Unionism and Nationalism in Welsh Political Life

David Melding shares an extract from his essay to mark the 20th Anniversary of Devolution to Wales

It is possible to view unionism and nationalism as closely related political phenomena. They are not political antonyms and each contain seeds of the other. Welsh unionism has exhibited a deeply patriotic character which stresses the importance of nations in union,  while nationalism in Wales and Scotland has at times at least been nuanced in its regard to Britishness. And both ideologies face a similar challenge in the face of Brexit. Unionists must come to terms with European unionism even if the UK’s secession is stable and successful. The Celtic neo-nationalism that has emerged since the 1980s – having accommodated European unionism – still has to grapple with unionism in Britain.


Another challenge that neither unionism nor nationalism can avoid is how to deal with the concept of sovereignty. The brilliant Brexit slogan Take back control captured the heart of much of the Conservative Party and largely eviscerated its ‘unionist’ suffix. How could supposedly unionist Conservatives play fast and loose  with Scotland having previously emphasised that independence should be rejected so that Scotland could remain in the EU? The abrupt change of direction can be seen as a turn to a sovereigntist position. Once more, it was emphasised, Parliament must uphold its full sovereign dignity. It was almost as if the pre-Union Westminster Parliament was reasserting itself in a commitment to English nationalism.


Many leading Celtic nationalists slip back easily to a sovereigntist position when rejecting British political institutions. The iron logic of pure nationalism is still retained by a small wing of the SNP who reject the institutions of the EU. Before the mid 1980s, of course, both Plaid Cymru and the SNP rejected EEC membership because of the loss of sovereignty it entailed.


Brexit has brought English nationalism to the stage. Many predicted 20 years ago that a consequence of Celtic devolution would be a rise in English national identity. No doubt devolution has played its part in the growth of English nationalism, but it is the EU that has had the greater influence – clearly seen in UKIP and now the Brexit party. There is a close comparison to be drawn between Scotland’s plight in the 1700s and England-cum-Britain’s today. Just as Scotland had to confront a rapidly changing and little controlled economic-political situation in the early 18th century, so too has Britain been severely buffeted by forces that sweep over its state-space and undermine the practical exercise of notional sovereignty.


Will Scotland and Wales loosen the political bonds of Britishness? Could they emulate Australia and New Zealand and forge a political independence while holding on to the deeper sense of British heritage? And would this lead to Wales and Scotland turning away from London and looking towards Brussels rather like Australia and New Zealand have turned towards Asia? Is the Union a compromise or a cause, or indeed a bit of both? To unionists it is more often cause and to acquiescing nationalists a compromise now that it contains a high level of political autonomy for its member nations. But both interpretations agree that it is not absolute and self-sustaining. The search for ever closer union marks it a glorious cause for pure unionists. Scottish nationalists and some constitutional historians see the Union as foremost an event, a treaty in legal terms, a compromise politically, and at most a partnership. Above all it is a bargain whether cause or compromise, the common ancestor of federal unions in the Anglosphere.


Identity lies at the heart of both unionism and nationalism in Wales and elsewhere. There is a sense that as political attachments become less instinctive people increasingly turn to identity. The essence of identity is so elusive that one might think it a numinous political phenomenon. But this does not silence the debate about its authenticity, that goes on and on but rarely with much resolution. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah warns us against embarking on the search for essentialism, for “identity is revealed as an activity, not a thing. And it’s the nature of activities to bring change”. Yet essentialism has marked modern Welsh thought: ‘When Was Wales?’ (Gwyn Alf Williams), ‘Wales! Wales?’ (Dai Smith) and most recently ‘Why Wales Never Was’ (Simon Brooks). What these works really grapple with is the truth that Wales is always in the making. The hesitant see mutability as loss rather than creative space to compose a strong and unifying identity. Unionism and nationalism are the dominant voices in this unending debate and tend to a purity that at times rejects the reality of their compatibility in the bargain that is democratic activity.


Of course each generation since the Reformation has been required to rigorously sift the past and question tradition, and this process was further aggravated by the Enlightenment and in our own times by epochal technological change. Without these forces humanity’s general desire for greater security and civility would have been frustrated. We are not collapsing into nihilism. However, as the American thinker John Lukacs has observed, it is doubtful whether democracy can flourish without a good measure of authority, where authority is defined as the ability to speak and guide clearly. With Burkean prescience he warned in 2005 that “A desire for authority will not vanish among men and women; but it may take unexpected and perhaps even shocking new forms”. President Trump is seen by many as the fruit of such confusion. Those who possess a confident sense of identity are more likely to construct the bonds needed to keep a political association together. Those that don’t are tempted to make the mythical nation or union great again.


If the driving force of nationalism becomes a personal commitment to a political identity imagined rather than emanating from tradition and authority, it is likely to experience similar challenges to those that faced religious reformers in the 16th century. Reform begets further reform because there is never an acknowledged authority that can deem arrival at the promised land. There will be a tendency for identity politics to go micro as something analogous to nations emerge as communities of interest – city states of the digital world. Not geographical cities, but cities of like minds sharing a dominant identity: network-nations. Some thinkers see the emergence of the new nomads – people not tied to one geographic entity or citizenship. These new city states will nest in traditional states and nations as globalisation on the one hand and the sovereignty of self on the other take greater hold during the 21st century. Multi-national states, nation states and stateless nations face broadly similar existential questions. With the pillars of the British state removed, the idea of Wales is not simply left intact or made somehow more coherent. The cultural, economic and social affinities between Cardiff (voted more heavily for Remain than London) and Ebbw Vale (among the heaviest Leave votes in the UK) and Caernarfon (the capital of Welsh Wales) are already fainter than supposed and may never provide the sinews for a nationalism of the traditional kind.


