Friday 23 December 2022

For Britain, see England


The inability of some people to distinguish between the terms ‘England’, ‘Britain’, and ‘UK’ is well understood by most Welsh and Scottish people. And it isn’t about whether people do or do not support independence or even devolution; most unionists in Wales recognise that there is a difference of some sort between Wales and England even if they’re not always clear about what it is. Indeed, for many Welsh unionists, the idea that Wales can be a distinct nation whilst being part of a political union which confers greater strength to the parts as well as to the whole is a key element of their unionism, even if independentistas by and large consider them misguided. The problem they face though is that what looks obvious to them isn’t always as obvious to English politicians, let alone ordinary English voters. Whilst they don’t always express themselves in such blunt terms, ‘Britain’ (or even the UK) in England is really just Greater England; a monocultural, monolinguistic state, with an official religion of which the monarch is head. Subtleties such as Welsh disestablishment or the very existence of the Welsh language completely pass them by.

Some years ago, I spent some time working in Solihull, and during the course of a conversation with one of my colleagues there, he was surprised to learn that Welsh was the first language of many, was spoken daily, used in people’s homes, and the medium of education in many schools. He had always assumed that it was on a par with Latin – brought out for ceremonial use in Eisteddfodau, in the way Latin is brought out for ceremonial use by the Catholic Church or some universities. He was not a stupid man, by any means: he was apparently well-educated, knowledgeable and articulate, and was holding down a job at a fairly senior level in a large organisation. Whilst I’ve not often heard things expressed in the same way, his attitude is not untypical of many people in England, for whom Wales is those two geographically definable western peninsulas, but otherwise indistinguishable. There’s nothing malicious about the attitude, it’s just accepted ‘truth’. It crosses political dividing lines as well; one of the problems faced by people like Mark Drakeford who genuinely want to make the union work for Wales is that so many senior English Labour politicians share, deep down, the same sort of ignorance of difference.

Yesterday, it was PM Sunak who managed to clumsily express a similar view, with his statement that British is “…a shorthand that people use…” when they really mean English, clearly conveying that, in his mind, the two words are basically interchangeable. The ‘people’ who he says use this shorthand are, though, almost exclusively English; it’s not a shorthand that many in Wales or Scotland would ever use, where the difference between the two words is much more clearly understood. I’ve long believed that the eventual demise of the union between the nations of these islands will be down as much to the insouciance and carelessness of its supporters as to the efforts of its detractors. Sunak is just another piece of evidence of a problem of whose existence he remains blissfully unaware. And whilst his ignorance might irritate us, it's hardly unhelpful to the cause.

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