Friday 27 July 2018

For Welsh, see British

There was a bit of a kerfuffle earlier this week about the branding of food at the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd.  Why the show organisers decided that it was appropriate for a show in Wales to be sponsored by the ministry with responsibility only for England rather than the relevant Welsh minister, and then to allow that ministry to determine the branding, is an interesting question in itself.  The politicians protesting against the outcome are attacking the branding and the minister concerned; the real target here should probably be the show organisers, even if it’s a lot easier to attack ‘London’.  Once the decision was taken, the fact that the ministry for agriculture in England then took a very English (in terms of language) and Anglo-British (in terms of nationality) approach should hardly come as a surprise to anyone.
I don’t see this as a direct result of Brexit, but it certainly looks like a result of the same underlying philosophy, which is all about British exceptionalism and trying to restore Britain’s place in the world based on an idealised image of a long-gone past.  For those who see ‘standing together against the rest of the world’ as the natural role of this ‘proud island nation’, encouraging people to identify with their view of what Britain is becomes a necessary concomitant of their vision.  Eliminating what they see as the fragmentation of identity which has occurred in recent decades is another.  And, dare I say it, even if they didn’t realise that this was what they were voting for, a majority of the Welsh electorate supported this in the referendum two years ago - the Anglo-British nationalists have some justification for assuming that this is what 'we' want.
It isn’t just Brexit driving the rebranding.  The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 gave the Anglo-British establishment quite a scare; the extent to which people felt increasingly Scottish rather than properly British took them by surprise.  It’s another good reason, from their perspective, for trying to reimpose a more standard identity: rolling out union flags, the armed forces and royals at every opportunity.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, if Brexit goes ahead trade with the EU27 will become more difficult than it is now, and in most scenarios (certainly all those currently being supported by the Labour and Conservative parties), there will be tariffs on agricultural products.  For those who see this as a good thing ('taking back control' etc.) one probable outcome of a reduction in cross border flows of agricultural produce is that we will all be encouraged to ‘buy British’; indeed, we may find that we no longer have much choice in the matter.  Another is that the government will be investing more in trying to promote exports of agricultural products to a wider market.  For the simple souls who are currently in charge of the country, all of that becomes easier if there is a common branding to start with – and if that just happens to reinforce their view of identity at the same time, well that’s a bonus.
I know that some independentistas support Brexit because they see the EU as an organisation which will develop into some sort of super state in which individual nations will have less freedom and independence.  I think they’re wrong; I think that a combination of continued external enlargement alongside the probable internal enlargement will eventually lead to a rather different outcome - more like a confederation than a federation.  It could be me who’s wrong, of course; none of us can predict the future with absolute certainty.  I cannot, though, foresee any future for Europe in which individual nationalities and identities are not protected and celebrated; Europe is too diverse for any single identity to be imposed on the rest.  Wales as a nation and member state would be in the same position as all the other member states and nations.  On the other hand, I can very definitely see a post-Brexit scenario in which a centralising government in London seeks to reimpose a single national identity; and we’re seeing signs of that already.  The more of a crisis that Brexit provokes, the more the ‘wartime spirit’ will be invoked.  (It’s a perspective from which the demand for extreme Remainers to be prosecuted for treason doesn’t look as outlandish as it appears to the rest of us.)
I’ve argued from the outset that Brexit should never have been primarily about economics from an independentista perspective, and those independentistas who tried to make the case primarily on economic grounds missed an opportunity.  It is about Wales’ place in the world.  Do we want to be a European state enjoying the same level of independence as other European states, or do we want to be part of an isolationist UK in which a single identity predominates, and is increasingly imposed on the peripheries?  I can understand why some independentistas say that neither option is perfect but the problem with rejecting the only two realistic options as things currently stand is that we’ll still end up with one of them anyway.  And we can clearly see which it will be.


Anonymous said...

You talk of Wales as a nation. Has it ever been?

For sure it is a territory, a space, an area. And it has been such, to varying degrees, for centuries. But nationhood and statehood has something to do with the people occupying this space.

I don't think the people of Wales have ever, by majority, sought separation from England.

So why so much nonsense?

John Dixon said...

It's difficult to debate this without a common understanding of the meaning of terms. You seem to be almost equating 'nation' and 'state'; had you asked 'has Wales ever been a state?', I'd be obliged to reply that it has only ever held such status fleetingly as a single entity, and that was a long time ago. But 'nation' is something different; a nation can exist without being a state, and a state can exist which encompasses multiple nations or even just part of a single nation.

