Having grown up in the 80’s and 90’s with family in the Rhondda, it was very apparent how post-industrial decline affected the communities of the Valleys. So watching the then Welsh Secretary John Redwood in 1995, announce proudly how he had returned a part of the Welsh Office block grant back to the UK Treasury in the name of thrift and good governance marked a low point in what was a particularly dismal period in office.
This was a truly formative experience for many who became politically conscious during this time. It demonstrated so clearly the need for Welsh political agency and accountability over the matters that affected Wales. We must surely be grateful for John Redwood’s disastrous tenure in Wales, if only for the motivation it provided just a few years later when the referendum to establish the Welsh Assembly was won by the Yes vote.
Ultimately, an appeal to national identity alone would not have won that referendum. What won it was a feeling that the UK Government was doing a bad job of governing Wales.
Recently, leading figures in Britain’s established political parties have decried the “narrow nationalism” of those in the independence movements in Wales and Scotland. It appears a rather childish analysis, a binary moral portrayal whereby support for the UK State is at once patriotic and progressive and support for Welsh and Scottish States is “narrow”.
It is a particularly unfair allegation in the midst of the perpetual drumbeat of news and comment promoting a British identity in the Brexit-supporting media. Perhaps the perceived need to appeal to people’s British identity explains why they see Welsh and other identities as so much of a threat.
But we should be careful that we do not make it easier for them to create the conception that support for Welsh independence is a matter of identity alone. Identity is not enough to ensure that people support independence. The majority in Wales are already content to record their nationality as Welsh but that does not translate into majority support for independence.
But many are comfortable describing themselves as British also, and they need to be won over if the campaign is to be a success. It is a fairly prosaic matter to be Welsh, British and European all at once. Indeed, not everyone would necessarily hold to a national identity and other causes and movements may be more important to some.
Brexit shows us that to make identity the battleground would be a profound mistake. This can only lead to the othering of those who do not feel they can subscribe to that identity, when the independence movement should ultimately aim to include everyone.
Therefore, those of us who are in favour of establishing a Welsh state must be brave enough to decouple identity from the debate. People with all kinds of identities should be able to align with the case for Welsh political agency to be exercised in a Sovereign Welsh Parliament/Senedd and build an electoral coalition in its favour.
When the independence movement makes its focus, the better governance of Wales, the superficiality of the “narrow nationalism” jibe will be revealed and the conservative arguments in favour of the current constitution will crumble.
Because it is the argument for better governance that will unite what is a politically divided nation. It does not discriminate on the basis of identity. It would not be a project owned by exclusively by the left or the right. Its purpose would be to strengthen the economic fabric of Wales as a starting point for improving our prospects, our standards of living and the resilience of our communities.
And let’s be honest. We desperately need that. The GERW report reveals the extent of the misgovernance of Wales. The UK Government (and as currently constituted, the Welsh Government is an executive arm) has and continues to enact policies that have led to the difficult economic outcomes that plague our small country in myriad ways.
The case needs to be made that the impulse for Welsh self-governance is one of democracy and self-improvement, not ‘narrow nationalism’. The political philosophy which underpins this movement must be publicly debated, developed and clarified. It must be one that welcomes a plurality of identities. It must be one that foregoes frustration and brushes off slights (real or perceived).
It must pursue a progressive agenda of democratic constitutional reform with an unwavering focus on its purpose – to secure the best possible Government for Wales for the economic, social and cultural benefit of its citizens. Otherwise, it will fail.