Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Unionists and separatists

Two short-hand terms for very different political outlooks, but I don’t really like either term.  Neither really conveys what it is that people are about.  The debate and vote in the UK parliament yesterday underlines the limitations of the terms as explanations of the political stance of the respective camps.
In that vote, the ‘unionists’ were those supporting the continued existence of the European Union, whilst the ‘separatists’ were those demanding an immediate vote on exit.  Yet, when it comes to the future of Wales and Scotland, yesterday’s UK ‘separatists’ tend to find themselves in the unionist camp, whilst those of us at whom the term ‘separatist’ is frequently hurled by way of insult tend to be supportive of the European Union (even if we don’t always agree on the form of that union).
Those who seem most keen to tell us that ‘we’re stronger together’ often seem to take quite the opposite view when it comes to that strange place which they call Europe, of which they think that the islands of Britain are somehow not quite a proper part.  The fact that their belief in the value of union and togetherness stops at the white cliffs fatally undermines the integrity of their argument about strength in unity when applied ‘domestically’.
The size of the rebellion yesterday should concern us; it suggests to me that the real level of hostility to the EU within the Conservative Party is much greater.  The tactics of the Government in trying to tell the rebels that they agree with them really, and that it’s just a question of timing, underline that change in mood.  I wasn’t overly impressed with Miliband’s contribution either, telling MPs that Britain could not afford to leave the EU at the moment.  That’s hardly a robust counter-argument.
We’re at a point in history where Scotland seems poised to rejoin the world as a free nation, and there is at least a chance that Wales would follow later; it would be perverse if the UK Government were to decide that this was the time to try and stop the world and get off.  The attitude of the 'separatists' is probably one of the consequences of the imperial past, but the failure to accept and understand that ‘the past’ is where that attitude belongs is one which can only lead to further decline.
I want to see Wales and Scotland taking their places at the European table.  And I hope that, when we get there, England will choose to be there as well.  But I’m less confident about that now than I used to be.

19 comments:

Adam Higgitt said...

Leaving aside the question of whether either "unionist" or "separatist" is used pejoratively, it does strike me that there isn't quite the equivalence between these two that people suppose in a Welsh context.

"Separatists" like members of Plaid and other nationalists have, if not as their raison d'etre then certainly as a primary goal, the reform of the status quo. Of course, nationalists want as the ultimate goal a successful Wales (don't we all?) but a very, very major milestone in this is Welsh independence, or separation from the Union. If not the reason why they are in politics, it is undeniably a massive part of it.

"Unionists", by contrast, need not occupy the opposite, equivalent position. A few do, and many more feel very strongly about the continuation of the union. But an awful lot are merely unionists by default - it is the status quo and thus the most practicable vehicle by which to deliver their other political or ideological aspirations, be that a smaller state with greater personal freedom (e.g traditional right-wing demands) or a greater measure of social justice (e.g a traditional left-wing demand).

I'm not so naive as to not realise why the "unionist" branding is going on, i.e to imply some equivalence in the positions - as if there is some blank sheet of paper from which we can all make an informed constitutional choice.

It is bad enough that this is wrong in fact. We have a status quo and those who want to change it will always have to make the case with greater animation than those who want to retain it (though as I've argued before unionists now need to answer the "why not" question to Welsh independence).

But it is also wrong in character in that it conflates the "ideological unionist" with the "functional unionist". The former really are equivalent to "separatists", the latter may have no real inclination toward the British union other than it is there and appears to provide the means to other, more important ends. That may explain - to connect to your original theme - why very many unionists are actually sanguine about or supportive of greater European integration: they see this a another or alternative vehicle for delivering their fundamental aspirations.

John Dixon said...

Adam,

An interesting way of looking at the question. Parts of it I’d accept, but other parts I’m not at all sure about. Certainly, I agree that “We have a status quo and those who want to change it will always have to make the case with greater animation than those who want to retain it”, although if opinion moves in favour of those who want to change the status quo (as seems to be the case in Scotland), then the pressure on supporters of the status quo to come up with a more cogent argument than ‘it’s the status quo’ will of necessity increase.

