Thursday, 25 February 2021

Honesty and good faith are seen as optional extras

 

One of the almost semi-coherent ideas emerging from the fog of the unionists’ desperate attempts to prevent Scottish independence is the suggestion that a second referendum should only be held once the full details of what independence means are clear. Leaving aside the obvious question as to whether this is a serious suggestion or merely an attempt to tilt the scales against independentistas, it’s an idea which is not without merit. And had the same approach been applied to Brexit, things might now be rather different. However, for those applying the argument to Scotland, being consistent in their approach comes second to getting their own way. There are at least two major problems, though.

The nature of any independence settlement would require detailed negotiation – it’s not a matter of one side dictating what the outcome should be. And a negotiated settlement requires that both parties approach the discussions in good faith. And that brings us to the first problem – Boris Johnson is incapable of doing anything in good faith. Whatever he says or agrees is subject to change – sometimes in the next sentence, never mind the next day. It is inconceivable that any Johnson government will put the time and effort required into negotiating a detailed settlement (which they would then campaign to urge the Scots to reject); they will instead attempt to dictate the terms and, at best, bully Scotland into accepting them or, more likely, simply present them as though they had been agreed. It is, after all, the approach which worked so spectacularly well for Brexit. (And that’s not an attempt at sarcasm – it really did work well in the only sense that mattered to them, which was all about politics. Businesses and individuals whose futures were destroyed were just an acceptable level of collateral damage in an essentially political act.)

The second problem is that after independence, Scotland will set its own direction. Whilst the nature of an independent Scotland on Day 1 could, theoretically, be clarified by the terms of any agreement with England, the whole point of independence is to allow Scotland to do things differently. How different, and in what ways, depends not on the fact of independence, but on the policies put forward and implemented by whichever party or parties win Scottish elections in the years which follow. Whilst one party to the negotiations might attempt to constrain Scotland’s future options, the extent to which they can do so is necessarily limited.

The proposal that Scotland’s voters should have a more precise idea of what they are voting for is a wholly reasonable suggestion. However, the implicit assumptions being made by the proposers – that they can determine the terms unilaterally, and that ‘negotiation’ amounts to imposition – make it completely unworkable in practice. To make it workable requires an honest government in London, and that, to use a phrase from the infamous Scottish play, “stands not within the prospect of belief”.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Increasing the stakes

 

In the lead up to his statement on the road out of lockdown, the Prime Minister of England was keen to stress that his plans would be based more on data than on dates. Given his customary and casual relationship with truth and consistency, it was no surprise to find that what he eventually produced was heavy on dates and vague on the data. Assuming that he will do the opposite of what he says he’ll do is usually a safe bet.  It would also be no surprise to find that his apparent ‘caution’ this time round was merely a spin-based shift from over-promising and under-delivering to under-promising and over-delivering, and that he actually intends to move faster than his road map suggests with more than half an eye on the English local elections in May. His repeated use of phrases such as ‘irreversible’ and ‘one-way route’ sounded ominous.

In theory, all his plans relate only to England, but as we have repeatedly seen over the past year, short of imposing and policing a hard border along Offa’s Dyke it is impossible to fully insulate Wales from the reckless decisions of an impetuous English PM, and the Welsh Government is right to be wary of the consequences. Johnson’s critics in his own party have been arguing long and hard that once the vulnerable parts of the population have been vaccinated there is no reason to continue with restrictions, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson and his cult followers agree with that analysis but are only being held back by the caution of the government scientists. Such an approach would amount to allowing the virus to rip freely through the unprotected sectors of the population (as well as any of the vulnerable who have, for whatever reason, not been vaccinated). It’s a policy which depends on an assumption that those not yet vaccinated will only get a mild illness from which they will quickly recover.

That is a big assumption and a huge gamble. We know that, allowed to circulate freely amongst any sizable population, the virus can and will mutate. There’s a reasonable chance that most vaccinations will not cause any worse symptoms, and that the vaccinations will still protect against them. But it only takes one mutation that either causes worse symptoms (and more deaths) or against which the vaccinations don’t work for us to be facing another major surge later this year, in which tens of thousands more lives would be lost. None of us can know whether Johnson’s bet will pay off or not, but his record of recklessness is not exactly a sound basis for optimism. Statistically, betting on him being wrong would have shorter odds than betting on him being right.

