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Unionists are the real narrow nationalists

Posted on July 01, 2012 by

*Jonathan Edwards is the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. This piece first appeared on his own blog, but we asked if we could reprint it to bring some of its excellent insights to a wider audience. (And also to fix the original’s impressively esoteric rendering of “paraphernalia”. We’re real spelling Nazis.)

I’ve been meaning to write this blog ever since Ed Miliband’s car-crash speech on English identity. I have also taken part in a number of BBC interviews over recent months in which it is sometimes difficult to get your point across when you have an interviewer on the other end barking at you as you challenge unionist perceptions. It also supports why Leanne Woods’ intervention this week is an important one.

When the Miliband speech was being pre-briefed I had high hopes that we were about to hear something significant – that Labour were going to proclaim that their answer to the challenge posed by the SNP’s independence drive was a federal settlement for the British state. I expected Labour to position themselves as advocates of an English Parliament as the political expression of English identity. Instead what we got was hot air, followed by one of the most painful interviews I have seen by a Unionist leader on Channel 4 News.

When asked about my identity, I say firstly I’m a son of Carmarthenshire. I consider Wales to be my nation. I have a British identity in that Wales is located in British Isles. I am also European. I might even go as far as Socrates proclaiming myself a citizen of the world. In terms of my nationality I’m definitely Welsh and proud of it.

My interpretation of the Welsh-British relationship is very much on the basis of Scandinavia where the Finns, Danish, Norwegians and Swedes feel completely comfortable with the notion of having a national identity expressed as well as a wider territorial affinity. This is a key point which distinguishes nationalists like me from Unionists. Their ‘Britishness’ is rigidly wedded to the notion of a British State, hence their obsession with the paraphernalia of statehood – flags and symbols – and their deep suspicion of any ‘competing’ identities. Unionist thinking therefore, as Miliband said in his speech, is that if Scotland or Wales were to vote for political independence our people would cease having a British identity.

In a recent Radio Wales phone -n interview based on my call for an English national parliament and anthem, the presenter seemed obsessed with making me concede that ‘God Save The Queen’ was my national anthem. It’s not: ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’ is my national anthem. God Save The Queen is the anthem of the political State that Wales is currently a part of, and as long as the Queen is Head of State I have no issue with it being the anthem of the State. England on the other hand, as a nation, deserves its own national anthem.

In a historical sense basing your identity solely on a political State seems a ludicrous thing to do. The British State is a relative modern creation. Only 305 years have transpired since the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Indeed, in its most recent reincarnation, the British State is only 89 years old, since the Irish Free State was created in 1922. It’s fair to say therefore that those individuals who claim to be British (in the Unionist sense) pledge loyalty to a political structure that is yet to reach its century. The propaganda agents of the State, however, would have you believe that it is an entity that has existed in eternity.

Unionists cannot have it both ways. One the one hand they proclaim Welsh identity is not dependent on the existence of a Welsh state. On the other they insist that Britishness can only be maintained in the context of a British state. This absurd hypocrisy underestimates the depth of solidarity the people of these islands feel for one another, and their historic ability to adapt and apply identity in a positive and ever-evolving way.

However, such is the penetration and power of the Unionist position that even nationalists like me can find ourselves furthering the misconceptions of their argument. In a recent Radio Wales interview in relation to potential job losses at the Dewhirst factory in my constituency, the presenter told me that having a distribution site in the Amman Valley was economically stupid as it was an isolated in a geographical sense. My weak answer was that Capel Hendre was one of four sites within the UK and was easily accessible via the M4 to the main markets of South Wales and the South West of England.

My mistake was of course to position the Amman Valley geographically within the perspective of the British state. Of course Wales is on the western periphery in that context. However, geographically, nationalists like me should be making the case that Wales and indeed West Wales is at the centre of the British Isles. Considering that the Republic of Ireland is one of the UKs biggest trading partners (importing more exports than China, India, Brazil and Russia combined) our geographical location puts us at the centre of one of the major European trading routes and therefore ideal for distribution and manufacturing companies. My mistake was to fall into the Unionist trap of locating solely Wales within the parameters of the British state – and they call us nationalists narrow minded!

The other great element of the Unionist identity matrix of course is Westminster itself. The British State, despite devolution, continues to be one of the most centralised political systems in the world. For Unionists, any seeping away of power from the centre is a concession to Welsh and Scottish nationalism. In these rapidly changing times with Scottish independence firmly on the table, unionism is crying out for a political party that can offer a decentralised vision for the British State – in other words a federal settlement. If Unionist parties continue with their strategy on protecting the primacy of Westminster, the British state is doomed be it 2014 or thereafter.

In the end my ultimate vision for Britain is of a partnership of equals made up of independent political countries based on the historic nations. Unionists often refer to the British Lions touring rugby side as the sporting equivalent of their identity mindset, conveniently forgetting of course that Ireland (minus the 6 Counties) is an independent political state. I disagree, the Lions follow in the political tradition of the national parties, where four independent sporting teams periodically come together on the basis of equal status. There is nothing equal about the current political arrangements.

In a speech last Autumn I proclaimed that Unionism is in crisis as a result of the Scottish referendum. In the recent launch of the No campaign, the chair Alistair Darling said that the UK was a country made up of four regions, which seemed to me to be a strange way to make the case for the Union. Ed Miliband’s fumbled and incoherent effort to define Englishness further makes my point.