“I'm not so naive as to not realise why the "unionist" branding is going on, i.e. to imply some equivalence in the positions - as if there is some blank sheet of paper from which we can all make an informed constitutional choice.” For my part, I’m not intentionally trying to do any branding. I try to avoid branding or sloganeering, even if I don’t always succeed. And I agree that the question of constitutional status is far more complex than the idea of two simple opposing camps would suggest. I hope that that comes through in some of the stuff I’ve put on the blog over the past few years. I’ll admit though that I sometimes fall into the trap of using short-hand to describe positions rather than giving lengthier explanations of my precise meaning in using words.

I think that you may be making a similar generalisation about “separatists” (not my preferred word, but I’ll stick with it for the purposes of debate) as you suggest (with at least a degree of justification) that I make about “unionists”. Could it not equally be true that there are “ideological separatists” and “functional separatists”, just as “unionists” can be split into those two categories?

Taking this paragraph of your comment:

"Separatists" like members of Plaid and other nationalists have, if not as their raison d’être then certainly as a primary goal, the reform of the status quo. Of course, nationalists want as the ultimate goal a successful Wales (don't we all?) but a very, very major milestone in this is Welsh independence, or separation from the Union. If not the reason why they are in politics, it is undeniably a massive part of it.,

is it not entirely conceivable that at least some of us in the nationalist camp are there because we believe that Wales should be independent, not because that is a raison d’être in itself, but because we believe that that is the best functional structure which would be “the most practicable vehicle by which to deliver their other political or ideological aspirations”? (And I entirely accept that whether we’re right or wrong about that is a different issue entirely!)

I accept that there are some “fundamentalists”, for whom it is axiomatic that Wales should be independent, regardless of what sort of Wales results from that. But that isn’t my position, which is more to do with a belief that small is beautiful (to borrow a phrase), and that we can better build a future for Wales by taking control of our own affairs. I appreciate that leaves open the question which you’ve posed before, and which I’ve never quite got around to posting on, as to why Wales is the ‘right’ unit rather than some other set of boundaries, but, and not for the first time, I’m going to park that one for the time being.

Adam Higgitt said...

John

I wasn't accusing you of engaging in branding - sorry if it seemed as if I was. That comment was directed at others.

I take your point about functional separatism - to a point. It's tricky for me at least to imagine people are quite as pragmatic about an independent Wales as many are about a United Kingdom - though you are clearly one.

Anonymous said...

Welsh seperatists, British unionists, EU serpartists, UK unionists, EU unionists, UK seperatists ... my brain hurts!

Good debate boys. Thanks. Good points, diolch yn fawr, gwerth ei ddarllen.

Spirit of BME said...

As I said, Union is a funny old word.
The first question all consultants ask is “How did we get to here?” this is very relevant when dealing with the English State.
Scotland got here by a doggy (legal) deal and the SNP complaint is that it’s a bad contract and they want out.
Wales (thankfully) never signed any deal or Union document and the legal basis on which HM Treasury in taxing the Welsh worker, is based on an act of invasion and occupation. The word separation does not really cover our Cause, as liberation is the only way out of an occupation, but Scotland could be described as wanting to separate from the contract.
Reality, of course was it was never a Union but a crude takeover and a land grab and English interests to this day are guaranteed by the arithmetic of the English Parliament. If there was a Union then each party would have the uniformity of rights and privileges – Mr Wigley back in the 70`s had a very good speech about that very point.

John Dixon said...

Adam,

"It's tricky for me at least to imagine people are quite as pragmatic about an independent Wales as many are about a United Kingdom"

In my experience, support for self-government/independence as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself is widespread amongst nationalists, particularly those of a 'left' disposition. The fact that it hasn't been obvious perhaps underlines the failure of myself and others to make the point as effectively as we could and should have done. And we've allowed others to define the constitutional debate as something intrinsically boring and irrelevant to the 'bread and butter' issues, with even some 'nationalists' falling into the trap of saying the same thing. If I didn't believe that it gave the potential for a better way of tackling the 'bread and butter' stuff, I wouldn't have put so much time and energy into supporting it.

Adam Higgitt said...

I've never enjoyed the criticism that the constitutional debate is boring, much less that it isn't relevant to important and immediate quality of life issues. Politicians sometimes justify this attack on the ground that the subject doesn't come up on the doorstep - as if that alone is a reliable measure of the importance of a topic.