The sight of the leader of what is euphemistically called ‘the opposition’ supporting Johnson’s insistence on irreversibility not only gives Johnson a degree of political cover, it also increases the risk. Even more worrying is that the most vocal opposition to Johnson’s approach is coming from people on his own side – and his natural supporters within his party at that – who think he’s still being too cautious and want to end restrictions even sooner. When dealing with a chancer and gambler like Johnson, the last thing we really need is people who are egging him on to up the stakes, especially when those stakes are measured in human lives. Yet that is what we have, and with a compulsive and over-optimistic gambler like Johnson at the helm, the dangers for the rest of us are obvious.

Monday, 22 February 2021

National identity doesn't have to be a zero-sum game

 

As Bella Caledonia pointed out yesterday, last week was a busy one for the self-styled ‘saviours of the union’ as they fight their battle to prevent the break-up of the UK, although the highlight wasn’t so much the slew of articles full of grim warnings as the resignation, after just two weeks in the post, of the man Johnson had appointed to lead the government’s work on the matter. If they can’t even maintain a united approach in Downing Street, their chances of success look slim. Part of the problem is a lack of clarity about what it is that they’re trying to maintain and what the best way of doing that is.

The PM, always a lover of grandiose and impractical follies, seems to be determined to press ahead with a tunnel linking the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, with one option being a four-tunnel approach with a splendid roundabout under the Isle of Man, as though the solution is better physical links. (Apparently, some people also believe that this will 'solve' the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol, because those silly Europeans will never think to impose checks at the end of a tunnel.) Perhaps they’ve seen the pictures of another roundabout under the Faroes, although I wonder whether they’ve thought about asking the Manx whether they want to become an English-Scottish-Irish hub; it is, perhaps, an inconvenient and ironic fact that the island enjoys rather more self-government than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and unlike the devolved administrations, the Isle of Man would be able to say ‘no’ to such a scheme.

Others in the governing cult seem to believe that plastering the union flag on anything and everything, including vaccines, will somehow make all Scots and Welsh feel more British and patriotic. It underlines, in a way, how shallow is the idea of Britishness and British patriotism; it often seems as though that particular style of patriotism is more about symbols than substance. A truly ‘patriotic’ government would ensure that none of its people went hungry, that none were excluded or left behind, that we had functioning and properly funded services. Yet for ‘patriots’ like Johnson, it’s more about declaring loyalty to a flag, to the monarchy and to the armed forces. It’s a very narrow definition of what it means to be a patriot, and part of the reason why the union is failing is precisely because increasing numbers of people, particularly in Scotland, are coming to realise both how narrow it is, and that there are alternative and more modern views. Trying to put that genie back in the bottle by imposing a uniform definition of patriotism and national identity is likely to be counter-productive, but it seems to be all that they have.

Three months ago, Johnson said that devolution had been a disaster, and he’s been trying to row back his words ever since. Last week, he said that it hadn’t, after all, been an ‘overall disaster’, the problem, it seems is that the devolved administrations haven’t used their powers in the way he would have wished. He hasn’t – yet – gone quite as far as one of his party’s members in Wales, who argued last month that the Senedd should be abolished because there is no chance of it ever electing a Tory majority, although one can’t help but wonder if that isn’t what Johnson actually thinks. Abolishing Welsh democracy because the Welsh elect the ‘wrong’ people is not an approach which any democrat would propose, but it looks entirely natural from a perspective in which god vested all power in the English monarch.

One of last week’s flurry of articles was one from a former senior adviser to David Cameron in the Financial Times. It’s behind a paywall, but there’s a summary here on Nation.Cymru. It calls for a revised devolution settlement which recognises that all sovereignty belongs to Westminster and cuts back on the extent to which the devolved administrations can follow different paths. But above all, it highlights the question of identity and demands the reassertion of a British identity, without, apparently, really defining what that is. It is that question of identity – or more precisely, the extent to which different identities should be ‘permitted’ political expression – which is at the heart of the question. There is no doubt that people who self-identify as British see their identity as being in some way threatened by way in which growing numbers of people in Wales and Scotland see their identity as being Welsh or Scottish. And that seems to be a major part of the momentum behind the anti-Senedd forces: they seem to genuinely fear that the Senedd is going to somehow impose a Welsh identity upon them, a fear which often emerges in their views on the Welsh language. Given that imposing identity, culture, and language is exactly the way in which Britishness was established in the first place, it’s easy enough to see why British nationalists would assume that everyone else would operate the same way.

