To win, the Welsh independence campaign needs to reclaim Britishness from Westminster
Ifan Morgan Jones
There was a telling slip in the Financial Times newspaper earlier this week.
Discussing the possibility of keeping the Trident nuclear submarines in Scotland after independence, the newspaper suggested creating a Gibraltar-style extraterritorial area ‘north of the border’.
According to the newspaper: “This would create a British territory within the borders of a newly separate Scotland, said people briefed on the plans.”
The suggestion here that the remaining UK and ‘Britishness’ are synonymous with each other is easy to miss but, perhaps, all the more insidious (or perfidious?) because of that.
Whether intentional or not, it suggests that Britishness is something that belongs to the nation-state of the UK, rather than something that belongs to all the people of Wales, Scotland and England.
After all, the island of Great Britain, despite becoming a shorthand for the UK (even Northern Ireland), is a geographical entity.
The independence campaigns in Wales and Scotland aren’t a bid to leave Britain – that’s impossible, without a catastrophic volcanic schism that would wipe us all out anyway.
Furthermore, the cultural, linguistic and economic bonds that bind Britain together will remain whatever the constitutional futures of the UK’s constituent parts.
Wales and Scotland will remain British whatever happens. As Brexit as shown, you can’t just wish your way out of geographical reality.
But there is a political motivation for the Welsh and Scottish independence campaigns to reclaim Britishness as well.
That’s because ultimately a lot of people in Wales and Scotland who are potential independence supporters do feel British.
According to research done by Cardiff University, who asked people to rate themselves on a spectrum of Welsh to Britishness, the number of people in Wales who don’t consider themselves British at all is quite tiny.
This is an even bigger issue for the Welsh independence movement than the one in Scotland. According to Professor Richard Wyn Jones in a recent online seminar: “Wales is much more heterogeneous in national identity terms than Scotland”.
To get over the line, the Welsh independence movement needs people who feel British. Therefore, to allow the nation-state of the UK to claim ‘Britishness’ for itself makes is not a winning strategy.
It will make it appear to those people that independence is a choice between one identity and another. And that’s a choice 51% of the Welsh population aren’t willing to make.
But it doesn’t have to be a choice. The people of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden don’t have to choose between being Danish, Norwegian, Swedish or Scandinavian. They can be, and are, both independent and part of a wider regional identity at the same time.
If Wales and Scotland want to win independence, one of the key messages they need to sell to voters is that Britishness can and will outlive Westminster.
The current, very-centralised model of governance in the UK, in which economic, cultural and political power is centralised in one corner of London, isn’t Britishness.
And to portray the fight to de-centralise power from Westminster as one of Welshness vs Britishness is a strategic error.
It cedes Britishness to Westminster, which doesn’t deserve to own the concept. Westminster and Whitehall aren’t Britain, they’re one square mile of it.
There is nothing inherently British about this uniquely lopsided settlement in which we find ourselves. There’s nothing inherently British about the UK.
If the Welsh independence movement forces people to choose between Welshness and Britishness, it will struggle.
But if it concedes that people can feel Welsh and British but still think that the centralisation of power by one particular elite in one small part of Britain is a problem, it can succeed.
The key message is: ‘Britain will still exist after independence, Westminster will not.’
There is a historical precedent to draw on here, of course.
What we now call the Welsh, whose language and identity stretched across most of the present-day British Isles, used to consider themselves the British.
From the Acts of Union to the 19th century, the Welsh pushed the idea of Britishness as a way of integrating themselves within the corridors of power.
Over the 20th century, however, Britishness increasingly became, as Gwynfor Evans argued, “a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish”.
But national identities are complex things and they are ever-changing. To survive, they need to be made and re-made by every new generation. The same national labels can mean different things to different groups, at different times.
Britishness has been very clever in the way it has redefined Welshness. It has never forced people to choose between Welshness and Britishness. Rather it has sought to recreate Welshness in its own image – three feathers and Principality-infused.
In the same way, for supporters of Welsh independence, reclaiming Britishness wouldn’t mean waving around a Union Jack and singing Rule Brittania. It would mean finding ways of including those who feel British in a way that is also inclusive of Welsh culture, identity, and the ambitions of an independent Welsh state.
The win, it may be time for the Welsh independence movement to stop defining itself in opposition to an identity that most people in Wales feel, and reclaim it for itself.
