You take the high road

Dafydd Glyn Jones discusses the implications for Wales of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum

This year of 2014 may come to be the most fateful in a millennium for the peoples of Britain. Certainly, one who believes that this is “no ordinary political moment”, and that it has to be prepared for, is David Melding, the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly and Conservative AM for South Wales Central. In 2009 the IWA published his book Will Britain Survive beyond 2020? It is now followed by The Reformed Union, published in digital form only and available here.

In his earlier book David Melding wrote as a Welsh Conservative, quite happy to call himself a Welsh nationalist, but believing also that Great Britain still has value, that steps are needed to safeguard it, and that the answer lies in its transformation from a unitary or incorporative state to a federal state.  The Scottish parliamentary election of May 2011 intervened, with the SNP sweeping to power with an overall majority. This has given new urgency to Mr Melding’s argument, and his new book is a last-minute appeal to unionists, that they should embrace the federal option before it is too late.

Alex Salmond and his party did, indeed, prove stronger than a system designed to exclude them from power. It was a remarkable feat, and yet not something that defied all the laws of nature.  “Who would have thought in 1999 that this was possible?” asks Mr Melding. Answer: the SNP.

Some have remarked that Mr Melding and myself have said similar things.  In a few scribblings down the years I may, indeed, have shown a weakness for the federal option. I saw in it something in tune with certain traditions of Welsh thought, articulated in literature. I saw it also as a means of acquiring powers which could be used constructively, to safeguard and to build up the institutions of Wales, chief of which was the Welsh language. “Naive assumptions”, you may say, and in your favour you can quote much of the experience of the last fifteen years.

I still believe, and all can disagree, that if federalism had been on offer in 1979, with a campaign properly conceived and organised, Yes would have won in Scotland and in Wales, even then. I also believe that if this were the choice offered to Scots this coming September, it would be Yes by a big majority.

But it is not the choice. The Scots are asked to say Yes or No to another option, the only one which the SNP, from its settled conviction, wants the electors to consider. That option is independence. It would be an easier climb towards some form of federalism. But evidently Alex, his party and government, are convinced that what awaited them at the end of that climb would not be the real reward.

By that, they mean two things. First is the wealth from ‘Scotland’s oil’, for long-term investment in funds for the benefit of the Scottish people, with the example of Norway an obvious inspiration. Secondly, is the expulsion of Trident from the Clyde.

This last aspect worries Mr Melding. And it is here, having travelled together a considerable distance, that he and I have to part company. Through its rejection of Trident, Mr Melding believes that the Scottish government is ‘encroaching’ on a ‘state matter’. The assumption is that ‘defence’ can only be a matter for a unitary or federal British government, or – to sum it up – for the English. The traditional nationalist, Scottish or Welsh (and I say ‘traditional’ because Mr Melding is also a nationalist), starts from a very different position, that ‘defence’ is pre-eminently an ‘own affair’.

To the counter-argument, that you cannot defend part of an island, the case of Ireland will suggest one answer; the Six Counties, we have to assume, are defended against someone or other by Trident, but the 26 counties are not. But there is a more fundamental answer, in what ‘defence’ is taken to mean. A British ‘Ministry of Defence’ is a recent thing in history. It grew after the Second World War as an appendage to the War Ministry, borrowing its name from ‘The Committee for Imperial Defence’. The name made the purpose clear – to defend the Empire, not the populace.

It is, indeed, Mr Melding who has noted a striking fact, that no European state successfully defended its own populace by joining in the Second World War. It can be maintained that, in the circumstances of the day, the only states which were able to protect their peoples were the neutrals – Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland. Of course, this will lead to the argument concerning the morality of neutralism in those same circumstances. Extending the argument one may say – and I wonder whether Mr Melding would agree – that the two defining features of the two 20th Century world conflicts were:

(a) peoples attacking peoples in what have been variously characterised as ‘total’ or ‘democratic’ wars; and

(b) states attacking their own subjects.

When I put it like this, Mr Melding and other Welsh Conservatives may not agree with me today; but I am confident that some of them are intelligent enough to agree in time. Scratch the traditional or full-blooded Welsh nationalist, today as in 1925, and you will find that he entertains two hopes. Functions such as Education, Health, Roads, Housing, Agriculture, Industry, Energy, Jobs have been devolved, demanding attention all the time. But there are two, more basic concerns? They are (a) to safeguard the Welsh language; and (b) to cast down imperial pride. The founders of modern Welsh nationalism came out of the First World War. They burnt a bombing-school.