From my own point of view, I think it would be valuable to see more pragmatism in Welsh nationalism (it's one of the reasons I read this site and have long since stopped reading others). One of the persistent problems I have with Welsh nationalism is that it often appears as an article of faith to its adherents, rooted not in any objective assessment of the costs and benefits of independence, but in some quasi-historical sense of injustice (Exhibit A: Spirit of BME above) and historical inevitability.

History's important, as we have recently discussed, but the trouble with the "faith-based" approach to the constitution - quite apart from the fact that it is a rubbish way of convincing non-believers - is that it often leads to the view that all you need is independence, and the rest will take care of itself. This was my main charge against Adam Price's recent pamphlet, which we also discussed.

maen_tramgwydd said...

I think there is a danger of getting bogged down in semantics. As Adam says, ‘Who doesn’t want a better Wales?’

For most nationalists that I know independence is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I firmly believe that the best hope of improving the living standards and well-being of Wales’ people is by first achieving independence. Alex Salmond echoes that for Scotland in much of his rhetoric.

For me, it’s also a matter of dignity. Spirit of BME has rightly alluded to Wales’ history and its relationship down the centuries to its larger much more powerful neighbour to the east.

I acknowledge that most of Wales’ inhabitants have little knowledge of its history. I suspect that may be less true of the majority of nationalists, for whom history features prominently in their political outlook. This has also been true in the history of nationalism in Ireland.

Being incorporated (‘assimilated’ might be a better description) in the Union has to a large extent deprived the people of Wales the knowledge of their nation’s history. I’m not saying that this was done deliberately or maliciously, possibly done for what was considered the best of reasons, but nevertheless it happened, and to a large degree it continues in Wales’ schools today.

I remember my own education in the grammar school, where Welsh history was an addendum, very much secondary to ‘British’ almost exclusively English history particularly in the sixth form.

Much the same thing has happened to the Welsh language. Few people in Wales are aware that the twentieth century – the age of ‘Britishness’ almost wiped out the language witnessing its greatest decline – another gift of the Union. I doubt that we as a people can regain our dignity (including our history and language) without gaining sovereignty over our affairs first.

Adam refers to ‘pragmatism’. We understand what is meant by the status quo and it’s far easier to be pragmatic about it than it is about a future state of affairs which has never existed before. The UK, the British State at least, has existed well beyond living memory. Consequently, for some it’s unimaginable that it could break up. For others, even one or two individuals who are personal friends of mine, the Union and its monarchy has something of the sanctity of the King James version of the Bible – a God-given entity. I think they’ve been brainwashed all their lives, but they probably think much the same of my opinions.


In reality the ‘status quo’ is in a state of change. The Union of England and Scotland stretches back to 1707, and the monarchic union only to 1603. Ireland was formally incorporated from its prior colonial status in 1801. During the 19th century there were demands for Home Rule in both Wales and Ireland, which came close to realisation. Most of Ireland exited in 1922, and there has been no desire to return. National consciousness has re-emerged in Wales and Scotland since 1945 and if anything the pace is accelerating. The UK entered the Common Market/EU in the 1970s.

The Britishness ‘glue’ of the inter-war years is losing its strength. The British state is coming apart at the seams, whether the unionists, pragmatists or fundamentalists, like it or not.

It concerns me that one or two prominent individuals within Plaid seem to have ambivalence towards the term ‘independence’ as if they’re afraid to come to terms with its implications. For the 193 member states of the UN its meaning and substance is clear. They are each jealous of their sovereignty, and would probably take up arms to defend their territory.

I think I know what these people mean. An individual can only act within the limits of the circumstances surrounding him but he also has the power and the means to attempt to change and interact with those circumstances. Likewise a nation state, but it must possess the theoretical sovereignty in the first place – the right and the power to act. That is the starting point.

maen_tramgwydd said...

Wales lacks that power, and that is reflected in its status within the UK – it has a non-Welsh queen and prince, and a union flag which disregards its existence, and a minor say in its parliament. It has a weak devolved assembly deriving its power from Westminster.