I start with the idea of nationality as being ultimately a subjective concept; people have whatever nationality they choose to identify with. The Welsh nation exists not because of any institutions or clear-cut objective criteria but simply because a large number of people consider themselves to be Welsh. You can no more tell them that they're wrong about that than I can tell people that they're wrong to consider themselves British - because there isn't a right and wrong involved. Nationality is also extremely fluid; people can change their self-identity (there's been a change in Wales over many decades with more self-identifying as Welsh). Nationalities can also overlap - there are plenty of people in Wales who consider themselves to be both Welsh and British; and why shouldn't they? I don't have a problem with people choosing their identity, do you?

But more important than any of that, I don't take it as a given that only 'nations' are entitled to seek to govern themselves; statehood is something which the people occupying a space can choose to exercise or not, as they see fit, and whether they consider themselves to be a different nation or not. I'm not sure why you have a problem with that.

"I don't think the people of Wales have ever, by majority, sought separation from England." On that, I agree with you. And until they do, by majority, seek 'separation' (although I'd use different terminology), then it won't happen. But that doesn't mean that those of us who think it a good idea should not be free to campaign for that aim and seek to persuade people to change their minds, does it? Or do you wish to reject the concept of democracy as well as the existence of a Welsh nation?

Anonymous said...

JD, Many thanks for the response. No, I don't reject the concept of democracy (like you I voted to REMAIN within the EU, but unlike you I now believe we have to BREXIT in full in order to honour our democratic values, comforted by the knowledge that at a later date we might vote once again to rejoin the EU, even if by only a small majority. That is democracy at work) but I do reject the concept of Wales as a nation.

In present form modern Wales has no history of common descent, history, culture or language. Or no history that is distinguishable from our English neighbours. We are part of the nation of England&Wales. Nationality is something very different to nationhood and it is not something I propose to discuss in this topic. Statehood follows on from being a recognised independent nation. Our statehood is England&Wales, we have no Wales as an independent state and because of our history as a flexible 'space' no overwhelming desire for such.

You appear to seek 'government' at various levels within a state. Isn't this just what we already have? Community councils, local government, regional government and state government. How much more government do you want? And for what purpose?

By all means campaign for whatever you want. But appreciate that the overwhelming majority are pretty much happy with what we've already got, a fully functioning democracy. And in this regard, I'd ask you, once again, to reflect upon your stance over BREXIT.

It seems to me you want less democracy, not more. And this is fully in keeping with the history of ancient rather than modern Wales.

John Dixon said...

"I now believe we have to BREXIT in full in order to honour our democratic values" In principle, I agree with that as a starting point. I think that it would be wrong for Parliament to simply overturn the result of the referendum, however flawed some of us might feel that referendum to have been. There are, however, two caveats to that. The first is that the question asked was so oversimplistic that parliament does have the right to determine the form of Brexit; the exact nature of the future post-Brexit relationship was not specified on the ballot paper, and is not something on which the people have expressed a clear choice. And the second is that people have the right to change their mind, and if there is clear and sustained evidence that, in the light of the emerging reality, public opinion has changed, then parliament could and should legislate for a further vote. There's nothing inherent in any definition of democracy which requires that a majority opinion expressed on an issue at a point in time must be set in stone thereafter. It follows that those who think that the wrong decision was taken have a right to try and persuade people to change their minds as well - which is exactly what Farage & Co would have done had the decision gone the other way.

"In present form modern Wales has no history of common descent, history, culture or language." But, even if it were true, is any of that (a) unique to Wales, (b) a necessary precondition for Wales being regarded as a nation, or (c) a requirement for seeking to exercise the right to self-government? The problem that I have with your whole second paragraph is that you seem to be seeking an objective rather than a subjective definition of a nation, and having set your criteria for such a definition, you are effectively demanding that others accept it, as in your statement that "We are part of the nation of England&Wales". I have had a similar argument with some independentistas over the years who demand that people make a choice between being British and being Welsh. I make no such demand - people are part of whatever nation they feel themselves to be - or even part of two overlapping nations if they so self-define. I tend to agree with Benedict Anderson who referred to a nation as an imagined, or socially constructed, community. You seem to be more attached to a 'blood-and-soil' definition. And people's feeling of 'national identity' changes over time; it's not something fixed or unchangeable.

"... appreciate that the overwhelming majority are pretty much happy with what we've already got, a fully functioning democracy". I accept that the majority do not currently support the sort of change that I want to see (although I'm not sure about the 'fully functioning democracy' bit - what about the House of Lords?). But human history is the history of change, and change comes about because ideas change. And in the reality of the UK today, changing ideas is about campaigning and arguing rather than imposition as in the past. If people didn't argue for alternatives (even unsuccessfully), there would be little human progress.

I don't want more government (and I haven't a clue how you get to the suggestion that I want less democracy; nothing that I have said suggests that any change happens without consent and support). What I do want is for more decisions to be taken at a more local level, and for a more participatory form of government in which people collectively take more direct responsibility than is implied by sending MPs (or AMs) away to the capital once every five years. But further detail on that would be going way off thread here.