“The Power of Diaspora – A Positive Force in a Post Brexit Britain.” Discuss.

Rachel Minto reflects on her involvement in a panel discussion at the Hay Festival about the role of the Welsh diaspora post-Brexit

The business woman from Cwmbran, working for a multinational company in the US.  The young man from Rhyl, co-managing a charity in Ghana. The couple from Newtown running a company in Spain.  These are the Welsh diaspora. They are scattered across the globe but they hold Wales in their hearts; and they have the potential to put the warmth of sentiment and emotion into even the coldest of financial transactions and economic investments, to better the fortunes of the homeland.  


But how?  Why are we talking about it now?  And is it as straightforward as all that?


What do we mean by ‘the power of diaspora’?


Across the world, 258 million people live outside the country of their birth.  Despite geographical separation, for many, the home ties still bind.  Of course, place of birth doesn’t capture the whole story. These ties can transcend generations following immigration, with children and grandchildren feeling an attachment to a land in which they may have never actually stepped foot; and with others adopting somewhere as home.  


In some countries, remittances from family and friends overseas are a key source of income.  Indeed, they lift millions out of poverty each year.  Beyond these financial offerings, the diaspora is often well placed to make significant economic and societal contributions.  Of course, some of this diasporic activity can (and does) happen on a more ad hoc basis; however, to maximise its potential, links with the diaspora can be maintained: connecting them with each other and with home within some sort of international network, so that communication and exchange is easy.  


Through the power of the diaspora, an emotional attachment to home may secure a business investment in Wales that defies the cost-benefit calculations on the balance sheet.  Although large-scale investments by wealthy Welsh captains of industry will be few and far between, they may have the power to change the economic fortunes of a community or an industry.  On a more rolling basis, the diaspora could serve as a network for sharing local knowledge and market intelligence with Welsh entrepreneurs thinking of branching out overseas. Also, it is within such international networks that new creative partnerships and collaborative ventures can be launched.  


Academic scholarship on networks has emphasised the importance of a shared ‘common cause’ as a driver for collaboration.  This is certainly a key characteristic of a diaspora network, as it captures individuals emotionally, at an almost visceral level, and is about identity, belonging and a (perhaps romanticised view of) ‘home’.  Internationally, states (such as Ireland), nations (such as Scotland), cities and even universities (perhaps the ultimate champions) have got wise to this, and have invested in strengthening the ‘secret weapon’ that is their diaspora.


Why are we talking about it now?


We could be having this conversation at any point.  But if there were ever an apposite moment, it is now, with Brexit looming large.  The research tells us that Wales is set to be hit financially and economically, particularly if a version of ‘hard Brexit’ wins the day.  The further Wales is from the Single Market and Custom Union, the harder the economic hit will be, given its particular relationship with the European bloc for both trade and investment.  In the midst of this economic hit, Wales will have to revisit its international profile, which once sat comfortably under the banner of ‘European nation’. Outside the EU, how Wales’ European profiling fits within the future ‘Wales in the World’ and ‘Global Britain’ will surely require attention.


Whether one voted Leave or Remain – or didn’t (or even couldn’t) vote at all – it is vital to understand the economic and political context for Wales post-Brexit, and to think imaginatively about the future.


This is where the diaspora come in.


Is it as easy as all that?


Networking the Welsh diaspora won’t be the silver bullet to offset Wales’ economic woes post-Brexit.  Not least because its potential cannot be realised in a vacuum, as it speaks to various areas of public policy; such as economic development, business support and international strategy.  As a nation with devolved powers in certain policy areas (and no powers in others), Wales doesn’t have the full range of legal and policy mechanisms at its disposal.


That said, there is much within the Welsh Government’s gift.  Despite having no legal power over Foreign Policy, Wales has actively launched itself upon the international stage, in a bid to promote trade and investment, as well as to attract tourists and students to Wales. The Welsh Government has used the ‘softer’ mechanisms available to it: including, signing (and renewing) international Memorandums of Understanding (recently with Brittany and the Basque Country); and expanding its network of international officesEngagement with the Welsh diaspora could perhaps be a useful complement.


Certainly, this is an area where the Welsh Government could invest; and a level of government support and endorsement would surely by welcomed by advocates of engaging the diaspora.  That said, too much government involvement risks stifling the power and creative potential of such a network, particularly if it were used as an instrument of economic policy or international strategy.  


It is important that we don’t ignore the potentially messy side of all this.  As with any organisation, power, politics and governance matter. Who is the ultimate guardian of the diaspora network?  Who is included and who is excluded, and what are the mechanisms behind this? Also, does the international profile that is the diaspora network reflect the national profile in terms of, for example, geography and gender?  


Without thoughtful and transparent stewardship, a diaspora network runs the risk of being hijacked and used as a vehicle to promote particular political or business interests, or may unwittingly evolve into an old boys club writ large which doesn’t reflect the whole of either the home nation or the international diaspora.


Notwithstanding these caveats, and acknowledging the significant economic and social potential, there is something intuitively appealing about drawing on a natural, human resource that will be unique to each territory.  


While the game may be economic, it is bound up with emotion and sentiment… and an aching feeling in the pit of your stomach that there’s no place quite like home.



Note from the author: This blogpost was written following my participation in a panel discussion at the Hay Festival about the role of the Welsh diaspora post-Brexit (31 May 2018), in partnership within the organisation Global Welsh (https://globalwelsh.com/).  Global Welsh has been established to build an international network of Welsh diaspora. I was invited to contribute my research on the EU, Brexit and Wales. This blogpost gathers some of the key themes addressed in the panel and my reflections on them.



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Dr Rachel Minto is a Research Associate at Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University and tweets from @RA_Minto

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