Thus read the 1888 version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It wasn’t fair then, and it isn’t fair today, but in political terms it seems to be becoming more, rather than less, true as a result of elections over the past few years.
The full implications of yesterday’s vote will take some time to become clear. The dust hasn’t settled yet, but as I’ve posted before, I’ve never really believed the warnings of economic doom. The issue for me has always been about the way forward for Wales, and the context in which those of us who want to see an independent Wales can best realise our aspirations. But that’s for another post after a lot more reflection – for today, I’ll content myself with a few comments on the nature of the ‘Welsh’ debate.
Insofar as there was a Welsh element to the debate at all, it seemed to start with Wales’ establishment politicians largely taking the result for granted and engaging in idle speculation about the constitutional implications of a Welsh ‘remain’ and an English ‘leave’. There was never much of a basis for believing that the result in Wales would be very different from that in England, but it has seemed throughout that the politicians didn’t really understand that, preferring to cling to a vision of the political Wales of the past rather than that of the present, let alone that of the future.
For most of the campaign, that initial speculation was replaced by an argument that Wales did better out of the UK than any other part of the UK, and that Wales should vote to stay in because of the financial benefit. It was always a weak argument, but it was based on the conventional wisdom that people would, ultimately, vote in the way that best promoted their own personal financial interest. If there’s any good at all to come out of the vote, it is surely that it has demonstrated that people can indeed be motivated to vote against their own direct financial interest if presented with an argument which appeals to their sentiments and prejudices.
It might not have been a particularly honest argument – worse, many of us found it downright unpleasant – but there can be little argument that it was anything but an appeal to simplistic financial selfishness. That in turn highlights another learning point – if we don’t tackle and debate prejudices and sentiments, the unscrupulous and unsavoury can and will exploit them to promote their own agenda. If politicians are serious about changing Wales for the better, they need to stop pandering to those pre-existing prejudices and beliefs and start trying to change them. Positive change comes from leading public opinion, not following it; and that’s as true when it comes to the independence debate as it is in relation to immigration.
The campaign in Wales ended with an appeal from Plaid to use the vote as a test of Welsh nationhood, and to decide whether we see ourselves as a European nation or a western province of England. Would that they had seen it as such; but insofar as the voters chose to respond to that question at all, they plumped for the latter. The trouble with that appeal, as with so much of the campaign, seems to me to be that politicians have started out with their own preconception about Welsh voters’ political views chiming with those that they elect, and assumed it to be fact, even when the polls and previous election results were increasingly showing something very different.At this point, I’m not sure how Wales as a political nation will move forward from here; but recognising the extent to which reality differs from perception and wishful thinking might be as good a starting point as any.