For three centuries England has posed as ‘Britain’ to confront the world and attempt to control it. In her guise of ‘Britain’ she built an Empire – one of very short duration, as Mr Melding stresses. With Scotland independent there could still be a United Kingdom (or possibly at some point in the future, as Mr Melding again has suggested, ‘United Kingdoms’). But ‘Great Britain’ would revert to its original meaning, a geographical expression; we would no longer have the Britain into which the Great should be put back. (This, incidentally, has puzzled me. Was not the Great put back by Margaret Thatcher? Did it slip out again? It must have done, for a succession of politicians over the last quarter of a century have been promising to put it back once more.)

The change would be momentous, and it is doubtful whether any of us, English, Welsh or Scots, fully comprehend it. And what of the Ulster Unionists? Where would they go? Who would own Gibraltar? Or the Falklands? Did Britain take possession of these, or did England? Would there be a British Commonwealth, a British Broadcasting Corporation, a British Boxing Board of Control, the British Lions? I am sure there would be, because we British, to avoid trouble, are good at living with anomalies.

But the biggest question of all, when there is no longer a Britain to possess Trident, will England retain it as her own? Or would she accept that the game of a thousand years is at an end?

The possibility having come so close – close enough to frighten a good many people – it is only right that we ask again, in all conscience, why we would want it to happen? Could our motive be, for example, one of the following: spite towards the People Next Door, envy of the less successful for the more successful, or A servant’s  betrayal of his master, as in Othello, Cysgod y Cryman and A Man for All Seasons?

Let us accept that all great powers are bad. Small powers can also be fiendishly bad within their own spheres, as the Balkan conflicts reminded us with appalling clarity. Without her mask of ‘Britain’, England’s world rôle would be severely impaired. By the same token America would lose her ally – some would day ‘partner’, some would say ‘poodle’ – on this side of the Atlantic. For the world, what would be the consequence? Would we have struck at the less evil of the evil empires?

The Scots will no doubt consider these and related questions, and readers may want to comment. I revert to an entirely selfish motive. It’s high time we had some FUN. Fun is what we have not had in Wales since devolution, what with Labour’s banality and Plaid Cymru’s feebleness. A Scottish Yes this September would be tremendous fun.

With a No, we can expect a long period of dejection, recrimination and nothing much else. We can forget about ‘Devo-Max’. As for a ‘federal bargain’ by which the Scots would be rewarded for staying in the Union, I doubt whether anyone except Mr Melding has thought seriously about it. What could Scotland bargain for? She already has her legal system, educational system, established church, historic cities, rich literature, and her dialect plus another language of which she is at liberty to make more. She has whisky, porridge, heather, thistle, Burns Night, Highland Games, Hogmanay, the Loch Ness Monster, Rab C. Nesbitt, pipes, the kilt, sporran, the skian dubh  – many things to which the English have no objection, things they quite like and are sometimes happy to borrow for a bit of fun.

What more can the Scots ask for? We come back to the same two answers: control of their own wealth, and no Trident. In a federal state which is also multinational, there could, in principle, be a provision by which the ‘national governments’ (Mr Melding’s term) could veto the waging of war by the federal government, but no-one has so far suggested any such arrangement for Britain, and evidently the SNP does not think it possible.

Alea iacta est. It is not for us the Welsh to cry ‘hold on till we’re ready’! When a Welsh First Minister goes and urges the Scots to take the low road, they are ever more likely to take the oft-quoted alternative.

We must try to imagine what would be left if Scotland went. There would be a partly decentralised unitary state for which Mr Melding has suggested some amusing names – ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Greater England’. It could not be called ‘the United Kingdom’, because the United Kingdom would be a different entity, existing alongside, thus named and still substantive because of the union of Scottish and English crowns.

The new state could be correctly designated as ‘England and Northern Ireland’.  ‘Wales’ need not be included in the name, for without a repeal of the 1536 Act of Union, the Principality of Wales would remain forever incorporated in ‘this, our Realm of England’. When would the Welsh begin to realise the extreme abjectness of their position, and embark on that ‘backward march to independence’ which Harri Webb foresaw? Sooner? Later? Never? Again I hazard a guess: sooner. But to give substance to the realisation would demand a quality of leadership that we do not seem to have today.

Another question, as important as any. What kind of England would it be?  Some will shudder at the prospect of a madcap Tory government with Boris as Prime Minister and with the policies of the Daily Mail. It need not be so. Without the nuclear deterrent, the ‘world rôle’, the hankering after imperial pomp, Conservatism would be different. The Scottish author’s ‘Britannia’ would no longer rule any waves. England could at last venture forth in the entirely different spirit of Blake’s tremendous anthem, which should become the National Anthem.

