Wales needs a De Gaulle – but not for the reasons you might think
Crossing the Severn Bridge from Wales into England, I have always been struck by the feeling you that you are now in a very different world to the one from which you came.
This might sound like a generalisation – but is that not what all countries are? To paraphrase the renowned sociologist, Ernest Gellner: countries are forged around common histories, myths, and collective values.
Although Wales and England are linked (to varying degrees) by all of these, their political paths have never looked as divergent. While English nationalism is driving the UK towards a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, the past year has seen the Welsh independence movement enter the political mainstream.
Some reading this may well contend that since countries are defined by borders (the concept of which is abstract) then they are also – by extension – abstractions.
On a technical level, that logic follows. But the idea of the country contained within national borders is very much a tangible concept – something that countless Welsh academics, politicians, and writers have defined over the centuries. In that respect, it is right that those of us in favour of more sovereignty for Wales should debate ideas about the purpose of the nation-state.
The conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, provides a useful starting point. He differentiated between countries as “enterprise associations” (those that use the state to organise citizens behind a common purpose) and “civil associations” (a less active state that merely regulates the interactions between and interests of its citizens). Missing from these definitions, though, is an acknowledgement that the concept of “the nation” can be used to engender a sense of collective agency.
Charles de Gaulle understood the power of a unitive ideal, opening his autobiography with famous declaration that “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France”. De Gaulle also asserted that without greatness, France simply was not France. In his mind, France should be great – but that greatness should not be assumed.
Le général’s maxims apply to Wales, too. Our history – one peppered with creativity, radical dissent, and progressivism – provides many episodes to be proud of. Equally, it would be complacent and narrow-minded to shy away from discussing unsavoury aspects such as the role Wales played in enabling and sustaining slavery or the racism that led to the 1919 Tiger Bay race riots. For every Betty Campbell, there is a Thomas Picton.
Welsh politicians would do well to remember that de Gaulle’s notion of Frenchness centred on reconciling the competing narratives around French identity – while acknowledging the complex historical forces underpinning these.
Of course, Wales’ position is nowhere near as grave as France’s was in 1958. Unlike the Fourth Republic, our institutions enjoy widespread popular support. Nor is the Welsh polity on the brink of violent civil war.
Nevertheless, Wales’ politics have not escaped polarisation. Sections of the nationalist left see “Britishness” as a wholly oppressive concept designed to enforce cultural and political homogeneity. Meanwhile, sections of the unionist right vehemently reject the premise that Wales should have even the slightest semblance of political autonomy. Squaring this division will be crucial in making an independent Welsh state work.
At the same time, it is also worth noting that de Gaulle’s conception of national identity looked firmly to the future. Le général was acutely aware that the best way of ensuring French greatness was through action, not words. The Gaullist programme of economic modernisation – which included large-scale national infrastructure projects and innovative dirigisme – ushered in the trente glorieuses, which saw national GDP average 6% a year.
No-one is expecting today’s Welsh politicians – amidst recession and a limited fiscal toolkit – to replicate this era. At the very least, however, it would be nice if someone could come along with policies that lifted Wales from the bottom of various economic, educational, and health league tables.
In that sense, the need for a Cambrian dose of Gaullism has never been greater.