Whether Unionist or Internationalist, embracing the neighbours just makes sense

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

Nicolas Webb

In his article “the Tories are completely open about their plans to ‘re-Britishize’ Wales – so why aren’t Labour defending their turf?” Ifan Morgan Jones raised a few points which I would like to counter.

In doing so I am not seeking to be an unofficial spokesman for either the Conservatives or Labour, but I am trying to bring a different perspective to some of the issues raised.

As with much of the online discussion about Welsh nationalism, the issue of identity is elevated over those of economy or security, the three pillars of nationhood.

Speaking personally, while my Welsh identity is an important part of who I am and the distinct culture of Wales is something I am proud of, I do not see a need to politicise that identity.

After all, in a practical sense a resident of Tutshill has more in common with a resident of Chepstow than they do someone in…. well anywhere beyond Chepstow!

This is very much the point made in Ifan’s example “…nationalism can appear illogical on the face of it – why feel an affinity with a person from Pembrokeshire but not Penrith?”.

His article then proceeds to claim that nationalism is used for “utilitarian political reasons” by Unionists.

Perhaps his examples have some merit. Whether the Secretary of State’s idea of renaming the (very practically named) Second Severn Crossing was a calculated effort to poke the bear of nationalism or not, I can see why such gestures can be divisive.

However, there are bigger issues related to our (Welsh, but not exclusively so) economy.

Ifan described the suggestion that “North Wales is a key element of the Northern Powerhouse” and “the potential for a ‘Western Powerhouse’ that brings the economies of south Wales and the south west of England – Cardiff, Newport and Bristol – closer together” as “divide and conquer” strategy.

There was undoubtedly some spin behind the claim that “Alun has identified” the Severn Region, which as an economic region has existed in some form since South Wales industrialised and in a political sense via the Great Western Cities project, which as I understand it, was the brainchild of a Labour-run Newport City Council and an Independent Mayor of Bristol.

Nonetheless, I would firmly disagree with the assertion of “divide and conquer”.

In fact, instinctive patterns of movement are natural flows which cross a soft border.

Fortunately, Wales is not engaged in quite the border discussion which is taking place in Ireland, but a failure to engage politically and economically across boundaries would create an atmosphere of division even where a physical barrier did not exist.

The best interests of Wales require a strong economy. For Gwent to plan without consideration for Bristol which consistently delivers low unemployment, well-paid jobs and has a strong flow of both commuters and students to and from South Wales would be placing identity above common sense and collective well-being.

Work

Now, this is not me suggesting that connectivity to Bristol is going to be the saviour of the Welsh economy.

There are lots of aspects which need to be considered to improve our prosperity including measures being looked at through the debates on the Foundation Economy, the Future Generations Act and skills training.

However, it would make no sense for Connecticut to plan for its economy without considering New York City and nor would it benefit Gwent to ignore the economic powerhouse (if the UK Government hasn’t trademarked the term) which is just down the road. In a yet to be published paper on the issue I also address the enthusiasm from Bristol for closer working.

This is not just Wales taking the begging bowl across the bridge, it is mutually beneficial.

What is more there is nothing essentially anti-nationalist in the relationship between South Wales and Bristol.

In Europe specific efforts are being made to connect cities which are across national borders. Last year I walked from France to Germany before catching the Strasbourg metropolitan tram back to the city centre.

The Øresund Bridge (rather longer than that over the Severn) brings the economies of Copenhagen and Malmo together for mutual benefit but without any loss of national identity.

To write off Wales’ relationship with Bristol or Liverpool as being unionist, is to ignore that it would be just as relevant to the pragmatic best interests of either side of the border if it was internationalist.

The Nation.Cymru editorial also referenced a concern that such efforts were a sign of centralisation of “economic, political and cultural power” but I would argue that the evidence over shifting approaches to devolution suggest quite the opposite.

While Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland saw devolution on the basis of national identity. It has been the economic reality of travel to work areas and suchlike which has been behind the devolution to English city regions.

It does not appear that Theresa May has quite the enthusiasm for the project that George Osborne did, but nonetheless the change continues to happen with power and funds moving from Whitehall to English cities in a way which has simply not happened from Welsh Government to our city regions.

This battle of identity versus pragmatism is about to be refought in Yorkshire where some argue for a single Yorkshire Mayor and others advocate the city region model.

I suspect Ifan and I might be on opposite sides, but we’ll leave debate for Nation.Yorkshire to cover.

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