To persuade unionists about independence we must imagine something better than the UK
Peter Morgan Barnes
The independence movements of Wales and Scotland are making good headway against the ‘too wee, too poor’ anxiety with well-presented arguments.
Yet when we try to persuade unionists, we often find the underlying reason for their antipathy to independence is hostility to nationalism itself. But the independence movement of today differs from the nationalism of the past.
I believe that wanting Wales to be a nation state is the reverse of patriotic, and that this kind of political construct has caused untold damage to languages, cultures and basic freedoms for four centuries.
While it is undoubtedly the case that many unionists who identify as British or English are nationalists themselves, other kinds of unionist, especially those in the Labour Party, do not support one nationalism over another. It is the conception itself they have a problem with.
The colonial theory doesn’t hold good here because these unionists are not the equivalent of the Orange Order or Indian NCOs serving in the armies of the Raj. These unionists are against colonialism and against one culture subsuming another. They are under no illusions that the constitutional structures of the British state are exploitative and parasitic towards Wales and Scotland.
They certainly want to combat this but do not believe nationalism is the answer, which is frustrating to nationalists who see such people as obstinately unwilling to see the obvious remedy.
The two agree in the diagnosis but differ over the cure. I propose that contrasting attitudes towards the nation state is at the core of this division.
To persuade such unionists that independence would not be the replacement of one unjust structure with its mirror image, a more modern modernised view of what kind of state Wales can be is needed.
The nation state emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a way of making life easier for kings. The Tudors, Habsburgs, Valois and others found themselves with a collection of territories, some inherited, some conquered, others acquired through marriage; each tended to have their own law codes, language, religious practices and taxation systems.
To make this manageable, their ministers sought to impose cultural and administrative uniformity throughout all the territories the king owned, coercing disparate cultures into a single nation. Out of medieval diversity they created states with a single official language, one law code and a single authorised state religion.
Of course, much of the turbulence, wars of religion, uprisings, suppressions, persecutions and resistance in Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries can be traced to this attempt to impose uniformity.
Protestants were persecuted in Catholic states like France and Catholics in Protestant ones like Britain. While the suppression of Welsh, Gaelic, Gallic, Doric, Breton, Octan, Cimbrian, Catalan, Gallician, Walloon, Frisian, Flemish and many more went on apace, all nation states bent over backwards to preserve Latin.
The classically educated Mr Johnson is a perfect exemplifies of a nation state minister during the renaissance period. He’s a Latin-speaking loather of devolution, an English nationalist and a proponent of centrally-controlled uniformity.
Uniformity was not just a matter of creating common law codes and administrative systems. It had to be enforced at the level of personal identity too. The eighteenth-century United Kingdom defined a ‘true’ Briton as English, Anglican and pro-Hanovarian.
The Britishness of Catholics, Presbyterians, Jacobites, Scots, Welsh or Irish people was thus contingent. Full equality before the state was withheld from these second-raters through legal restrictions.
No votes for Catholics or dissenters, economic marginalisation, and cultural exclusion. For example, refusing to allow any other language than English to be used in law courts.
Although the nation state liberalised in the nineteenth century, grudgingly offering votes and concessions, today’s Barnet formula, the politics of Covid support packages and the Internal Market Bill demonstrate that, even now, there is still only one nation in this nation state which matters: England.
This kind of nation state is not, of course, unique to Britain. The same pattern can be found in France and Spain. Indeed, the very purpose of the nation state is to use the authority of an independent government to privilege and enforce one narrow interpretation of the nation, one single cultural identity.
There are exceptions of course. The Kingdom of Belgium, founded in 1830, is a reasonably successful nation state based on mutual respect between its two constituent cultures, Flemish and French. Switzerland is another.
Yet the vast majority of nation states aimed to be monocultural and were ruthlessly exclusionist in achieving it. This is a core problem for Welsh unionists in supporting the creation of a Welsh nation state.
Despite paying lip-service to inclusivity, Irish nationalist parties defined the nation as Catholic, Gaelic, against British government and epitomised by rural rather than urban culture. This construction of national identity consciously excluded other parts of the population in much the same way as the English definition of Britishness had done a century before.
Protestants, those in government employ and those in urban industrial employ, especially those who tended to be trade unionists or were socialist in their politics, were deemed not to be ‘truly’ Irish.
Although Lloyd George had little sympathy with the narrowness of this definition of Irishness, he was perfectly happy to promote the same narrowness in Wales. To be Welsh was to be Non-Conformist, Welsh speaking and solidly behind the Liberal Party, whilst Anglicans were castigated as stooges of Tory landowners and portrayed as hostile to the native culture, much as they were in Ireland.
The work of Prys Morgan has done much to revise this sectarian stereotype, though it still resurfaces periodically in modern nationalist discourse. English speakers and socialists fell outside the nation as defined by early nationalism.
The concern for indy-sceptics is that many traditional nationalists continue to propose the nation state as the best model for an independent future.
Yet the nation state is widely becoming obsolete across the world. Early nationalists imagined having a Welsh army, declaring war independently, having fully-staffed embassies across the globe and negotiating our own treaties with other independent nation states.
But this is a long-vanished world. Even nation states with populations of 80 million and more are too small to act alone in an age of global economies, global security threats, global energy crises and global environmental issues.
There are no treaties between independent states anymore, at least none that matter. There are only multi-national agreements. The very existence of organisations like NATO, the UN, the EU, the World Bank, G7, G20 and others is a tacit recognition that independent nation states cannot control their economies, their security or plan their environmental survival without multi-national co-operation.
The UK’s gradual, but inevitable, discovery that it is, itself, ‘too wee, too poor’ to stand in isolation is painful to watch. For the progressive-minded unionist, the desire to build a Welsh state that has exceptionalism and isolationism built into it seems hopelessly antique as well as undesirable.
So, what are the alternatives? For the moderniser, Yes Cymru’s definition of the nation, that those living here are the Welsh, is definition enough.
To persuade the enlightened unionist we must proclaim loudly and clearly that jurisdictional autonomy would not make Wales a cold place for people who do not fit into the traditional definition of Welsh identity.
Let us imagine something better than the nation state and avoid emulating what, in the final instance are failed states such as the UK.