Wales and the Disunited Kingdom. Part 1.

Wales and the Disunited Kingdom.

Part 1.

Gordon Brown’s presence assisting the Welsh Government on “recovery work in response to COVID 19” has aroused some suspicion in Wales. The former Prime Minister arrives when the bonds of the union across the UK are at breaking point. Remembering his role in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum begs the question whether this formidable defender of the Union is once again on manoeuvres? Are there signs that the growing Welsh independence movement is becoming irresistible or has the stirrings of an Anti-Assembly backlash begun. Is there a recognized alternative to secession or is the Break-up of Britain inevitable? 

To tackle these questions, the views of another Scot are central. For if Gordon Brown is a principal figure in this debate so is Tom Nairn, Scotland’s preeminent political thinker. Both have offered contrasting visions of the union’s future, recognising the centrality of Wales and Scotland in this drama. 

The Bard of Britishness.

In 2006 the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) published a short book entitled “Gordon Brown – The Bard of Britishness”. It was a fierce polemic with Tom Nairn charting Brown’s passage from one of Scotland’s dissident spirits to the “Jeeves of Great Britain’s last days”. The IWA understandably sought to douse the flames, publishing critiques from various well-known figures in Wales including Leighton Andrews and David Melding. 

Tom Nairn was a veteran of the New Left, famous for his controversial study “The Breakup of Britain” (1977). It predicted a twilight for the British state generated by the radical nationalisms of Scotland and Wales. But in 2006, at the tail end of a New Labour era, Nairn’s IWA commentary seemed like a bitter blast from another age. In a rejoinder, Leighton Andrews distilled the experience of reading Nairn as “eating lettuce doused in vinegar: void of nutritional value and indigestible, at the end all that remains is the acid”. 

Nairn’s assault centred on Gordon Brown’s reimagining of Britishness in the 21st century. Brown was about to become Prime Minister and setting out his “big idea”. In a series of speeches, he argued that Britain is a providential nation with a golden thread of liberty stretching back to the Magna Carta. A vision of Britain as the glorious whole of the sum of the parts, “a multinational state united not so much by race or ethnicity but by shared values that have shaped shared institutions”. He went further, lionizing “the monarchy and the national anthem to the Church of England, the BBC and our sports teams”. 

Predictably playing with fire on the contested nature of Britishness foundered. Brown’s 2009 slogan “British jobs for British workers” had associations with the far-right and was later used by Brexiteers. The Conservative David Melding hit the mark observing that “Brown’s real failure was focusing solely on reinventing Britishness while ignoring the need to renovate the out of date British state”. 

Later Brown’s thunderous campaign in 2014 to maintain Scotland’s place in the UK addressed this. As the architect of “The Vow”, a devo max prospectus, he offered a classic “third way”. Brown won a pyrrhic victory, but the independence war continued to rage with the iron grip of the SNP on Scottish politics consolidated. Today there is a possibility that the legal collision between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond could detonate. But for now, opinion polls indicate a big SNP victory in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. If so the pressure for #indyref2 could prove irresistible. 

On a wider level in Ireland, Sinn Fein is on the rise effectively breaking the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail electoral duopoly in 2020. In the north, the Unionist population is in decline. By 2021 census figures could show a Catholic nationalist majority. Mentions of a border boll are now commonplace. In Wales, the Senedd recently debated independence for the first time, albeit a motion that was defeated. More fundamental is the rise of the Yes Cymru movement which is attracting genuine popular support and bringing Welsh independence to the forefront of political discourse. Within Welsh Labour, both First Minister Mark Drakeford and Jeremy Miles the Counsel General have recently warned of the breakup of the union over the issue of the UK internal market post-Brexit. Current constitutional arrangements appear to be on a knife-edge.

The reality is that we live in Tom Nairn’s Disunited Kingdom. 

The Peculiarities of the English?

Nairn’s writings challenge Brown’s beatification of Britishness. In his view, the political ecosystem of the UK is heading towards a constitutional reckoning between Westminster and its composite nation-states. 

In the “The Break-Up of Britain”, he set out an analysis showing the unsustainability of the United Kingdom and its probable fragmentation into component nation-states. At the most basic level, Nairn argued that while Britain led the way in industrialisation it did not complete a fully-fledged political revolution. This modernising failure led to the creation of a peculiarly English state underpinned by stunted democratic norms. It is one that celebrates its cultural conservatism fortified by the vagaries of an unwritten constitution. At its visible centre are a hereditary monarchy, an unelected House of Lords and the persistence of a landowning aristocracy. Nairn argued that these “hopelessly decaying institutions of a lost imperialist state” will be the electrifying root cause of its disintegration. 

