The Welsh national movement has expanded greatly over the last year. A recent poll put support for Welsh Independence at 32%, which is the highest it’s ever been. Brexit and the Covid period have shown how quickly things can change. However, it is mainly the young and people of the left that are backing it, Welsh Independence isn’t winning over Brexit supporters or those from the right wing of politics. What are the barriers to being Indycurious for right wing people?
I have always found the whole Brexit debate curious. The main thrust of the argument seemed to concern democracy, that policy decisions should be made locally at the UK level rather than at EU level. Surely if you take this argument to it’s logical conclusion, then if you support Brexit you should also support Welsh independence and greater powers for local councils. However judging from Brexiteer arguments there seemed to be something special about centralisation at the UK level. British Unionists have used the phrase ‘our precious union’ as something of high value, preventing a consideration of further devolution of political power.
I have supported Welsh Independence my entire adult life, yet for many years I felt I was fairly unusual and alone in this view, partly because I was living in England as so many young adults from Wales do. I grew up in Powys, with farmers sons for school friends, have a Conservative supporting family and when I was at school I got my news from the Daily Telegraph as that was the paper my family took. It would not have been surprising if I were to have turned out to be a Tory, except I didn’t.
I didn’t as I’m fairly geeky and bookish and spent a lot of time thinking about politics as a young man and one of the things I settled upon was a belief in the importance of subsidiarity, a word rarely heard in political discussions these days. Subsidiarity simply being the view that political decisions should be made the the most local level that is practical. It is simply this belief that led me to support Welsh Independence.
So, whilst I was reading the Daily Telegraph and the constant commentry that the EU was centralising too much political power in Brussels, it made a sense to me, yet I couldn’t get my head around why this principle didn’t extend to Wales.
The Brexit argument, whilst it dressed itself in the clothes of subsidiarity seemed to be more about identity, specifically identification with Britishness, with Britishness being portrayed as the plucky underdog battling the power of an elite [though former British colonies probably didn’t see it quite like that]. The Brexit campaign kind of left open whom this shadowy elite were and seemed to largely allow people identify ‘the Elite’ as whomever was against their interests.
The UK has been a declining economy for all my adult life. Support for Brexit was fueled by a hope for a major change that would turn things around. The UK has also had fairly hard right wing Tory governments during this period, surely this is the elite that has caused the problems for the Britons? Yet, this British establishment has been very clever in pointing the finger at ‘enemies within’ for the weakness of the UK economy: immigrants, catholics, muslims, liberal university educated people, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, the LGBTQ community, people who aren’t monolingual English speakers, single mothers on benefits and so on. Basically it’s anyone who doesn’t conform to a rigidly defined Britishness. Surely the stiff upper lipped British who created the largest empire the world have ever seen cannot possibly be at fault for economic decline.
Yet am I not British too? well yes, but first and foremost I’m Welsh! However, I’ve usually described myself as Welsh-British, because I feel an identification with the British isles and all the people of the British Isles. Really, I see myself as a Briton rather than British and that is quite a subtle distinction. A distinction that the Brexiteers [the people pushing Brexit, the Farages and the Rees-Moggs, not the Brexit voters have succeeded in bluring.
I did say that I was a bookish geek, so I have read History books. What amazes me now is that when I was at school the British Empire period wasn’t covered at all. I have now read about it and the history is full of terrible atrocities commited by the British state across the world. Yet the simple impression I had before this was that the British Empire was glorious and something to be proud of. History should not be forgotten, but just focussing on the nationalistic ‘glory of Empire’ just feels absurd with the full weight of history. Recently we had this very odd debate about whether Rule Brittania should be sung at the Last Night Of the Proms because there is to be no live audience this year, but a British jingoism somehow prevailed.
Yet, I don’t believe that Brexit was won in Wales by this British jingoism. The strongest support for Brexit came from the Valleys. I’m not from the Valleys, but I don’t think that many people there wave the Union Jack and sing Land of Hope and Glory every day before breakfast? However, many communities clearly feel a sense of decline, that they are neglected and are inspired by anything that offers hope. The question is why was Brexit seen as the answer and not Welsh Independence?
