The Tories are completely open about their plans to ‘re-Britishize’ Wales – so why aren’t Labour defending their turf?
Ifan Morgan Jones
As I wrote in my last article, nationalism can be though of less as an ideology and more as a tool – a tool to drive real political change.
Welsh nationalism is ultimately a reaction the UK’s tendancy to centralise economic, political and cultural power. By emphasising Welsh nationalism, its adherents hope to win the democratic consent of the people to shift power back to where they are.
So, while nationalism can appear illogical on the face of it – why feel an affinity with a person from Pembrokeshire but not Penrith? – it’s ultimately used for utilitarian political reasons.
But this also works in the other direction, of course. If Welsh nationalism is a means of drawing economic, political and cultural power from the centre, British nationalism can also be emphasised in order to justify drawing it back to the centre.
And there’s no doubt that this is what the UK Government is now planning on doing. One only had to listen to Conservative Conference this time last week where the plan was set out quite clearly.
“The United Kingdom is not a loose federation of semi-detached units,” Theresa May said. “We are one strong Union of nations and people.”
She went on to describe how the union of the UK would be emphasised.
“North Wales is a key element of the Northern Powerhouse,” she said. “And Alun has identified and will realise the potential for a ‘Western Powerhouse’ that brings the economies of south Wales and the south west of England – Cardiff, Newport and Bristol – closer together.”
That is, divide and conquer – the links the north of Wales has with the north of England will be emphasised, and so to the south of Wales with Bristol.
BBC Welsh Affairs Editor Vaughan Roderick pointed out these key excerpts this week, writing that the UK Government were spearheading a project to ‘Britishize’ Wales.
Theresa May’s speech, he said, outlined the policy clearly. “This isn’t a secret,” he said.
“There are political and cultural implications [to this] and I’m not convinced that the Welsh Government is as awake to them as the Welsh Office.”
The Welsh Government is no doubt at ease with feeling both Welsh and British, and may not see any harm in the UK Government emphasising British nationalism.
But it would be wrong to do so. As noted earlier, nationalism is always used as a tool to try and strengthen some political institutions and weaken others.
The UK Government aren’t just gunning for Welsh hearts and minds, they’re gunning for Wales’ political institutions.
And the Welsh Government are putting up almost no resistance to that plan.
They have readily consented to such projects as renaming the Second Severn Crossing, and allowing Westminster to intercept EU powers.
People question why these things are important. They’re important because they’re just an opening salvo.
Emboldened by their early success, we can expect the UK Government to now really get to work.
So why aren’t the Welsh Government doing anything to counter a project spelt out so clearly by Theresa May herself?
Well, it could be argued that, learning the lessons of the Labour Party in Scotland, they’ve tended to see the main threat to their dominance in Wales as coming from the Plaid Cymru.
As a result, they may be quite relaxed as to any plans to emphasise Britishness – even seeing it as the UK Government lending them a helping hand against the ‘nats’.
But again, as I argued in my last article, devolution is at its heart a nationalist project. Labour owe their electoral control over Wales to the readiness of the people of Wales to self-identify with Welshness.
And this is pretty much the only thing now keeping Welsh devolution afloat. Labour can’t really make the argument that it’s delivered substantial economic or social benefits under their watch.
So the Welsh Government now has a choice – to sit back and watch as the UK Government erode the foundations of their fortress in Wales, or to push back.
The Senedd is Labour’s last electoral bastion in the UK, and they don’t look like becoming the largest party in any others any time soon.
If they fail to defend their turf it would be a misjudgement of historical proportions for them.
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