Britain’s relative economic decline was also set in this context. The reason the British economy does not work is that British institutions are in terminal decay, not vice versa. This point was recently echoed by Michael Gove in his Ditchley Lecture. Using a famous quote by Antonio Gramsci he highlighted the “morbid symptoms” and “insulation” of the British way of governance. This where “any departure from the status quo must be assumed to be more downside than upside”. Nairn’s radicalism goes well beyond just the machinery of government which is the preoccupation of the Minister of the Cabinet Office. In his view, the whole British state or “Ukania” as he later labelled it, will be profoundly challenged, not as a result of a joint Gove and Cummings data-driven assault on the “blob”, but because of the growth of autonomous civic nationalism.

Nairn also points an accusatory finger of blame at the role of the Labour party arguing that it is an equal force for continuity and tradition as the Conservatives. “The 1945 moment” and welfare nationalism above all else placed Labour as the integrative defenders of the Westminster state. Based on trade union domination and parliamentary reformism it developed into the ideology of Labourism. At its heart the task of seeking electoral majorities and viewing the Westminster state uncritically as a vehicle for delivering progressive change. 

Jump to the years of New Labour and the establishment of devolution in 1999 when Tony Blair openly admitted that he saw devolution as more of an event than a process. Nairn his article in “Ukania Under Blair” discerned this. He observed that following the constitutional reforms the UK’s “mainframe itself has remained sacrosanct. Behind a firework-display of fizzling rhetoric about change and modernization, it has simply been carried forward, and trusted to go on evolving”. In essence, it was constructed as a political holding operation. Others were less subtle with the Labour MP George Robertson brutally stating: “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”. 

Devolution Accelerates and Stalls?

The view of devolution as an integrative measure to manage territorial politics across the UK was confirmed as from 1999 the devolution project in Wales proceeded cautiously. The results of the 2011 primary law-making powers referendum consolidated this. It achieved the deepening of powers in areas of existing “competence”. The word “independence” was barely uttered throughout the campaign. As Richard Wyn Jones writing in the Guardian noted: “Welsh political institutions are seen as providing a degree of protection against the depredations of Westminster rather than an embodiment of an alternative politics”. Nonetheless, even within these limitations, the hostile Welsh unionist strain of Labour hold habitual fears that the independence genie is out of the bottle. Some like Stephen Kinnock has warned that tensions between nations could lead to a break-up of the United Kingdom and proposes a vague concept of “patriotic realism” as a counter. 

As much as the supporters of the “evolving thesis” would protest, this is a moot point. The struggle to delineate a coherent devolution settlement has seen devolved bodies mostly playing ball with Westminster over the past 20 years. This has led to the quaint idea of a “UK family” characterized by the occasional row but that defaults to domestic bliss. This theory has again been blown up by the publication of the Internal Market Bill which potentially removes powers from the devolved administrations. Indeed, the realpolitik dictates that with a muddled asymmetric devolved settlement there is bound to be a fall out within the UK state at some point. As Nairn argues in his book “After Britain” the “dissolution of the old multinational state is indeed underway…there are simply different formulae being debated over the outcome”. 

The Rise of Populism and Brexit.

Nowhere are these tensions more pronounced than within England. In a 2019 YouGov poll, Conservative party members were asked whether they would rather stop Brexit if it led to Scotland and Ireland breaking away from the UK. Respectively 63% and 59% were willing to pay for Brexit with the breakup of the United Kingdom. Brexit has become the party’s base ideology. The fusing of anti-European Union sentiment and patriotic fervour has been a powerful pole of attraction. It also led to the rise of a compensatory English nationalism in the populism of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and later the Brexit Party.