It doesn’t need to be that way, though. It’s true that there are independentistas who attempt to insist that people choose between being Welsh or being British. It’s impossible, they argue, to be both. Given that large numbers of people in Wales do consider themselves to be a bit of both, telling them that they can’t has always seemed an unproductive approach to me. On the other side, it seems that British nationalists are insisting that we must all fit their definition of national identity, and that the extent to which we can be ‘different’ should be tightly limited, and mostly expressed in the field of culture rather than politics. The problem with this approach to politics is that it treats identity as a zero-sum game; we must all make a firm choice, not a vague one, and one side must emerge as the winner. In trying to eliminate the possibility that nationality (other than in the strict legal definition for purposes such as passports issued by a state) can be much more subtle than that, the approach is inherently divisive. Had British nationalism been more accommodating both of difference and of political expression of that difference over the past three decades, they might have had a better chance of saving their precious union. It is a common refrain from the unionist side that independence is all about identity politics, but they don’t even seem to realise that identity politics is even more at the heart of their own project. The result is that they are doubling down on their demand for conformity even at this late stage. It will prove to be their undoing.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Road maps, plans and targets

 

For anyone wanting to get from A to B, a roadmap is a useful thing to have. It tells you where to turn and will usually identify some of the milestones along the route. If you want to know what time you’ll get to B, knowing where the roadworks and obstacles are likely to be is also useful (although you can never anticipate where there might be an accident or an exceptional load leading to delays or diversions). Deciding what time you want to arrive and working back from there can also give you a target timetable, although it’s not necessarily going to be realistic. I’ve noted before that one guy with whom I used to work was always late for meetings, and told us once that it was impossible for him to arrive on time because he already had 9 points in his licence, and couldn’t therefore get from A to B in the time he’d allowed. He never really got to grips with the inherent flaw in his argument.

Both the Welsh and the UK governments are continually being pressed to provide a roadmap out of the lockdown. In itself, this is not an unreasonable request – identifying the stages and conditions which need to be met to progress. In reality, however, it often seems that what many of the anti-lockdown politicians (particularly on the Tory side) are really asking for is a series of targets, against which they can measure progress and which will give them a big stick with which to beat the governments for any failures. They have already decided that the lockdown is unnecessary, and really don’t care whether the necessary conditions have been met or not – they just want to re-open the economy and are demanding a tight and short timetable for doing so.

Unusually, Boris Johnson seems, at the moment, to be erring on the side of caution (in some respects at least), although I wonder how long it will last. His instinct is to take a more reckless approach, as he has done at all stages so far, and his desire to appease his own extremists – the very people who put him into power – is something he’s unlikely to be able to contain for long. Every date he’s come up with to date has proved to be both wrong and a hostage to fortune, and his claim that he wants any changes he makes to be ‘irreversible’ sounds more like painting himself into a corner, from which he will once again prevaricate rather than taking early action, than a realistic assessment of probability given the extent of the unknowns.

Mark Drakeford is being cautious about putting dates on anything. Whilst this will be frustrating for those anxious to re-open their businesses, such caution is eminently sensible. We don’t know whether, when, or where the next variant will arise, let alone whether a variant which can evade the effects of vaccination will appear; all we know is that the more the virus is allowed to spread, the greater the probability will be. For the anti-lockdown brigade, that really doesn’t matter. In fairness, it isn’t that none of them care, it’s more that most of them don’t understand and can’t be bothered to understand the impact of their proposals, and assume that it will, in any event, be other people affected. The response of the two main opposition parties is vastly different. The Tories, following the lead of their party’s lockdown sceptics are demanding dates, even if very rough ones, as a basis for planning; Plaid are demanding that it is the data rather than the dates which should drive any relaxation. The Welsh Tories have called things wrong at just about every stage of the pandemic, seemingly being more concerned about consistency with England than about controlling the pandemic. Hopefully, knowing that the other main opposition party is likely to be broadly supportive (even if critical of some details) will give Drakeford the confidence he needs to remain cautious in the face of shameless Tory attempts at populism. In current circulstances a road map is much more useful than an arbitrary target.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Tory morality stops at the border