With the unitary state gone and the federation not even at the planning stage, David Melding gives some consideration to an alternative, a confederation, by which is meant a loose, voluntary association for the furtherance of common interests. In his final paragraphs he warms to this possibility as being somewhat better than nothing. He reckons also that the nationalist parties may embrace it, implying a change from ‘nationalism’ to ‘neo-nationalism’, or ‘independence’ to ‘neo-independence’. We can say with some certainty that there is nothing neo- here. It is something which Gwynfor Evans discussed extensively and advocated fifty years ago.

For it to have any influence on this year’s decision, Mr Melding, myself and like-minded folk – if there were any – should have put forward our federal vision much earlier. But we are once more indebted to David Melding for an illuminating discussion.

Dafydd Glyn Jones is a former Reader in Welsh Language and Literature at the University of Wales, Bangor. He blogs at Glyn Adda

13 thoughts on “You take the high road

  1. “I still believe, and all can disagree, that if federalism had been on offer in 1979, with a campaign properly conceived and organised, Yes would have won in Scotland and in Wales, even then”

    hmm I’m struggling with the ‘Wales’ part of this I really am…. 35 years later (a third of which have been devolved) and the nationalist party in Wales is still polls less than a unionist one that is openly hated (Conservatives) and one that you really would struggle to find someone in the street who would openly admit to voting for. I think Dafydd Glyn Jones is deluding himself with his belief here!

    “A Scottish Yes this September would be tremendous fun.”
    and that is where I lose all respect for the author… in fact I didnt read any further. Just another self serving nationalist planning on creating a career on hanging off the coat tails of Scotland. Little interest in what the (93%) majority of the Welsh puplic want… just what can be sneaked in as a result of Scotland.

    I think there is something deeply wrong when a political figure is giddy with anticipation about the result of something happening hundreds of miles north. The answers to Wales’ future lay here in Wales with the wishes of it’s inhabitants…. all you’ve got to do is ask us! but of course the nationalists in Wales already know the answer… so rather than accept democracy, their attention is already focussed on what they can sneak in by default as a result of what happens in Scotland.

  2. We live in interesting times! The thought that upon Scotland’s departure, we Welsh may have to choose between being English (as per the 1536 enforced incorporation) or becoming a free Country,is entriguing.That may be just what we need to encourage us to make the right decision. One thing is for sure the imperial British state will not release its vice like grip on power easily. But even the diehard unionists are at long last grudgingly accepting that its only a matter of time before the final semblances of imperialism are consigned to the dustbin of history.

    Whilst I respect David Melding’s views I believe the time for discussions about a Federal solution has passed. The time for further powers “with strings” should also be consigned to the past.

  3. Interesting read.

    However, the Act of Union 1536 (or Incorporation as they were not named) and any other such Act were quietly repealed in 1982 by the Welsh Language Act. Mr Melding was at the meeting in Cardiff a number of years ago when Ron Jones pointed it out.

    Also if Scotland goes (which they should with any sense at all) the English state can call the rUK anything at all, including the UK. They’ll probably wait for a fashionable length of time before manufacturing an excuse to send the Black and Tans in to recover Scotland.

    Do not be conned that Unionism is not Nationalism. It is Nationalism in its most repugnant form. Its values are Subjugation, Subordination and Uniformity.

    All politics is Nationalist. But not all Nationalisms seek to incorporate and destroy their neibours.

    The hypocrisy of David Cameron is to argue that England and Scotland are integrated so Scotland is no longer a nation while at the same time England is a nation and a superior one at that.

    England is just as “integrated” with the rest of Europe but a Union by force is apparently preferable to a Union of equality and co-operation to Unionists.

  4. Dafydd offers us a lot to think about.

    ‘Banality’ ~ I can think of far more pertinent and stronger adjective for that party. ‘Feebleness’ ~ about sums it up.

    I can’t wait for a YES from Scotland. Some of my reasons are touched on in the article, though there are several others.

    Despite my all out support for Scottish independence, I think Wales will be made to suffer for it by Westminster, as they won’t be able to take it out on the Scots for kicking them in the crotch. Somebody will have to pay ~ and Wales will be the whipping boy. There won’t be anyone else, and it won’t simply be Westminster dolling it out, some of our neighbours across the border will pitch in all too readily, with the help of an Anglo-centric media and press.

    Federalism~confederalism: They’re both pie in the sky, never a possibility given a sovereign parliament controlled by an elite, which has no-one in it from Wales, or who gives a fig about Wales. It’s independence or nothing, tough though it will be to begin with, it’s our only hope.

