Friday 19 November 2021

Not being special


It has long seemed to me that the principal unionist argument against independence for Wales – that we are too poor to be independent and too stupid to change that – is ultimately self-defeating. It inevitably invites the question: if the result of 500 years of union with England is that Wales is too poor to run its affairs, and according to unionists will always be so, in what sense has the union been a good thing? It’s impossible to pretend that the current economic situation of Wales is nothing at all to do with the way in which we have been governed for five centuries.

In that sense, Gove’s admission yesterday that “of course [Wales] could [thrive as a independent nation]” is a significant step away from telling us that we could not, and is a much more honest assessment. A positive case for the union could then be built on the claim that even if we could thrive as an independent nation, there are other reasons to make a positive choice to remain part of the UK. The problem for Gove is that he is completely incapable of finding and articulating those reasons. He’s not alone in that, which I guess is why most unionists fear to even dabble with admitting that Wales could be a successful independent country.

The only benefit he adduces is that “…the United Kingdom is the single most successful state in the world”. The evidence to back up that assertion is notable only by its absence. What does ‘successful’ actually mean? A middle-ranking military power, an economy which is not particularly exceptional, an empire forced into retreat, an unspectacular offshore European state – that’s the reality. It’s not even as if the UK is a particularly long-lived state – it’s existed in its current form and in its current borders for barely a century, and there are plenty of states which have been around much longer than that. Any appeal to history claiming longevity and continuity is inevitably based on the never-stated assumption that England is an ancient state, but has merely adopted different form and borders over the centuries – not an assumption likely to convince many outside the borders of England. But then, jingoistic nationalists like Gove don’t need ‘evidence’; they simply ‘know’ that their country is the bestest and most successful of all time simply because it is.

Although he can’t explain what he means by ‘successful’, he does set out why (in his opinion) it has become so successful. As he puts it: “We have the most diverse cabinet, the most diverse parliament, the most diverse leadership in all public institutions of any developed democracy and we have that because we are a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state, that shares attachment to the rule of law, to respect for property rights, to democracy, equality and decency”.

There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s difficult to know where to start. Let’s just take one indicator of diversity, gender. House of Lords 28%; House of Commons 34%; Cabinet 26%. Unless we define none of the 38 countries above the UK in this list as being ‘developed democracies’, then his statement is demonstrable nonsense. And anyone looking at most of the public institutions in the UK would see an obvious predominance of white males which in no way reflects the overall population. Then, how about “… attachment to the rule of law, … to democracy, equality and decency”? For anyone who has paid any attention at all to what the current government has been doing, that is simply risible. Yet he manages to say it with a straight face – he’s taking us all for fools.

Like most Anglo-British nationalists, he starts from the absolute and firm conviction that the UK is the very best, most special country in the whole world, and closes his eyes and mind to any suggestions, let alone facts, to the contrary. In fairness, that belief that one’s country is in some ways ‘better’ than all others isn’t restricted simply to nationalists of the Anglo-British variety, even if that particular group seem to have caught the bug in one of its most virulent forms. It’s one of the reasons that I prefer the term independentista to nationalist. I don’t want Wales to make any claim to being better than anywhere else, I simply want Wales to be a normal country, at peace with its own abilities and limitations. A country which is good at some things and less good at others, and accepts that. A country which seeks to co-operate with others rather than dominate them or demand special treatment. A country which sets out to be a good world citizen rather than a bully, buccaneer or pirate. A country which honours its international commitments rather than tears them up. A country which treats all people as human beings rather than dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and demonising the poorest.

At one level, that doesn’t look like much of an ambition, but it’s actually a greater and more honourable ambition than someone like Gove could ever understand. And it’s only achievable by ridding Wales of the influence of the Goves of this world once and for all.

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