There are fruitful grounds here for Plaid Cymru if we can follow the SNP in defining what it means to be Scottish and British. We must base our vision of a British identity on history and geography and a social union – a common future based on partnership and equality as a tangible alternative to Unionism’s obsession with the State.

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7 to “Unionists are the real narrow nationalists”

  1. Tearlach

    I’ve not seen a  more mature and insightful piece from Wales in a long time. A pan British Isles focus on Britain as Scandinavia, with an inclusive hand to Ireland, Man and the Channel Islands will go a long way to disengaging the concept of Geography from Politics.

    I particularly like the concept of redefining peripherality. The Amman Valley is only peripheral when looked at from a London centric view of the Isles of Britain and Ireland. Living as I do on North Sutherland, Glasgow is a long way from me, but Thurso, Kirkwall and Lerwick are just next door.

    Shetland is the best example here – folk in Lerwick do see themselves at the edge, they see themselves at the centre of the North Atlantic. And they are, as a stroll down the harbour shows any day – Russian and Faroese cargo ships, Icelandic fishing vessels, Danish warships, and oil and gas support ships from all over the world.

    Its just takes two minutes to move from the tyranny of the Mercator map projection, switch north to south, move the centre from Greenwich to Lerwick, to see that the periphery is the centre, and vice versa……   


  2. I Waller

    The trouble with most of Unionist philosophy is England =Britain =UK= Therefore to their way of thinking England and Britain are interchangeable words =same -They still don’t grasp that Scotland is a country in its own right -They see Scotland as part of Britain =England.They see Scotland and probably Wales as areas of Britain =England .Now who is actually to blame for all this I am not sure -but this for me is the reality of the situation with England.

  3. Indion

    Unitarists are the real narrow nationalists!

    Before you might read on, read Jonathon’s blog post again, but substitute “unitarist(s)” for “unionist(s)” throughout ….

    Independence v Union is the polarised argument that pro-UK protagonists prefer because it permits them to portray all opposition to their state’s sovereignty as “separatist”.

    Independence and Union is the win-win counter-argument. It proffers a future for all who favour union founded on the inherent equality of people’s sovereignty instead.

    It’s time to separate union from the unitarists. 

  4. Appleby

    A good read and interesting to hear things from the Welsh nationalist persepective for a change. I can’t see the partnership between equals working within any framework other than independent nations working with close neighbours. If only for the obvious reasons of one huge state will always end up outweighing the others. The only alternative of weighting the smaller states’ votes to balance it would only enrage the English and has already been undermined, if not outright exluded, as an option with the stripping of the Scottish right to extra political clout per the act of union to avoid total overwhelming in the union.
    @I Waller
    I agree that many problems stem from this attitude. For England it simply carried on with some new bits stuck on it. For Scotland a whole new political landscape formed. The same thing will happen with independence, most likely. It’s this false British identity or half-hearted acceptance that undermined it from the very beginning.
    Perspective really is everything, it would seem. A powerful tool.

  5. douglas clark

    What a mature and sensible viewpoint. I really hope that Wales listens to it.

    For a less mature viewpoint – read on….

    For there is nothing worse than being patronised, and that is what they do, whether culturally, economically or, now, geographically.

    It does not resonate with the lives we live. We are, after all, central to our own lives, and that of our families. These are our anchors, and it perhaps matters to us rather more than it does to a broadcaster trying to score cheap points.

    It seems to me that if your daughter, for example, was in Australia, she would be about an inch away. Whereas, for me at least, Cameron is orbiting the Andromeda galaxy.

    He has already given up on Scotland and most of the rest of the UK. His is a government that is exclusively and intensely interested in it’s immediate hinterland, which is the South East of England’s moneyed elite. The evidence all points to that.

    A ‘YES’ vote could have profound effects, well beyond this nation of ours…. For no-one likes to be taken for granted as a victim of self interest. Whilst, say, senior civil servants will continue to be paid a ‘London Rate’, their minions in Sunderland will be expected to pick up a regionalised minimum wage.

    Or, whilst Camerons chums can probably pick up the damage for their immediate families illnesses, the rest of us will be told we need to work until we die.

    I think Camerons dream is to have an Etonian cabal running a nation state not much larger than London and the Home Counties. It would be a land of rampant capitalism, cronyism and induced fear of ‘the other’. Whether they were from Anglesey, Wick, Truro or indeed Manchester.

    The whole damn lot of us can go to hell in a hand cart as far as he is concerned. That appears to be the message.

    Just saying.

  6. James Morton

    I too have only ever thought of myself as British in the geographical sense, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as British national identity. Thats why Labour was completely flummoxed when it tried to identify Britishness.

    It may have meant something…once. But it’s been reduced to symbolism, and empty symbolism at that. The flag, chintz china, union jack tea towels and airfix model kits of spitfires. Anything that underpinned it was wrecked beyond repair by Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron.

    They believe in the market. But all they did was transfer power to vested interests that we did not vote for, and ultimately is unaccountable for what it does. Very hard to get misty eyed about the market.

    Darling will enthuse us as to the values of the status quo and not mention Union at all. That is how meaningless it actually is. What does it say about union when you have to scare people into staying.

    Miliband thinks we will lose our British identity….we never had a british identity, we’re Scots and our nation is part of the British isles.

  7. ronald alexander mcdonald

    British Nationalism is mostly nasty right-wing bile. I watched a documentary on Ray Davies of The Kinks recently. He said that Charles Dickens would have a field day, if he were alive.  Enough said.  

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