As the UK drifts apart, Wales’ commitment to Britain will be harder to break

Children at the opening of the Senedd. Picture by National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Theo Davies-Lewis

Throughout this crisis, we have been obsessed with the pandemic’s implications for the four nations of Britain. More specifically, it has been Scotland’s Covid nationalism that has sparked concerns in London; they have been so serious that Boris Johnson was sent north for his holiday, and almost set fire to a Scottish farmer’s field in the process.

If the PM’s recent evacuation from the Highlands wasn’t dramatic enough, then came the story last week that Wales was the most “pro-UK” nation in Britain. Rule Britannia, indeed.

Many were quick to point out that Panelbase’s poll also showed support for an independent Wales was thirty two percent. Fair enough: there has certainly been an appreciation during this pandemic from the wider Welsh public that decisions made by our government is usually better than being ruled from Westminster.

Yet compared to voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England – yes, even they are fed up – Wales is still committed to the British state. This is not a modern phenomenon: the people of Wales have felt an equal(ish) partner of Britain for centuries.

Simon Brooks argued in Why Wales Never Was how nineteenth-century Nonconformist Liberals could hold much of the blame for this. Both politically and culturally, Wales was integrated to be a part of the wider imperial project. In essence, the politics of figures such as David Lloyd George could be held responsible for the decline of distinctly Welsh communities; instead, Wales was re-imagined as a part of Britain, managing a flexible identity that could reap the rewards of Britain’s global footprint but also retain distinctive ‘regional’ features.

Many aspects of Liberalism’s progressive political ideas remain today and have been mainstream initiatives since the establishment of the Senedd in 1999. Our parliament has become dominated by Unionist parties, who affirm that Wales still has its place as an equal partner in the United Kingdom.

The electoral success of Welsh Labour, for instance, has in part been down to the ability to appear Welsh but implement public policy decisions in line with our traditional ideas of British governance.

 

Caution

But things are changing. Brexit and Covid have certainly rumbled the political arena, while Plaid Cymru’s decision to put independence at the front and centre of their political ideology means that there is a vague, undefined and utopian alternative to Unionism today. Legitimate concerns over the post-Brexit internal market, as well as increased separatism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, will also influence how we see our future.

The political impact of such events seems not to have reverberated here yet. The flexibility of Britishness still looks attractive to the majority of the Welsh population, particularly in uncertain times. So, for those hoping to cut Wales away from the Union, some caution is needed too. A recent piece for this platform showed how you do not win the hearts and minds of the nation; by calling the Welsh naïve and embarrassing, nationalists will only turn people off from their cause – one which is already difficult enough due to historical factors.

After all, Britishness is by no means a false or illogical consciousness. For years, it has allowed the Welsh to play its part on the British stage whilst also having its own parliament and cultural identity. Wales’ most prominent Unionists are also waking up to the volatility of Welsh politics; Simon Hart, our Secretary of State, noted that the Union had been taken for granted in a piece for The Spectator last week. Wales, according to Hart, still believes that the spirit of the Union is “more important than a separatist experiment”. The polling seems to agree.

Control

Wales’ devotion to the Union is far more complex than any poll could capture, but in spite of our history and where we stand today it is by no means guaranteed. The modern nation dreamt up by Adam Price will be appealing to some, but unclear to others. And for the majority, it is not the priority either. First and foremost, the nationalists should seek to govern in Cardiff’s devolved parliament if they are to gain momentum and buy more time to formulate ideas for their “New Wales”.

In the end, our loyalty to the UK might not matter anyway. Events elsewhere are more likely to destroy the ancient Union of nations than any national movement today. But wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it is surely right that any modern nation should be in control of its future. The people of Wales – not England, Scotland or Northern Ireland – should shape the country we want to live in tomorrow.

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