I think it has something to do with privelege. You have priveledge when you are a member of a group that isn’t discriminated against for the quality you have that makes you a member of that group. However priveledge isn’t that well understood. If you are white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, protestant, a monoglot English speaker, born in Wales then you have a lot of priveledge. However, there are lots of people with all this priveledge who don’t get any advantages for being in the majority demographic group, life is tough and getting harder. There is perhaps a sense of resentment towards those perceived as having greater priveledge. What are these greater priveledges? Having a university education and being able to speak Welsh. Who are perceived to have those two priveledges? the advocates of Welsh Independence.
It is perhaps simply this barrier, that to many people look around society for ‘people like us’ to find a group that will support them, as there is a perception that their tribe is under threat and anyone “foreign” is regarded with suspicion. In Britain, this is those that stress a British identity that look like them: are white, speak only English, eat meat, are heterosexual, essentially culturally conservative people. They perhaps see a rapidly changing world, and they don’t like it and see an appeal in Britishness that represents tradition and old-fashioned values. Essentially ears are closed to the notion of Welsh independence as a means to make things better as it perceived as being liberal, when really Welsh independence is neither conservative nor liberal, it is for everyone.
The odd thing is that the Brexiteers, the Farages and Rees-Moggs have even greater privilege by nature of being super wealthy, yet the Brexiteers succeeded in deflecting that criticism by offering hope of betterment if only people would support them, despite this call coming part of the corrupt elite themselves. Both Johnson and Trump have succeeded in convincing people that they stand for ordinary people, when looking at their personal histories it is clear that they are not and people somehow are blinded and can’t see this.
A major weakness of the UK electoral system is the First Past the Post constituency vote, electing one member of Parliament. The biggest party in Wales is the Labour party, people have voted Labour every election, but things never get any better, so people opted to vote for a radical change. What is the difference between the change of Brexit compared to Welsh Independence. It could just be ‘backing a winner’. There is a huge bonus of being in a constituency that voted for the governing party in Westminster, local services are less likely to be closed and more money is likely to be spent on infrastructure. There is an incentive to back the winners, especially if those winners are promising help for people with privilege who gain no advantage from being privileged.
The challenge for those of us convinced by the need for Welsh Independence is we want to offer hope for a better Wales for everyone who calls Wales home. We are constrained by wanting to include everyone in that we don’t have people who are an enemy. The only enemy is perhaps these complicated concepts of centralisation and lack of democratic accountability through sticking with a UK state that is failing it’s people.
I feel that perhaps the solution tackle this issue of identity head on, to make it the defining feature of the campaign. During Brexit, my social media was filled with people expressing sadness about losing their European identiy. During the Scottish Independence referendum, people were expressing sadness about losing Scotland as part of their British Identity. I think there is a need to separate associations with political states from nations of people. If Scotland gained independence, I would not lose my affection for Scotland. I’ve never considered Ireland to be a foreign country. I would never regard England as being a foreign land either. Brexit has not made me feel any less European. It is to break this association of nationality with nation-states that many people seem to have and instead make it about people we share bonds with. Once the association with the UK nation-state is broken we can get on with making all of Britain a better place.
It’s a real shame that there is no flag to represent all the people of Britain. The Union Flag has been adopted by the far-right and perhaps it’s only when individual athletes at the Olympic games wave the flag that we can unite as Britons in celebrating their hard work and success.
We just need to find a way to help people see beyond British nationalism as a solution, but as part of the problem. Growing up as I did, I did feel a sense of pride in Britain. I lost that sense of pride, but retain a pride for the people of Britain.
As former Welsh rugby star, Eddie Butler poignantly put it at the AUOB march in Merthyr: “The United Kingdom that made my parents proud to call themselves British no longer exists”. We should free ourselves of the shackles of the British Empire and instead embrace an identity as Britons and move away from political structures that are failing us.