Brexit poses a profound challenge to unionism. To argue that Wales and Scotland best flourish in the Union of the United Kingdom but Britain stood diminished in the European Union is awkward and inevitably raises questions of inconsistency. Celtic nationalism can now attempt to outflank British unionism by committing itself to the spirit of greater unity inherent in the EU. Unionism, ironically, risks losing control of its destiny because the expansive vision essential to its propagation can no longer be found in membership of the EU. Nationalists in Wales and Scotland started to craft a neo-nationalism in the 1980s which sought to create Welsh and Scottish Europeans committed to both national independence and European unity. Losing control of the high rhetoric of European unionism might prove costly to those committed to the constitutional integrity of the UK as the charge of separatism can hardly now stick to Celtic nationalists. And the challenges facing British unionism will not be merely rhetorical. The governance arrangements that once operated at the European level will now require an analogous UK system that allows the devolved governments and Whitehall to negotiate common policies. Should the UK government apply a heavy hand in the new inter-governmental arrangements, then the coherence of British unionism would be further weakened. In effect England would have separated itself from the shared governance that is the heart of unionism.


Unionism and nationalism have been strongly challenged by devolution and the quest for European unity. Unionists have been divided on the European question with some effectively believing instead in English or British nationalism and a minority of these even hoping the EU might collapse once a radical Brexit demonstrates the absurdity of unionism in Europe. Nationalists have largely accommodated European unionism, even turning it into a resource for greater domestic autonomy, but have struggled to escape the gravitational pull of the UK with its own single market and bonds of social unity. The National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament have demonstrated the practical reality of the bargain that is continuously being struck between unionism and nationalism. The devolved institutions point to the viability of independence. This is most directly so in Scotland; but also in Wales, as indicated by a string of successful constitutional and fiscal commissions and some insightful legislation. But the undoubted success of devolution (it could after all have been as chaotic as our current Brexit crisis) is also a reminder that the Union is capable of adaptation and even innovation. Neither vision has yet won out in the first 20 years of devolution, although the desire for independence has grown in Scotland. It is also true that independence was rejected in Scotland and remains at most a nascent force in Wales. The economic costs of independence so far have proven a strong deterrent to separation while culture and geography have created strong bonds of affection in a resilient social union. Nevertheless the Union is not yet reformed and Brexit has created different versions of unionism. We live in a political society where some hold no allegiance to any unionism (Brexit ultras and a few old fashioned Celtic nationalists) others hold both unionist identities (unionist Remainers) and the rest only one unionism (neo-nationalists in Scotland and Wales, some Brexiteers).


The path to European secession was a narrow one. It has been taken because a minority of Conservative politicians became increasingly Eurosceptic in the 1990s. Other Conservative politicians, most notably David Cameron, sought to sup in moderation from this cup by quitting the European People’s Party and promising a referendum on the EU. The ultras were always in control of the well of Eurosceptism. As ultras have done throughout history, Eurosceptics lowered the perception of risk in autarky or increased the fear and loathing of the prevailing settlement, sometimes to devastating effect they did both. David Cameron fought such a listless campaign to remain in the EU largely because he found the idea of Brexit so patently absurd. After all, is the EU today not in large part the car that Mrs Thatcher built after she jump-started European integration with the Single Market? Like too many Conservatives Cameron’s occasional Eurosceptism was all about political deflection and parody rather than principle. But there was always a stronger group of actual believers and they saw the Party as the party of the nation – sometimes the English nation but always the sovereign parliamentary nation. In many ways the deeper tragedy here is not that they have forced Britain out of Europe (a future generation could reverse this, as the Brexiteers reversed the 1975 outcome) but that they have destroyed many of the foundations of unionism. Most paradoxically, a higher European unionist rhetoric is now available to nationalists in Wales and Scotland while a Brexit Britain struggles to reform the constitutional structures of the UK under the glare of English nationalism.


The UK is a complicated political association with the heavy history of a recently lapsed hegemonic power. Democracy and a longer tradition of constitutionalism allowed Britain a mostly dignified departure from Empire, masked also by the memory of moral triumph in the Second World War. The Union saw off the ultras of the League of Empire Loyalists but somehow failed to repudiate far less silence the Eurosceptics who sought to deny Britain rejuvenation in Europe. It is little wonder that many observers are at a loss to explain this failure other than by attributing it to the force of hitherto submerged English nationalism. Britain might not survive long past 2020 but it is as well to remember that its demise has been repeatedly predicted. Withdrawal from the UK could be as difficult and tawdry for Scotland and Wales as the UK’s withdrawal has been from the EU. What is certain is that unionism and nationalism will always have to strike some bargain to manage and utilise the forces created by the geography, culture and economic needs of the British Isles. Whether that now requires a formal, political union is open to question. For if Brexiteers can be European without remaining in the EU, then neo-nationalists can acknowledge Britishness without remaining in the UK. It is appropriate to end with an 18th century reference generated by the final controversy that brought Scotland and England to the altar of union. Historical unionism, termed ‘banal’ by the constitutional historian Colin Kidd because of its long and instinctive acceptance, is now as dead as Queen Anne. Only a bold vision that combines unionist and nationalist principles in a new and federal Act of Union could stand as a coherent alternative to the confederation of independent states that might be fast approaching.


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David Melding AM is Welsh Conservative Party Assembly Member for South Wales Central

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