Scotlands Brave New Future
A week is a long time in politics, a Gannex-clad politician once said, but in terms of international affairs a decade is the equivalent of about 100 light years. As our Celtic cousins to the north of Hadrian’s Wall fastidiously prepare for their ‘Independence Referendum’, the rest of the people of the United Kingdom look on (depending on where they reside) with a mixture of jealousy, fascination, bemusement, and Home Counties anger.
Alex Salmond’s great achievement is that he has seamlessly repositioned Scottish nationalism and forged, in its wake, a universal, ecumenical sense of Scottish nationhood. The rhetoric of ‘the nation’ has now become ‘the national rhetoric’. Patriotism, and ‘the Scottish will’, is now an essential part of not just the Scottish body politic, but each Scottish person’s body politic. Be they born in the Highlands, in the Lowlands or be they recent arrivals, Salmond’s SNP has created a national mood that simply, but firmly, says “Scotland First”. Even many life-long, instinctive conservatives, those most upstanding advocates for the retention of the Union, now see not supporting the SNP – tacitly at least – as tantamount to ‘putting Scotland down’. Hence, the primary hurdle in the way of achieving independence has already been leaped. Scottish people are thinking Scotland. Indeed, things have moved so far that the Scottish Conservative Party, celebrating its centenary next year having been set up in 1912 to bolster the Unionist voice, is now navel-gazing and wondering whether, in 2012, they’ll be reduced to waving the Scottish ship out of Port UK, at the very moment that ‘Britishness’, in whatever guises that still remains, has its own valedictory celebrations at an athletics stadium in East London.
Whatever some people may argue, history, and especially contemporary history, has taught us that movements towards constitutional and societal change – movements activated by that most stirring of concepts ‘freedom’ – are almost always irreversible. The clichés about the genie being out of the bottle since the arrival of devolution will certainly be the mantra of the status quo brigade, though the decline and collapse of Internal Empire(-ism) has a longer genealogy. Point to Gwynfor in ’66 or Winnie in ’67, if you wish, but the Union itself, fabricated in the post-Absolutist milieu of 1707, was never a truly settled political project. As time went by, and through the bonding agents of wars and colonialism, more and more people certainly did buy into the adventurism of Empire. However, there remained a sturdy band of renegades – Irish Free Staters, and Chapel attending Cymru Fydd members amongst them – who never accepted, or at the very least did not fully buy into, ‘England’s Glory’. Furthermore, flashes of the Scottish Enlightenment sporadically stirred, and memories of Bannockburn were occasionally summoned. The SNP’s recent ascendency owes much to earlier feelings of Scottish distinctiveness, though, in fairness, they have also been calculating in their eschewing of some of the more over-the-top, dewy-eyed representations of Scotland and the Scottish psyche.
So where does Wales stand in this evolving political geography? Will Wales be a player for change, or will it be a peripheral bloc, shaken and stirred by constitutional upheavals but unwilling, or unable, to discard torpor and drift; unsteadily floating as events overtake it and shape its ultimate destiny. What can, or what should, it offer?
One suggestion may be the re-invigoration of the notion of ‘Welsh Europeans’. It may be time to think once again about this concept of duality. As a nation, and as a people, we have enough skin and bone to allow both identities to live and flourish. But it is a choice, and like all choices it requires some degree of knowledge, a forum for rational debate, and a certain amount of prescience, commitment to seeing the bigger picture is also a pre-requisite, especially so as the discussion on ‘Internal Enlargement’ within the European Union resonates across the mainland of our continent, and is being vociferously advocated by emerging states such as Catalunya, the Basque Country and Flanders. Thus, cases have to be made, and arguments won, if Wales is to attain ‘nationhood’ within the European context; a context that must feel natural and not forced nor false. If that happens, then people will begin to acclimatise themselves, before they start to envisage a ‘Day One’ scenario wherein Wales is a fully-enlivened nation.