Not as an identity at the expense of Welshness, but alongside it. And not an identity in which power is centralised in one part of Great Britain – but spread evenly throughout it.
A Britain that will still exist after independence – but one in which Westminster’s power over Wales will not.
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Great Britain is an island. The only way you can be ‘Welsh not British’ is if you’re from Ynys Môn.
Doesn’t anyone from The British Isles qualify as British? It isn’t just the main island, Great Britain. Manx, Orcadian, Shetland, Hebrides and thousands of other islands. Even the channel islands according to some. So to my mind anyone from Mon is also British. The problem has become that British is now synonymous with English. We may need the English to reclaim their Englishness before the rest of the world recognises us as the last Cymry of Britain. I’ve actually gone from being suspicious of those waving the English flag to preferring it to the union flag they used to show.… Read more »
If we’re using ”British” as a purely geographical term, rather than a political or national one, then it’s only the island of Great Britain that is British. (Portsea Island means that most of the city of Portsmouth is not British!)
If we’re using it as a broader national/political term then yes most of those islands are British (though personally I would say that the Channel Islands aren’t) but obviously the term “British Isles” runs into problems.
And if you’re from the Isle of Wight, does that mean that you can be ‘Wightish not British’ ? Come on, let’s be serious here!
I understand what this piece is driving at. The idea that there are important bonds of culture, common economic and strategic interests, etc, which should be acknowledged and embraced. I get that completely, and see independence as fully compatible with developing those. Indeed, independence allows for those bonds to be strengthened and enriched because they would no longer be underpinned by the coercive structures of Westminster rule. But the terminology of “Britishness” is unhelpful in that quest. It was irredeemably appropriated in the 18th century in support of the project of fashioning a new “nation” out of the historic realms… Read more »
No it must not be relinquished. Britain, Britishness existed for a thousand years before the Acts of Union. It would be feeble to let it go just because some Germans (Hanoverian monarchy) mucked about with it for a mere three centuries. Britain is a natural geography and an ancient well established idea. It’s seen many changes and about to see more.
I understand the romantic appeal of what you say. But the rest of the world associates Britishness with Union Jacks and painting large parts of the world pink. Not with Arthur and Mons Badonicus. That is the reality.
“But the terminology of “Britishness” is unhelpful in that quest. It was irredeemably appropriated… ”
I was not aware of that until you told me. I’ve always considered myself to be British, as distinct from Norman, Saxon or Anglish.
Britain and Britishness existed long before the recent 18thC Acts of Union. Way back in the 10thC literature like Armes Prydain (Prydqain = Britain) routinely spoke of Britain. So did the Mabinogi c. 1100, and all the many Triads. Britain was called Ynys Mon – This Island. The English attempt to take over the idea has neer been very successful. It’s always been pretty obvious that an English voice saying Britain/ British means England/ English. Cymru and Prydain/ Britain are perfectly compatible.
See my comment above.
Before devolution, English people used to say “England” when they actually meant “Great Britain” or “Great Britain & Northern Ireland”, although weirdly, the place known to the English as “The North” is entirely south of the Scottish border. But since devolution, most of them have been using the word “England” correctly. Continental Europeans still use the word “England” to mean Great Britain, but in fairness to them, they’re just following the former English usage — an innocent mistake rather like us equating the Dutch province of Holland with the whole of the Netherlands. If a continental European sees you drinking… Read more »
Yn lygaid dy le Ifan. Spot on. I’ve never conflated Britishness with the UK but that’s exactly what the Tories and Labour do. There is no unitary UK nation, just as the EU is not a nation. If the EU disbanded today we would all remain European just as we will remain British on that happy day that will soon arrive when the UK is consigned to the dustbin of history. What matters for the sake of the Welsh nation is that we establish a Welsh Nation State. Those broader geographical and cultural identities can be comfortably accomodated once the… Read more »
I’ve felt for some time that with the constitutional tectonic plates in the UK shifting and with the uneven economic development of the isles driving nationalisms that rather than seperate visions for our nations, the key to dissolving this moribund union is to have an attractive collective vision for the different nations of Britain. We must also consider Ireland in this. I find Plaid Cymru’s recent idea on establishing a Confederation of British nation states very appealing. I believe it can accomodate Welsh and Scottish appeals for self-determination. I believe it can accomodate an emerging Englishness. I also believe it… Read more »
The parallel with Scandinavia is misleading. Scandinavia is a geographical area occupied by three politically independent nations who share close linguistic and cultural ties.