According to reports, the Foreign Secretary is today urging the UN Security Council to seek temporary ceasefires in war zones across the world in order to allow the citizens to be vaccinated against Covid-19. In principle, calling for ceasefires is always a worthy thing to do, and it’s impossible to be critical of the call itself. However, it’s hard to interpret a call for ‘temporary’ ceasefires as not suggesting a rather relaxed attitude to death by bomb or bullet once the population have all been properly vaccinated against one specific disease. Perhaps he has it in mind that any temporary ceasefire creates a basis for extension and a longer-term solution, although if that is what he is thinking, he hasn’t said it.

What he has said is “Global vaccination coverage is essential to beating coronavirus … We have a moral duty to act, and a strategic necessity to come together to defeat this virus”. That to many will sound more like pursuit of the interests of the UK than those of the war-torn countries themselves. Indeed, the report suggested that he would warn that 'allowing Covid-19 to spread in areas without a vaccination roll-out will increase the risk of new variants taking hold', confirming the impression that he’s more worried about uncontained outbreaks generating new variants which will spread back to the UK than he is about protecting the people in the war zones themselves. His words about moral duty might sound very idealistic, but his idea of a moral duty to protect people seems to stop at the UK’s border. It shouldn’t really surprise us; it has always been evident that the UK’s current governing cult was going to be a selfish rather than altruistic actor on the world stage. The only surprising thing is that they’re being so blatant about it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Max Hastings and the curate's egg

 

The article penned by Max Hastings a few days ago has come in for a lot of criticism for its dismissive and arrogant remarks about the Welsh language in particular. His ignorance shines through, but perhaps we should acknowledge that he just can’t help it. He is from a background which simply does not and cannot understand that the UK isn’t the monocultural and monolingual society in which he fondly believes himself to have been born and raised. I was reminded of the time I spent a couple of years working in Solihull, and one of the people with whom I worked was astounded at the idea that Welsh was a living language, used daily by hundreds of thousands as naturally as he used English. He had, until that point, genuinely believed that Welsh was akin to Latin, in the sense that it was only used on ceremonial occasions like the Eisteddfod (the way Latin is used in some religious and academic rites), but was otherwise a dead language, existing only in written form, a relic of the past. Now this wasn’t a particularly stupid example of an Englishman; he was otherwise intelligent, educated, and sensible. He was just completely ignorant of the fact that Wales wasn’t just like a westward extension of England with some odd (and to him, unpronounceable) place names. I have always been completely sure that he’s not untypical, and for someone like that, the idea that a few Welsh people might revert to their quaint ceremonial tongue when an Englishman walks into a pub is entirely credible. He was, in essence, simply ignorant, not in the pejorative sense in which the word is often used, but in the rather more neutral sense of simply being unknowing. Criticising people for what they don’t know, and have no reason to know, is a bit like criticising a tiger for sporting stripes.

In the case of Hastings, the situation of the Welsh language isn’t the only matter on which he’s ignorant. He also succeeded in making it quite clear that he doesn’t understand government finances, such as the way in which the finances of Wales and Scotland are tightly controlled by the centre, to say nothing of the problems with the figures he quotes or the way in which governments finance deficits. But the curate’s egg has its redeeming features, even if one has to look very hard and be very polite to find them. In his ignorance, he suggests that the Welsh and Scottish deficits are paid for by generous subsidies from England. In reality, England also runs a deficit which it covers by a combination of borrowing and (particularly recently) by creating new money, two things which neither Wales nor Scotland are currently allowed to do. But if the money raised by borrowing and Quantitative Easing is all English, and that which is passed to Wales and Scotland is a generous (albeit not appreciated in the way he might like) gift – which is clearly his implication – then all the debt accumulated in the process also belongs to England. An independent Wales and Scotland wouldn't owe a penny of it on this model. And the good news is that his view is uncritically (and ignorantly) shared by much of the English establishment. What’s not to like about that?