    No more feebleness, please. Even the worm will turn. Better sooner than later. Now.

  5. I generally agree. If Scotland votes ‘No’ then it will be well and truly ‘done over’ by Westminster. But whichever way she votes, the whole exercise has shown that devolution, intended as a ploy to tie the Nats in knots, has backfired. It will therefore be quietly and no doubt stealthily dismantled. In Scotland if there’s a ‘No’, but in Wales whichever way your friends in the North happen to vote. Wake up Wales, if you leave it to the Unionist parties you’ll get it in the neck whatever.

  6. What is fascinating is that the very fact of holding a referendum in Scotland has also prompted a nascent sense of national sentiment in England which is now playing an increasingly important role in the whole debate (part of the SNP’s masterplan all along in my opinion). It’s a fascinating amalgam of imperial hubris on the one hand (how dare those pesky Scots even think about such an idea?) and a gnawing sense of anxiety about their own identity and place in the world on the other hand. This flailing and incoherent response, conveyed by means of a myopic metropolitan media, is currently helping to push the YES vote closer and closer to that 50% threshold.

    UKIP are now tapping into these sentiments, being in effect a prototype for a new Independence party for England, and their likely success in the May European Elections will only strengthen their hand. Following a YES vote in September, it is not too outlandish a notion to think that UKIP will then formally re-invent themselves as that new Independence Party for England, which could well share power after the Westminster Elections of 2015.

    Where does that leave Wales? Well, a successful and workable federation between two countries in a situation where one country has 93% of the remaining population, with the other country having 7% of the remaining population is surely a complete non-starter.

    But, an even stronger factor will be England’s re-discovery of itself, as alluded to above. Independence from England’s burdens ( i.e Wales and N.I) will be the meme of the next few years in Westminster. Welsh Labour’s squeals about being “better with England”, will be given very short shrift in this situation. Wales will be given its independence as a result of England’s new found confidence, and we should start to prepare for that eventuality.

  7. On the question of Scottish independence both the largest UK parties are agreed. The Tory party are the Conservative and Unionist Party – the clue is in the name, they are Unionists. The Labour party fear the loss of their Scottish MPs [ A clear majority in Scotland despite the SNP’s control of the Scottish Government] would mean a Tory Government [in control or in coalition] in Westminster FOREVER. Neither for quite different reasons want an independent Scotland. The Lib Dems are conspicuously quiet about this and frankly irrelevant.

    If Scotland does become independent then Scottish Labour could become the majority party in Scotland as the SNP’s raison d’être will have all but vanished. In Wales the prospect of a Tory ruled Westminster forever will most certainly boost the desire for independence, in my opinion, rapidly. A referendum of our own within 15 years?

  8. Nationalism is a facet of the 19th century. It has no role in the 21st century as our European cousins adequately demonstrate on a daily basis.

    Scotland has a proud history of education and as a consequence will not vote for separation. Wales, on the other hand, has no real history and certainly no history of education.

    Draw your own conclusions.

  9. I agree Yvonne. Problem is we are all subject to the all embracing, daily dosage of British Nationalism that permeates our existence within the UK. The choice, essentially, is between Welsh (or Scottish) Nationalism or the varieties of British Nationalism propagated by the Conservative, Labour, UKIP and BNP parties.

  10. Some would argue that aggressive British nationalism did its best to obliterate Welsh history but thankfully that sustained assault has failed. The road to freedom is a human trait not confined by time as we have seen in the 20th century with the implosion of the exploitative British and Soviet empires. One thing is for sure even if Scotland votes no in the coming referendum it will merely be a postponement of their independence particularly if Westminster tries to row back on devolution.

    The unionists had the opportunity to head off the the move towards independence by putting forward some form of Federal solution, but they bottled out. The best the unionists can hope for is to use scare tactics to try and frustrate the unravelling of the British state. I think they best they will achieve is to postpone rather than stop a process which has shown itself to have a life of its own!

  11. Yvonne should read more history. 19C nationalism was of the ethnic variety. It has nothing to do with the people who live in Scotland & Wales (whatever their ethnicities) desiring self-determination, in common with the other 200 or so sovereign peoples of the world. This is especially true considering the disastrous government nearly the entire UK, with the exception of London & its environs, has suffered in recent decades. Independence is Wales’ is only hope for a better future.

  12. Yvonne wrote ”Wales, on the other hand, has no real history and certainly no history of education”.

    What an absurd comment. I really suggust you read up, were you to do that you would not make such downright offensive and ignorant comments. How anyone can say Wales has no ‘real’ history and genuinly believe it is beyond me.

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