Populism also struck a rich seam in Wales much to the chagrin of progressive opinion in Cardiff Bay. Even prior to the Brexit referendum, Wales became a base for UKIP in the 2016 Assembly elections. When the June referendum votes were counted 17 out of 22 of Wales’ council areas (many Labour-supporting) voted for Brexit. The reasons for this are subject to intense debate. But at the forefront is the persistence of poverty, austerity, and a profound sense of political disenchantment. Populism successfully mobilized the socially conservative and “left behind”. Its focus was the failures of neo-liberalism channelled through anti-elite hostility and anti-immigration rhetoric. However ill-defined Brexit and national sovereignty became the “answer” for a multiplicity of grievances. Ultimately it signalled a rightward shift amongst the Welsh electorate exploited by the conservative populism of Boris Johnson with its emphasis on hyper-unionism. 

The 2019 general election saw the Conservatives win six key seats from Labour with an impressive performance across North Wales. This has led to more strident Johnsonian rhetoric with senior Welsh Conservatives casting Welsh Labour and Plaid as the devolved “metropolitan elite”. The question over time is whether or not Welsh Conservatives might pick up the mantle of Devo-scepticism? This to counter the rise of the independence movement on the left and not to be outflanked to the right by the “Abolish the Welsh Assembly” party. The latter largely draws on current and former members of UKIP and the Brexit party to provide its base. Describing this as a movement is problematic since it is far less well organized and lacking the significant high profile of Yes Cymru. But this is not to dismiss it. It appears set on moving into Taxpayers Alliance territory, highlighting Welsh Government “wasting public money” and attacking the culture of ‘the Cardiff Bay Bubble”. As an emotive campaigning strategy, it could cut through in some areas. Whether it is sufficient to galvanize Welsh voters, particularly those who traditionally do not vote in Senedd elections, is another matter. 

Despite fulsome support for the devolution settlement to date, Welsh conservatism appears to be developing a much harder edge. It seems that a small minority of conservative members in Wales also feel the lure of the Abolish the Assembly party as previously with UKIP and the Brexit Party. Some openly protest that every step in the process of devolution opens the door to the next. If this sentiment deepens to outright hostility and becomes mainstream the question arises whether the contours of a future “culture war” in Wales are emerging. 

What is clear is that Brexit has disrupted old Labour allegiances and supercharged distrust in the political class (in Scotland alternatively it has galvanized civic nationalism). In Cardiff Bay, the Welsh pro-Brexit vote witnessed the Labour government gingerly navigating to a position which accepts Brexit but firmly rejects a no-deal. However, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown Brexit has taken a back seat. The strains on the union from the impact of COVID 19 has been explosive. 

COVID 19, Wales and Nationality.

Despite the initial “four nations” strategy to deal with the pandemic the approach across the UK has diverged. While not without significant issues, the handling of the crisis by the devolved institutions has been one of proficiency compared to Boris Johnson’s government confused response. The Cummings affair exacerbated this creating sustained fury amongst many voters. The subsequent rises in the approval ratings of Mark Drakeford and especially Nicola Sturgeon are significant. Both have handled the crisis with humility and sincerity.

But what does this mean for the tensions highlighted above in Wales and for Plaid as the electoral engine of civic nationalism? Tom Nairn hoped in the “Break up of Britain” that “Welsh nationalism can arrive at a viable political integration of its contending elements…if the ideal “cultural” nation can be reconciled with the industrial one”. This has not been achieved to date. 

Plaid’s inability to consolidate its electoral incursions in the South Wales valleys are partly located in the perception of it as the party of the Welsh-speaking heartlands. Simon Brooks in “Why Wales Never Was” argues that the region has “become the most British part of Britain”, where identity merges into the binary catch-all of Welsh and British. The largely ignored Welsh strain of pan-British nationalism is equally as significant as its separatist counterpart. This duality can embrace authentic Welsh passion for rugby, sport and community pride but encompass overt Britishness when it comes to the patriotic symbolism of the UK. In this setting, the cultural institutions of Welsh language speaking communities can be viewed with suspicion and sometimes resentment (and this can cut both ways). Gwyn Alf Williams once observed that this creates a tension that casts “a shadow line that runs across the face of Wales”. While this has eased in recent years it still endures. 

In 1999 Plaid Cymru outpolled the SNP, but the latter’s electoral lift-off in 2007 was not replicated in Wales. Whereas the SNP proudly proclaimed itself as an independence party, Plaid was more circumspect. This culminated in what Laura McAllister has described as the “the never ever” controversy when the Plaid leader, Dafydd Wigley openly denied any party commitment to independence. To be fair, this reflected electoral pragmatism arising from the traditional hostility of the Welsh electorate to independence. 