Monday, 15 February 2021

Johnson and Thatcher aren't so different

 

It has often been said that Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher are very different, and in some of the things Johnson says (albeit not necessarily in what he does) there is certainly a difference of tone. There is, however, one important similarity, and Brexit is highlighting that. It’s not that Thatcher would have agreed with his policy over Brexit – for all her scepticism about the European political project, there is little doubt that she saw the single market as a huge achievement, and one which she pushed as much as anyone. I doubt that she would be over-impressed by the way in which her successors have thrown her baby out with the bathwater. But it isn’t that which makes them similar – it is, rather, the way in which both set out to make changes which would become ‘permanent’ (or as permanent as possible) and their willingness to sacrifice anyone and everything in the pursuit of that aim.

No objective observer can really believe that the Brexit which is being delivered is the one which the Brexiteers promised; the more time has passed since they achieved the referendum ‘victory’ the more extreme has become their interpretation of what Brexit meant. And no-one can really deny that the ‘deal’ which was delivered is having a severe impact on businesses, communities and individuals; we are seeing reports like this one and this one on a daily basis. Some Remainers seem to believe that all we need to do is reverse Brexit and all will be well again, but it won’t. Those who have invested in moving all or part of their business to the EU, those who have redesigned their supply chains, companies which have found alternative routes from Ireland to the European mainland – none of these are going to reverse their decisions just because the UK changes its mind. They are long-term decisions, not just responses to a temporary problem. So, when the Foreign Secretary declares that we need to allow ten years to see the effects, he knows exactly what he is saying. In ten years, the changes will have become so great and so well-established that anyone campaigning against re-entry to the EU will be wholly justified in arguing that it will not be a simple solution to the economic malaise which Brexit created. All they need to do is lie and bluster their way through the next ten years and the changes which they are pushing through will be as ‘permanent’ as any of Thatcher’s. They’re quite willing to ignore and deny all the negative impacts in the meantime.

The big question, of course, is whether the opportunities which they said existed outside the EU actually exist in the real world, or, rather, whether they exist to such an extent that they will make up for the economic damage caused by Brexit. There can be little doubt that there will be some opportunities, even if what they are is currently less than clear. But many of the opportunities that the Brexiteers believed would exist depend on assumptions which they have made all along about the willingness of trading partners to accept goods and services from a country which deliberately sets out to undercut them on price by undercutting them on standards such as environmental protection, workers’ rights and so on. That assumed willingness, combined with an unshakeable belief in the special and unique nature of the UK, was the basis of the wild – and now provably inaccurate – claims about the wonderful deal that the EU would give the UK. There is little evidence to date that it’s going to be any more reliable a basis for dealing with other countries than it was for dealing with the EU.

It doesn’t matter, though. Ultimately, Brexit was an ideological project for its most zealous fans; those who bought into the idea that it would bring economic advantages were merely fellow-travellers or what Lenin would have called ‘useful idiots’. Charging ahead regardless of the damage caused is what ideologues do; expecting mere facts to change their opinion is wholly unrealistic. In ten years, the economic position of the UK will be almost unrecognisable – and there will be no easy way back. It’s easy to criticise the lies and bluster, but they’re achieving their objective of making Brexit a decision which is difficult to reverse. Jobs, businesses, and communities are just so much collateral damage. Johnson’s Conservatives aren’t as different from Thatcher’s as many seem to think.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Keeping government in work

 

It’s probably a sign of increasing age, but there are times when events bring back memories from long ago. This week, it was a song from the 1960s by Flanders and Swann, “The Gas Man Cometh”, which floated into my mind. For those too young to remember it (or for those who are old enough but would just like to be reminded), it’s available here. It was a satirical take on the great British workman, as a series of different workmen do a fine job of fixing the problem that they have been called in to fix, only to damage something else in the process, needing a call to a different workman the following day, in a circular pattern which eventually leads to the process repeating itself.

It’s funny, or at least it appeals to my sense of humour. It was never intended as an instruction manual for governments in the event of a pandemic, but it appears as though Boris Johnson and his crew of what could only very loosely be described as ‘great British workmen’ have taken it that way.

