Today marks Remembrance Day, 102 years since the signing of the armistice that brought an end to fighting in the First World War. It seems fitting to me that this day is used to discuss the role of Britain in the national discourse, writes Calum Davies.
When Englishmen, Welshmen, and Scots fought in the Great War, they did not fight as three countries in “a voluntary association” that exists as some “insurance policy”. They fought as a single, unitary nation-state. They fought for and in the name of the British nation. Northern Ireland has a more complex history as part of the UK, but it cannot be forgotten that Great Britain is an entity in its own right.
With independence beginning to poll solidly as the most popular choice for the future constitutional settlement for Scotland and increasing membership for Yes Cymru (even if that does not mean the choice is more popular with the public at large), it is clear the Union is in peril.
Maybe the best way to challenge the independence problem is to stop calling it “a union”. I totally understand why this language has been adopted: not only have nationalists succeeded over the last ten years in changing the way we speak about this is political discourse, but Unionists have been keen to keep floating voters in Scotland on-side by showing they sympathise with their desire for autonomy, at least through the status quo. They want to show that they are comfortable with it too and don’t want to push Scots away so want to emphasise they have a degree of independence through devolution.
However, it betrays the truth that Britain is a country in its own right. If any of the home nations want to depart from the Union, it is not that simple. It wasn’t like Brexit where leaving the European Union still left a largely intact organisation that does not derive legitimacy from being a nation.
If any of the British nations left the UK, it would destroy the existing country. If Northern Ireland went it alone, the UK reverts to Great Britain. If Scotland or Wales goes solo, some creative thinking for a new name will be needed.
Like many on both sides of the debate, I agree Project Fear, as in deploying economic arguments alone, will be unsuccessful in preserving our long national history. However, to use a crude term, Project Guilt might be something to add into the mix: not only stressing the benefits of what we have achieved together but stressing responsibility for the destruction of the British nation will ultimately lie with those who vote for independence.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru want to destroy the country. They want to make it unrecognisable – putting up national barriers between families and friends that live across the border. They want to steal your British nationality, your British citizenship, your British pride. One of the best things about Britain is that it does not take away your ability to be Welsh, Scottish, or English – it enhances it. The nationalists were always very keen to say the same about European identity but are strangely quiet when it comes to Britain. If we stress these points, we will also be able to appeal to the heart and as well the head. The economic argument for independence is weak and we must show the emotional one is too.
This month, Matthew Syed wrote in The Sunday Times that “a strong sense of national identity is the most basic building block of prosperity. We take this for granted because we forget the bloodshed and struggle that it took to create these political entities, and thus fail to nurture them. Look anywhere in the world where there is poverty and your will see nations that lack a coherent identity; nations still divided down tribal lines. Such places cannot solve the collective action problems – public goods, rule of law, functioning institutions – that underpin growth of any kind.”
The weakening of British national identity is obviously what is driving people towards independence and it is because we have failed to nurture it. It also makes me worry for the aftermath of any independence in Wales as it does lack a coherent national identity: British Wales, the Valleys, and y Fro Gymraeg have been separated in this debate for a reason. Where would this lead?
The point on dysfunctional institutions can explain why the constitutional debate has become so fractured in Wales with support for abolishing devolution, the status quo, more devolution, and independence are roughly as popular as each other (though I do want to stress independence is the least popular of the four). This demonstrates that the devolved institution, as it is, in Wales is not supported widely by the public and suggests that the fracturing of the British identity is not helping matters.
So where do we go from here? There are no easy or obvious answers – if there were, the existence of Britain would not be in so much danger. But for a start, the talk of “a voluntary association of nations” must stop immediately, especially from Labour. Mark Drakeford is supposedly a Unionist, but his every utterance actually seems designed to weaken the bonds of Union. Does he not realise the damage he is doing to the cause he claims to support?
We have to talk more about the British nation for it is all of our futures at stake in any independence referendum. It would certainly only be fair that if another was held in Scotland, Scots elsewhere in the UK get a vote. Indeed, maybe we should all get a vote as it involves the dissolution of the UK and Great Britain as we know it.
So today we will bow our heads in respect to our forebears that shed their blood for their country. A different kind of battle now wages but the end-goal of all patriots is the same: the preservation of the British state. Lest we forget what is at stake.
Calum Davies is Deputy Chairman of Cardiff Central Conservatives.