I don’t think that Wales will progress unless and until its people have that fundamental dignity which statehood brings. It is where it is today because that is lacking. The prospect of statehood is re-invigorating the Scots right now. Plaid needs to get its act together so that the people of Wales can look forward to the same prospect.

Anonymous said...

what an enjoyable post and discussion. i would consider myself one of those people who would consider independence a chance to improve things but i cant bring myself to vote plaid anymore. A bit more discussion along the lines of Adams and Johns thoughts is what is needed. interesting, thoughtful and insightful - thanks both

Welsh Ramblings said...

This is an interesting discussion, particularly with Adam Higgitt's thought-provoking comments. I would definitely agree with John's point that left-nationalists are usually functional rather than "faith-based". Alternatively, there are many people whose aspirations are defined by cultural nationalism and support independence as a means of securing those demands (and by implication would stop short of independence if their cultural demands could be met in a UK state). My nationalism is not religious- if the Communist Party's vision of a British federation of sovereign states with their own national rights ever became realistic, that would be suitable. I support unions generally, whether trade unions or unions of states. I think African states should work together in the African Union, and Latin American states co-operating in Unsaur and ALBA is also a good thing. A socialist Europe would also be a good thing, as would a similar arrangement in the British Isles. What is simply not functional to me is the British union, because it is not based on equality or solidarity but (according to my historical analysis, rather than a gut feeling) injustice, exploitation and a democratic deficit.

I would support Adam's call for more pragmatism and direct evidence of how taking more control over our own affairs would actually be beneficial for our people. Wales has matured as a nation and the arugment that we are "too small" to be independent has been exposed as having no basis. What now needs to be conquered is the argument that we're "too poor". Because under present conditions there would be a spending shortfall that is too large relative to our population.

tbc

Welsh Ramblings said...

(ctd.)

But there has to also be a place in a national liberation cause for what Adam Higgitt calls "faith-based" nationalism, nationalism of the heart, and the politics of national identity. This approach touches on issues of globalisation and what you will usually find is that the articulations of "faith-based" nationalism are usually ways of expressing concern about homogenisation, democracy, community, and a desire for the common good to be enhanced.

One more area this debate should touch upon is the realignment of the left in Wales, that Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards predicted during the onset of the One Wales coalition. There has now been a significant shift in leftist politics in Wales whereby the most progressive tendencies are usually synonymous with supporting greater devolution and Welsh constitutional empowerment. At one point, leftism in Wales (from Bevan to Kinnock) would have been much more readily identified with support for British unionism. Using a Grasmcian model of thought, this is a more important longer-term event than just looking at sets of election results in isolation. The terrain of Welsh politics has been shifted fundamentally. In a realistic world where 8% of the people of Wales support independence, broadening and expanding the competencies of the National Assembly and turning it into the primary democratic agency in Welsh life has to be the main transition goal. In terms of the changes to this that have been mandated even by a pro-UK Labour party, the realignment predicted by Price and Edwards has been vital and has worked.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

I was with you, more or less, in your first comment, but you started to seriously lose me in part 2.

I’m not sure what definition of ‘progressive’ you are using. It’s not a word I like, since the way it’s used often seems to be a variation on “I’m progressive, and therefore anyone who broadly agrees with what I consider to be progressive is also progressive”. The result is that there is a danger of tautology. It’s just possible that it’s not so much those elements in the Labour Party which are ‘progressive’ which support devolution, but that you are using your definition of the word ‘progressive’ to apply the label to those elements which happen to support devolution.

What exactly is the empirical evidence that the ‘left’ in the Labour Party has moved from being opposed to devolution to supporting it? Unless we include ‘support for devolution’ as part of our criteria for the use of the label ‘left’ (which would be another bit of tautology), I simply don’t see it.

I’m not at all convinced that there has been a realignment of the left in Wales, let alone that it’s in accordance with the predictions of anyone. The predictions, as I recall them, were more to do with an imminent split in the Labour Party than any change of view within that party (even were I to accept your contention that such a change has taken place). And, as I’ve said on a number of occasions, I see no signs of any such split, and think that such predictions ignore the fact that there is more which unites the Labour Party than divides it. The constitutional question is simply not the central pivot for them which far too many nationalists assume it to be.