·        Inadequate hospital capacity was ‘fixed’ by sending patients with Covid to care homes which had no PPE or guidance.

·        The lack of PPE for care homes and hospitals was ‘fixed’ by ordering vast quantities from companies with no experience in the field, many of which failed to supply anything or else supplied equipment which was unusable.

·        The problems of the hospitality sector were ‘fixed’ by paying people to go out and spread the virus in restaurants and bars.

·        The problem of people bringing in new strains of the virus is being ‘fixed’ by charging those travellers who own up to being in only some of the affected countries £1750 to stay in a hotel for 11 nights.

·        The problem of people being unwilling to pay £1750 and thus falsifying their travel documentation is being ‘fixed’ by threatening them with 10 years in jail, increasing the incentive to be convincing in the lies they tell.

There were, at every stage, other options which could have been taken by a government able to take a wider view, but they’ve preferred to take a short view and find a quick fix, which has invariably led to further problems. Still, as Flanders and Swann nearly said, “It all makes work for the government to do”.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Constraining England

 

Yesterday’s post considered the question of why people might be looking for a federal or confederal structure for the UK. Today’s returns to a consistent theme of this blog, which is that any such solution cannot overcome some fundamental problems. Let me start by saying that I believe the UK in its current form to be doomed. Not, primarily, because of the Scottish question, but because of the Irish one. A combination of demographic change in Northern Ireland (the Irish-identifying population is going to exceed the British-identifying population by a clear margin in the foreseeable future) and the fact that whilst, in pre-EU times, the Republic looked like a very socially conservative place but, post-Brexit, it is the North which looks like the more socially conservative, a factor which will affect the younger generations particularly. That’s not to say that reunification is as imminent as some believe, merely that it will not be indefinitely delayed. That means that any federal system is inevitably concerned only with England, Wales, and Scotland. How can they effectively operate as a federation or confederation?

Yesterday’s post referred to the series of articles by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones on the IWA website. It is clear that Jones has given a lot of thought to the question of how such a confederation can work without England necessarily dominating. And his starting point – that sovereignty lies in the individual nations, not in the centre, and that those individual nations delegate authority over certain shared matters to the ‘Council of the Isles’ which exercises them jointly is a reasonable one in principle (although it’s notable that all proposals for any sort of federal or confederal approach always end up suggesting that Wales and Scotland should directly exercise less control over their own futures than the Republic of Ireland, Malta, or any other member state of the EU). I’m not sure that it solves the problem though, and I’ll illustrate that with three practical and relevant examples, two relating to defence and the third to currency, all of which would be delegated to the centre in the proposed model. I assume that, based on current polling trends, there is a Conservative government in England, a Labour government in Wales and an SNP government in Scotland.

1.    Replacement of Trident. Under the scenario set out above, the governments of England definitely, and Wales probably, would wish to proceed. Does Scotland have a veto? If no, does that mean that Scotland has both to contribute to the cost and host the facility?

2.    The US wants to invade a country in the Middle East and wants the UK to join in. England says yes, Wales probably says no (after a bit of prevarication) and Scotland says no. Are Wales and Scotland bound to contribute both money and young people’s lives to the pursuit of US imperialism?

3.    There is a large deficit as a result of paying for a pandemic, and a programme of austerity is suggested. The English government is wildly enthusiastic, and both Wales and Scotland are deeply opposed, but with a single currency and single central bank, only one side can win the argument.

In all three cases, the issue comes down to the same thing: does England, with 85% of the population and wealth, get to outvote the other two, or can the other two either singly or acting in consort block what England wants? The problem is, in essence, this:

·        If the English majority gets to decide all these issues, on what basis would such a structure ever be attractive to the likely governing party in Scotland? (Wales is different – I can see ‘Welsh’ Labour going along with this in the naïve belief that Labour might one day win a majority in England and the even more naïve belief that an English Labour government would be significantly different from an English Conservative government.) Whilst the range of powers delegated to the centre is more limited than at present, it still replicates precisely one problematic element of the current situation.