Britain, by contrast, is both a geographic and political entity. The cultural ties between its nations are not so obvious as those shared by Scandinavians. There has been a good deal of (largely one-way) assimilation of what may be termed ‘Anglo American’ culture, which is quite different.
Very true. Mind you I only know because I watched the Horrible Histories episode about The Vikings!
I’m sorry but that analysis just doesn’t stack up. Only around 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh and around 1% in Scotland speak Gaelic and Scots respectively. The current truth is that we are majority English speaking nations. I very much regret these low numbers, and hope they’ve gone up substantially when we get the latest census results, but it makes no sense to suggest that Scandinavians ‘share close linguistic and cultural ties’ and people in these islands do not. Finnish isn’t even an Indo-European language. If the independence movement – which I’m fully committed to – is to… Read more »
Finnish people don’t consider themselves Scandinavian.
Nordic – yes
Again, referring to Horrible histories, Scandinavians are mainly Danes, Norwegians and Swedish. DINS is my pub quiz mnemonic for Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden. (The modern vikings who don’t use the euro but their own version of krone krona.) Fins were not vikings. The different vikings understand the other Scandinavian languages, so much the same as English being understood by all the countries of Britain but each country still having its own identity. Imagine a conversation between Kenny Dalglish, Paul Gascoine, Malcolm Allen and Prince Charles with a bemused man from County Kerry listening in. They’d understand a lot of what… Read more »
I would be glad if English media stopped conflating “British” with “English”. Until they do I am happy to assert my identity as “Welsh”.
I remember taking part in a discussion where someone was defending Starmer for wrapping himself in the Union Jack, saying flags are important symbols. I agreed with him and said I was very fond of our big red heraldic beast but other people’s flags (including the union flag, of course) were, well, just other people’s flags, quite honestly of very little interest. They were quite indignant!
Until those realise both at Westminster and here in Wales, that the Union Flag has never represented Wales, that blood soaked flag will always be met by ones educated in their own history with hostility. It’s like me waving the flag of Japan and saying to you: “This is your flag. Now, go wave it”. And when you reply looking bemused. ” It’s not my flag?,” I reply back. “Look, it represents Wales. See, it has red in it.” And attempt to defend the indefensible. To be educated is a burden. Wish I was ignorant of the facts so I… Read more »
Da iawn chi am ddweud eich dweud wrthynt! ~ Good on you for speaking your truth to them!
The original British are us the Welsh. It’s in our DNA. This cannot be erased by Whitehall BritNats who use the term Britishness to usurp our birthright, or by lukewarm Welsh people who drape themselves in a Union Flag to leach tick-like onto England in an attempt to appropriate their achievements like glory seekers would supporting English football teams like Liverpool & Manchester united etc.. While I am proud to call myself a native Briton, whose history on this land stretches tens of thousands of years, do take exception to ones who steal our identity, then use it to empire… Read more »
We are historically all ‘ Britons ‘ not ‘ British ‘ or indeed ‘ Great British living in Great Britain ‘ an invention of the 18th Century
Politically British, yes. Ethnically British, no. I can be born in China. Speak Chinese, but can never be ethnically Chinese. The same applies to America and Native Americans. When the Romans occupied a third of Britain only Brythonic speaking tribes existed. And when the Saxons, Angles & Jutes took a foothold in the east , who later would merge into what we know as England & the English, never existed in any ethic grouping in Britain during Roman times, as did the Scots & Scotland too. When Hadrian built his defenses (wall) the tribes faced were not Scottish or Gaelic… Read more »
100 per cent true of course but we are where we are – Britons living with lots of other folk in these over centralised islands
I wrote along these lines to an American journalist once after an article he wrote in NYT showing complete ignorance of the difference between UK and Britain. Very large chainsaw I said would be required for Scotland to leave Britain. His reply showed he still didn’t “get it”.
The Welsh are much more Brythonic than the rest of ‘Brythan’ anyway!
Anyone surfing the “English” sites on the Web, will notice how many dislike “Britishness” and yearn for a return to England, with some citing the English Bill of Rights, forerunner of the US version. I think the last census showed above 30 million identified themselves as being English, not British (yeah it’s an island, blah, but you know what we’re about here).
Have tried to find confirmation of 30 million figure (though I think it’s correct). If you have time to seek this, you may find it hard to scramble through the great amount of negative spin against “Englishness”, something that we are all too familiar with regarding Cymru?