That isn’t to say that I don’t see a need for a realignment in Welsh politics; I do. But a serious realignment isn’t about one party splitting to the benefit of another. That simply ain’t going to happen any time soon, and looking at the issue from the perspective of party benefit is far too narrow a way of considering the issue.

That there has been something of a convergence in Welsh politics is something with which I’d agree. It’s a point I’ve made a number of times, but the movement towards that convergence hasn’t just been a one directional movement by only some of the players. Those who now feel closer to former political opponents should consider very carefully before claiming that it is solely a result of movement by the other.

Adam Higgitt said...

"The constitutional question is simply not the central pivot for them which far too many nationalists assume it to be."

I think this absolutely goes to the heart, not just of the political and electoral contest between Labour and Plaid, but to the entire debate about Wales and her place in the world - as well as what I've been trying to say here. It's not just the existence of different views that matters here, it's the intensity with which those views are held.

To that end, I take some issue with Ramblings' suggestion that "faith-based" nationalism is simply nationalism of the heart. The emotional identification one feels to any group - from family to football club to nation - is important. Although I am firmly at the technocratic end of things as far as the nation state goes, I do acknowledge that these sorts of questions aren't simply one of optimum efficiency. But when I talked of faith I simply meant those who take as some sort of God-given axiom the Welsh nation is the natural and legitimate unit and that all but a Welsh state – most notably a British state – is a perversion. We all know these people, and the fact that they aren’t present in this particular conversation doesn’t change the fact that they exist.

That’s germane to something else Ramblings says, namely the notion of “taking more control over our own affairs”. This is something Alex Salmond is particularly skillful at doing: contrasting control from Westminster with the people of Scotland taking control for themselves. Of course, the reality is that the choice is between Westminster and Holyrood – more-or-less identical institutions of representative democracy - being in control. For most people and on an individual basis, that does not represent any greater degree of control (although arithmetically, the relative sizes of the two units means that an individual vote represents a greater stake). I’d even go so far as to very gently accuse Ramblings of being guilty of some faith-based nationalism of his/her own here: namely the idea that Wales is always (and perhaps only) the embodiment of “our”. I’ve pressed this point at very great length in other discussions, but suffice to say I don’t believe that the identification people have to their nation – important though it undoubtedly is – trumps that they owe to their neighbourhoods and localities.

Welsh Ramblings said...

John- my feeling is that you're misreading what I mean by "realignment". It doesn't equate to a split whereby a party has broken up into two parts. I don't recall an "imminent split" being predicted all, but maybe you do. That is how Mick Antoniw described (and rejected) such a concept last week, but it completely misses the point. You are completely right that within the Labour party they are united around a basic commitment to social democracy, and the constitution isn't pivotal to them (be it Welsh or British). However I think there is strong evidence that there is now a Welsh-British axis in Welsh politics as well as a left-right axis, and that people that want to advance progressive politics (and i'll be clear- I mean openly left-wing, democratic and redistributive politics) will more often than not have to couple those demands with greater constitutional freedom for Wales.

What this hasn't yet affected is the economic case for independence, which i've admitted has not yet been developed. But it has significantly altered the domestic agenda and moved the National Assembly to a position that is already different than most of what the labour movement (or left-wing Welsh politics in general) envisaged at the time of its creation.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

"my feeling is that you're misreading what I mean by "realignment". It doesn't equate to a split whereby a party has broken up into two parts." Maybe I am, but your reference was to the predictions of Adam and Jonathan. Now, my recollection of what they were saying was very much along the lines of ‘driving a wedge between the two wings of the Labour Party’; that, to me implies much more change than has happened, and much more change than would be required to justify your assertion that the predictions have been proven correct.

"You are completely right that within the Labour party they are united around a basic commitment to social democracy". I don’t think that I said that; the point I made was that there is more which unites them than divides them, which isn’t the same thing at all.

"I think there is strong evidence that there is now a Welsh-British axis in Welsh politics as well as a left-right axis". Yes, there is; but it’s nothing new, it’s been around for a long, long time. Your suggestion seems to be that those two axes are now more or less co-located, and that looks more like wishful thinking to me than objective analysis.

