What happened to the voices arguing for a strong Welsh and British identity in the union?
Russell Deacon, Visiting Professor in History and Politics at the University of South Wales
I recently did an interview for Bloomberg Radio and one of the central questions they were interested in was “If Scotland voted independent would Wales follow?” The reoccurring question is the second reason why news media is now interested in Welsh politics. The first being ‘whether Wales is better or worse at dealing with the Covid–19 crisis than elsewhere?’
Never once, however, have I seen the case being made for what the wider UK gets out of Wales remaining in the United Kingdom or the benefits Wales has from staying, beyond fiscal and trade issues. Yet, constantly do I now hear about the benefits that Wales would have from removing itself from its long-established union with the other nations of the British Isles. Independence for Wales is now an underlying theme of Welsh politics just as Brexit was until 2019.
This isn’t altogether surprising. In my thirty years of interaction with politics, academia, public and private bodies I have on the whole experiences either a remarkable ignorance or indifference from those in London or wider UK organisations to Wales. Whilst running a think tank in Cardiff for six years I found it a constant and depressing reoccurrence that major British bodies and corporations, representative associations had no interest or desire to connect with Wales or have Wales connect with them.
Even getting a reply from them was a major problem and as for getting someone to speak outside Cardiff, where they couldn’t get the 8.50 pm train back to London, was impossible. In fact, they would, almost without exception, be far more interested in projecting their body or organisation to the Bay of Naples or Biscay rather than Cardiff Bay.
Some 130 years ago, when David Lloyd George was both one of the most famous and most passionate Welsh nationalists, he likened the treatment of Wales, amongst the Celtic nations, as always being third rate behind Ireland and Scotland. Much of the time the London parliament had to be reminded that Wales was also one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom.
Today, much the same could be said. Wales remains very much the silent and junior partner in a family that has now lasted almost five centuries. Although Wales was one the original members of the family its role has always been more of that of the youngest child. One whose voice is raised but is ignored because the other family members are able to shout louder and are seen as more vital.
At the same time, the head of household (England) doesn’t even really believe that they’re ready to leave home. Why should they? They have it pretty good, don’t they? They’re not capable of going it alone! But the head of the family now needs that their brother and sister’s desire to move out may become overwhelming, unless they feel a valid reason to stay or feel valued.
David Lloyd George started as a Welsh nationalist but altered his perception to realise that the UK offered an opportunity for a Welshman to project himself onto a far larger national and international stage. Throughout his life he remained a Welshman first but also British and an internationalist. He and Welsh Liberalism represented a type of political identity that was reinforced as being Welsh and British.
Today that political identity seems underplayed, with no real champion. Labour and the Conservatives no longer support the Welsh pro-EU internationalist agenda, Plaid Cymru do but at the same time don’t support the Britishness agenda. The Liberal Democrats believe in both but are a shadow of their former selves. This means that few Welsh constituencies in the next Senedd elections have a clear choice if they feel both Welsh and British in combination with the desire to be part of a wider international community.
Perhaps, only in Brecon and Radnor will the voters now get a direct choice between the pro-British-EU (internationalists) Liberal Democrats and the pro-British but anti-EU Conservatives. Elsewhere in Wales, there is less of a clear picture. In fact, the concepts of Welsh Britishness may not even arise in this election. If they do they may struggle to find a voice – after all it’s hard to fight the passions of Independence when your pro-British forces supply you with such little ammunition to fight back.
Despite a union of nearly half a millennium and a current Prime Minister who is meant to be as pro-British as he was anti-European Union there has been very little investment in the Welsh brand in London or the British brand in Wales. Earlier on I mentioned my experience of so-called ‘British bodies’ that didn’t want to project themselves in Wales and leave their London comfort zone. So, if these bodies that are meant to be British in their functions won’t even send one person, what hope is there for the wider physical representations? Why don’t British institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? Is the truth that they are not British at all but English?
We should note that Wales had three Prime Ministers come from Welsh constituencies in the twentieth century: Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald and James Callaghan. Where’s the institution that represents their imprint on both Wales and Britain/wider world? The same can be said of the wider political influences on the UK from Bevan and Roy Jenkins, to Heseltine and Howe. These Welsh figures have had a major impact on the shaping of modern Britain, but who celebrates or even notes this? The monarchy has no official residence/palace in Wales – the Prince of Wales’ Carmarthenshire residence is a private one.
Where’s the projection of the monarchy in Wales? At the same time, where’s are the Welsh institutions in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland that are projecting Wales role in the UK and the reciprocal institutions in Wales from the other nations? Because independence for Wales isn’t just a rejection of an English partner, it’s also a rejection of Scottish and Northern Irish ones too.
A decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that the UK would vote to leave the EU. In fact, it was so painfully obvious that we would never leave that hardly anyone was willing to invest any money or resource into defending the EU or projecting its advantages. At the same time, the passion of those supporting Brexit was constant and ever-present. Their steady tapping broke the pro-EU rock.
Today, it seems inconceivable for many that Wales would ever choose to leave the UK (Wexit). Yet, the steady pro-independence tapping is seeking to break that UK rock. Currently, all the arguments and passion seem to be about why Wales should be independent. There is no counter-movement promoting why you should be both Welsh and British with a continued Union.
Politicians in Wales and elsewhere need to take note and start strengthening that UK rock before the steady taping breaks it.
Professor Russell Deacon is a lecturer and researcher at Coleg Gwent and Visiting Professor in History and Politics at the University of South Wales. He is chair of the Lloyd George Society, the former Chair of the Parliament for Wales Campaign and the Wales European Movement.