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.

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