Notwithstanding this, and however much we plan and prepare for this eventuality, it is not too fanciful to visualise some of the semi-surreal events that may take place on that momentous day when mature Wales finally positions itself, eye-to-eye, with the other nations of Europe and beyond. For instance, it will be a foregone conclusion that the uncompromising voice of Dr Kim Howells will be heard on Jason Mohammad’s Radio Wales phone-in talking about “the disaster” of self-government.
“A total shock to us all….a retrograde step”, he will no doubt proclaim. But will it be? A shock, that is, and a retrograde step. Well it hasn’t got to be on both counts, though preparation will be the key.
Scotland’s ‘Yes’ vote may induce a myriad of responses and reactions. There could be calls for federating the remnants of the UK. This may be the position emanating from the Unionists, as the Conservative and Labour parties will seek, probably using desperately archaic rationales, to forge a ‘New Britain’ concord from the ashes of the old state: even though the moniker ‘Britain’ has no political meaning unless it includes the land of Scotland, which it evidently will not. In all of this flux and confusion Plaid Cymru may boldly designate immediate independence, which its grassroots members would enthusiastically endorse, or the party may adopt the more cautious, gradualist option of Devolution Max (short-term), then parity with Scotland (medium to long-term). This ‘either or’ will probably come down to the direction, ambition and vehemence of Plaid Cymru’s new leader, and the pace of political events in the years and months leading to the Scottish Referendum. Plaid Cymru, therefore, has to decide how transformative it wants this process to be, and at what speed it wishes to travel. It also needs to think a lot harder about what could be termed the ‘Welsh-ification’ of Welsh politics and society. How ‘Welsh’ would an autonomous Wales really be? But all of this may be overshadowed by two other conceivable developments.
The first of these is a potential lesson from the recent past. The Berlin Wall was an edifice, like the UK state, which was seemingly indestructible. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of state control and rigidity. It also represented outmoded patterns of thought: the totalitarian hand over the mouths of the subjugated. But once challenged, and upon being toppled, the ‘domino effect’ of change – albeit that the change was in unknown directions and into uncharted waters – proved to be rapid and widespread. It was a visible pandemic of alteration. The UK, post the Scottish ‘Yes’, may follow the same path of express disintegration and metamorphosis. If it does, and this possibility cannot be lightly dismissed, then all of the political parties and politicians in Wales will have to postulate their contingency plans. Some, possibly many, ‘Brit Nats’ will disconsolately cling on to the crumbling UK apparatus in the pitiful hope that Wales could become some sort of ‘Greater England’ appendage in a concocted UK Mark 2. But, in all reality, when this moment does arise it will be far too late for those deniers of national selfdetermination, from all parts of the political spectrum, to merely bury their heads in the sand, or to heckle their disapproval from the Commons benches or Senedd swing-chairs.
However, the other arrangement that could materialise, and one which may well prove to be the paramount, and most potent, driving force in all of the reconfigurations, will be the inevitable development of a progressive ‘radical centre / centre-left’ in England. Though currently relatively inconspicuous, the Commonweal of Albion – The Guardian letter-writers, the old SDP’ers, the Hampstead intellectuals – must at some stage offer a cogent and structured view of what an independent England, unshackled from Britannia, could look like. Fairly inevitably, a resurgent England, fostering civic nationalism and offering an honest critique of its own political traditions and history, would act as a catalyst for re-assessment and subsequent socio-political and cultural restructuring. So, though England currently slumbers, it must, and will, eventually realise it has to wake up, address the Realpolitik, and show its hand of identity and intent. Till that time comes, however, it is left to the nationalists’ imaginaire to conjure up a picture of a deconstructed UK state, which will begin to emerge once the Scottish people say ‘Yes’ and the Penny Sterling drops, clankingly, on the peoples of its three contiguous nations.
gan Dr Alan Sandry
Republished from Cambria December 2011