Friday 9 October 2020

Flavours of unionism


Treating the politics of the UK as it affects Wales and Scotland as a division into independentistas and unionists is a vey easy shorthand which too many of us – myself included – tend to fall into. The problem is not that it’s wrong as such – particularly in Scotland where politics has effectively polarised around the question of independence – but that it’s too simplistic to label all opponents of independence as ‘unionists'. In reality, unionists come in different flavours (none of them particularly palatable from my perspective), and support of ‘the union’ isn’t really as uniting a factor as it can seem. That’s one of the reasons why unionists are doing such a hopeless job of putting their case.

There are undoubtedly some people in Wales who genuinely believe that Wales’ best interests are served by remaining part of a greater whole covering all or part of this archipelago. They usually (although not always nor exclusively) see those interests in economic terms. I think their understanding of the economics of independence is deeply flawed, but I don’t see anything unpatriotic about arguing for what they sincerely believe to be in the best interests of Wales. Others argue, equally sincerely, that class and economic relationships are more important than nationality. It’s an argument with which I have a degree of sympathy, but the idea that that solidarity ends at Dover (as at least some of them seem to believe), or that it mandates a particular kind of relationship between the nations of these islands (a belief which seems common to all of them) strikes me as having more to do with nationalism of the Anglo-British variety than with class solidarity.

The biggest problem faced by Welsh unionists, though, is that the unionists in England (and they’re the ones in charge) have an entirely different perspective on the same issue. Many English unionists may use the same language about Wales being too poor to support itself, but the idea that they are driven to maintain the union by some great altruistic wish to help and support Wales is naïve to say the least. My evidence for that statement is simple – they have presided over long term economic decline in Wales in favour of concentrating the UK economy in the South-East of England. They simply haven’t achieved, or even attempted to achieve, that which they say is their objective. So what does drive English unionism? It’s tempting to fall back on the grumbling Welsh narrative of England having land and people to exploit. It’s true, of course, which is part of what makes it so tempting; but it isn’t the whole truth.

Independence for any given geographical area does not, in itself, demand or require any question of national identity. For those of us who believe that sovereignty ultimately derives from and belongs to the people who reside in a particular area, the right of those people to govern themselves as they see fit is, ultimately, entirely for them to decide. The importance of national identity is not about whether people have a right to govern themselves, but about where they choose to draw the lines. Wales isn’t obviously a natural economic unit (and I know that that is not just about geography, it’s also about history and the way communications have developed) but what makes it a suitable unit for self-government is more about the extent to which the people living here define themselves (in a highly subjective process) as being Welsh. It doesn’t follow (as some seem to argue) that we must therefore be independent, but it inevitably forms part of the argument about why we should make that choice.

Not all independentistas see things in such terms, of course. My starting point – that sovereignty ultimately stems from the people – means that I cannot put up a single argument of principle (as opposed to practicality) against, say, a proposition that Ynys Môn should seek independence from Wales. The importance of this point is that those in Wales who raise objections of principle to the idea that Wales could ever be divided in such a way are actually seeing things through exactly the same prism as those British unionists who are so vehemently opposed to Welsh to Scottish independence: because the real driver of unionism is the idea that the UK is a natural and indivisible whole. As is becoming increasingly obvious, they don’t care about the ‘union’ at all, nor about the terms on which it was established (particularly relevant in Scotland). They don’t even see it as a ‘union’ either (although they use the term), they see the UK, rather, as a homogeneous nation-state which emerged from historical processes which are now irrelevant and in which all sovereignty belongs to the centre. There have been a series of articles and comments recently which portray the current government as being cavalier about the union and endangering it by their approach. It’s fair comment, but it fails to understand their perspective.

It’s not even the case that their perspective is wholly wrong or completely misguided – it’s merely dated. It’s a classic example of the way in which ‘institutional wisdom’ (which some might consider an oxymoron) fails to move with the times. Attitudes and beliefs change over time, but institutions struggle to acknowledge that fact. We are left with a UK run by centralist parties (Labour is as bad as the Tories on this) supported by centralist institutions which simply cannot conceive of the possibility that large swathes of opinion in the north and west of ‘their’ territory no longer share their views on what constitutes ‘the nation’, and they assume that changing the presentation and pasting union flags on everything will somehow eliminate any problem. The union is doomed by those who claim to be its supporters. Sooner or later, Welsh unionists will wake up to find that they are not only not on the same page as their leaders in England, they’re not even reading the same book.

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