Plaid’s existential problem goes beyond this. For defining itself against the fearsome electoral hegemony of Welsh Labour has been its Achilles heel. Both parties combine all the elements of ‘classic’ left social democratic politics. But Labour has been able to delegitimise Plaid as reckless ‘nats’ determined to cast aside the current “best of both world’s” strategy. What could be better than a soft nationalist Welsh Labour government swimming in the “clear red water” of progressive universalism? At the same time benefiting from the broad financial shoulders of a Labour Government at Westminster? 

Cue the result of the 2019 General Election and Labour’s worst electoral result since 1935. The huge majority for Boris Johnson built on former “Red Wall” seats destroyed Labour’s Westminster strategy. It was exacerbated by the party’s inexplicable refusal to democratize the petrified first past the post electoral system when in power. To win against the conservatives in four years’ time Labour must gain 124 seats to achieve an overall ‘majority of one’. This on a massive swing of 10.52%. Ironically it is the implosion of the Scottish Labour bulwark that has intensified this to a magnitude which Tom Nairn failed to entertain. Even if Sir Keir Starmer, could defy electoral gravity Westminster politics seems exhausted and in a state of moral collapse. 

The End of “Banal” Nationalism?

What does this mean for Wales? On the left, the desire for social change expressed through the demand for self-determination cuts across parties including Plaid, the Greens and Labour. This has been intensified by the COVID 19 crisis and alienation with the Johnson Government. But something deeper is at work. In essence a schism with “banal nationalism” is occurring within the UK. This is a growing rejection of those everyday representations of the nation which build a shared sense of national belonging and identity. 

For a growing minority of Welsh people, Westminster is a parliamentary institution that is viewed as “the English Government”. As Nairn anticipated its “glamour of backwardness” no longer generates legitimacy. What used to be quaint tradition has degenerated into a black comedy of nostalgic charade. 

This has also combined with the profile and reach of Yes Cymru’s campaigning. How much this kick-started Plaid’s full-throated support for independence in recent years is for others to judge but as it stands the idea is potentially more popular than the party. A recent YouGov/Yes Cymru poll showing that 51% of respondents who voted for Labour said they would vote for independence. These are startling figures, but care is needed not to overplay this. Despite an impressive ground war in terms of demonstrations and attitudinal change, independence remains a minority sport in Wales. No one is predicting a nationalist electoral earthquake in Wales in 2021. The countervailing unionist forces are historically far more entrenched than their Scottish counterparts. But there is real momentum and as Tom Nairn argues the foundations of the British state is unravelling. It appears that the pandemic is shattering the remnants of unionist solidity. 


Ultimately it is Welsh Labour that is at the heart of the unionist conundrum. Wales may be a “one-party” state but by the narrowest of margins. The previous One Wales coalition and current reliance on Kirsty Williams and Dafydd Ellis Thomas prove the tight electoral arithmetic. Welsh Labour’s rhetoric is increasingly bellicose on the dangers posed to the devolution settlement from a potential No-deal Brexit and the removing of powers on the internal market. While there is justifiable economic concern, it also sees them “show an ankle” implying much stronger nationalist credentials. That said, while a shift to a totally autonomous Welsh Labour Party is often talked about the mass backing of Sir Keir Starmer for the leader from Welsh constituency Labour parties suggests this is not happening anytime soon. 

Mark Drakeford’s recent invective against nationalism as an “inherently right-wing creed” reinforces the above point. Although it looks more like the first shot in an election campaign than a genuine critique. He has recognised that if any nation of the UK becomes independent in future “then, of course, any sensible political party or government would have to reassess Wales’ place”. His soft nationalism has won plaudits during the COVID 19 crisis, but the dominant party cannot control the sheer scale of political volatility and societal shifts in the age of a climate emergency. With both pro-independence and anti-assembly sentiment gaining in opinion polls could Welsh politics become a polarising dual with Labour squeezed in the centre defending a devolution status quo? Alternately can Labour as the dominant “party of government in Wales” since devolution, evolve and maintain control? The months leading up to the Senedd election in 2021 will see intensely difficult times in Wales. The strains on the current Welsh constitutional settlement are enormous. Can it survive the forthcoming economic, environmental and political storms? If not, what are the next steps?

Steve Thomas


Disclaimer: All views/opinions set out in this commentary are solely those of the author and are written in a personal capacity. 

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