·        If, on the other hand, England’s actions can be constrained either by Scotland alone exercising some sort of veto, or else by some sort of weighted voting under which combined Scottish and Welsh votes outweigh England’s voice, why would that ever be attractive to either of the parties likely to be able to form a government in England, without whose agreement such a proposal is dead in the water?

The underlying issue with any sort of confederal system proposed for the UK is that it depends on the governments and/or electorates of all three countries being ready to accept it. Once the principle of sovereignty belonging to the parts not the whole is accepted, a simple overall majority of the UK electorate to ‘delegate’ powers to the central Council is no longer enough. Whilst the proposal put forward in the five articles is a valiant effort, I really don’t see how it addresses the inherent problems. It might, conceivably, have headed off the Scottish independence movement three decades ago, but it’s now far too late.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Why Britain?

 

Last week, the IWA website ran a series of five articles by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones on his proposal for a “League-Union of the Isles”, which he also describes as “A sovereign Wales in an isle-wide confederation”. The first part is available here, and it contains links onwards to the other parts. He’s obviously given the question a great deal of thought, and attempted to fill at least some of the gaps in federalist/ confederalist thinking, and he makes a number of points which independentistas should consider carefully. I can’t help but conclude, however, that the series fails to completely overcome what many of us consider to be the fundamental flaws of the federalist/ confederalist approach. This post looks at one of those, and the blog will return to another tomorrow.

The first is that federalists often seem to be starting from an assumption that there is an inherent and necessary need for something at a UK level, and much of their thinking then revolves around what that is and how it can be achieved. In the fifth and final part, Jones asks the question, “If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we consciously choose the model of a centralised unitary state that we have inherited?” It’s a good question, and most independentistas, at least, would reply in the negative. It doesn’t follow, though, that we would therefore look for some other model which retained a semi-unity based on the existing elements which compose the UK, complete with an international border across that big island off to the west of Wales. For independentistas, the question isn’t what sort of UK, but whether there should even be one. And if there weren’t all that wet stuff between the east of England and the European mainland, would we even think of the British Isles as being separate and apart from the rest of Europe, or would we see it as just another part of the European landmass?

In practice, of course, we cannot start with a blank sheet of paper, we have to start from where we are, and our starting point is defined by a combination of history and geography. It is a truism that most European borders simply mark the points at which different armies were stationed the last time the fighting stopped, and the composition of the UK owes a great deal to the same factor. Nobody drew lines around ‘nations’, ‘countries’, or ‘states’; the entities which are most often referred to by those terms today largely evolved to fit the borders which military action defined, albeit leaving pockets of peoples within, and even across, borders who failed to identify with the emergent ‘nation-states’ and have clung to their own identities over centuries.

Wales didn’t choose to share a common history with the other parts of the British Isles, any more than the British Isles chose to share a history with the rest of Europe, but geography, rivalry and the pursuit of land, power, and wealth made it inevitable that we have ended up with shared elements of history whether we like it or not. Independence wouldn’t change the former any more than Brexit changes the latter, whatever the adherents of other proposition might wish. By the standards of today, parts of that shared history appear good, and other parts appear bad; but past generations would have different views – as will the generations to come.

History and geography, in themselves, are neither good nor bad, they just are what they are. Neither history nor geography dictate how people should choose to self-identify or to govern themselves, what the borders should be nor what we might decide to do acting in consort with others rather than independently. But that is not to say that our interpretation of history, the way we internalise and relate to those bits that we know and understand (which is both a major part of ‘identity’ and also different for every one of us) doesn’t affect our attitude towards the question of structures and borders, and I understand how an internalised folk memory of what the UK is leads many to want to perpetuate it in some form. It might even be fair to characterise that as the essence of ‘Britishness’. Whether federalists are responding to their own feelings of being ‘British’, or simply recognising that others feel that way is an open question. I suspect that there are elements of both involved. Both seem to be looking for a solution which combines greatly increased Welsh autonomy with a way of retaining that sense of Britishness. It’s an irrelevant question though. Whilst both are entirely honourable positions to hold, they still leave federalism, of any flavour, as a concept which first and foremost is attempting to address that problem of identity rather than the problem of two or three nations being dominated by a third. And it is that latter issue to which we shall return tomorrow.