own business.
In fact it could be argued that there is nothing ‘Unionist’ about ‘muscular unionism’ at all. A ‘Union’ requires there to be different distinct parts, not just one completely indistinguishable whole. A ‘Greater England’ isn’t a Union.
If Unionists want the UK to survive they need to quickly return to that ‘contributionist’ mindset, because their current approach is having entirely the opposite impact to what they desire.
The way to solidify Wales and Scotland’s place in the union is to make them feel like a valued part of a team whose views will at all times be taken on board and respected, reassure them by actions not words that they will not be neglected economically, culturally or politically, and rely on them to run most elements of their own nations in their own best interest.
Not to be constantly undermined, belittled and told ther views do not count.
All the ‘muscular Unionism’ approach is succeeding in doing is hitting the ball with ever greater force deep into their own net – to the delight of YesCymru, the SNP and anyone who wants Welsh or Scottish independence.