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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