"that people that want to advance progressive politics … will more often than not have to couple those demands with greater constitutional freedom for Wales." I’d like to think that they would see things in that way, but this, again, looks like wishful thinking to me. I would certainly agree that the best way to advance the cause of equality, democracy – socialism – is through a more participative decentralist structure, but I know that to be my opinion rather than a fact. I understand why others might hold a different opinion, and certainly don’t see why it would in any sense be inevitable, or even a case of ‘more often than not’, that it is only through one structure that advancing such causes is possible. (And, incidentally, I remember Dr Phil once telling us that ‘decentralist socialism’ is a contradiction in terms; socialism, he said, requires a strong centre to achieve redistribution.)

"What this hasn't yet affected is the economic case for independence". If I may be a little controversial here, I’m not sure that there is any such thing as an ‘economic case for independence’, any more than there is an ‘economic case against independence’. There are economic consequences of independence, just as there are economic consequences of continued union. And there are different sets of policies which can be applied to those consequences.

"But it has significantly altered the domestic agenda and moved the National Assembly to a position that is already different than most of what the labour movement (or left-wing Welsh politics in general) envisaged at the time of its creation." I’m not sure that I agree with that either. What exactly did the Labour party envisage at the time of its creation? In a comment on this post, Jeff Jones suggests that they hadn’t really thought it through at all.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"Now, my recollection of what they were saying was very much along the lines of ‘driving a wedge between the two wings of the Labour Party’; that, to me implies much more change than has happened"

Fair comment John, but I would argue in a spirited manner that a wedge has been driven, when you consider that the Welsh Government (run by Labour) desires borrowing powers, but the Welsh arm of Labour at Westminster (voiced by Shadow Sec of State Peter Hain) has publicly stated that borrowing powers for the devolved administrations would support "a separatist agenda". Of course this is quite subtle and not as dramatic as perhaps my words implied. But it has created (or at least enhanced) an ideological paradigm in Wales. It may have always existed as you say, but the balance appears to have been tipped. When you say you want more evidence for this that's fair enough, but I think the cleavage between Welsh and British perspectives within Labour in Wales will manifest itself in any upcoming discussions or decisions over fiscal reform, and also electoral reform.

We do seem to be misunderstanding each other, but your final point backs up what I have said, rather than contradicting me. What we have now, and what is likely to be consolidated in the coming years, is different to what was envisaged. That point still stands if you accept Jeff Jones' view that they didn't think it through at all.

Thanks for engendering such a useful debate on your blog.

Welsh Ramblings said...

Adam- "To that end, I take some issue with Ramblings' suggestion that "faith-based" nationalism is simply nationalism of the heart."

In my defence, I didn't say it's "simply" nationalism of the heart. I actually defended it as a veneer for genuine concerns about community, the common good (often manifested through patriotism) and as a bulwark against globalisation and homogenisation.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

We all have a natural tendency to interpret events in ways which support our own preconceptions of what we want to see. Cognitive bias is something which is difficult to avoid. But I really don't think that the fact that Peter Hain says one thing and other members of his party say something different is enough to prove that a prediction that a 'Welsh-British' split in the Labour Party is actually happening.

Firstly, bear in mind the point which Adam made above, about the intensity of feeling on an issue. Yes, there are differences within the Labour Party about taxation and borrowing powers for the Assembly. Yes, there are differences within the Labour Party about what else should be devolved and when. But these are not core issues to them. They are the normal stuff of policy disagreement which any and every party has. They only look like core arguments from a perspective which puts further devolution at centre stage - that just isn't their perspective.

Secondly, the debate about fiscal reform isn't a simple 'Welsh-British' debate as you seem to think. There are perfectly valid arguments from what I think you mean when you say 'British' perspective for fiscal responsibility to be devolved - primarily that doing so may 'rein in' the Assembly, and make it less likely that it will deviate from UK policy. Equally, there are valid 'Welsh' arguments against, for the converse reason - freedom from fiscal responsibility makes it easier to tread a different path.

Imbuing discussions with dimensions which they don't really have is all good stuff for conference speeches, but that doesn't make it true. I'm sure that differences within Labour over fiscal reform, and electoral reform, will continue to manifest themselves as you suggest, but these aren't fundamental issues to them.