What sort of Britain do we want?

In February 2020, I published a blog “What sort of Wales do we want?” followed up by “The environment, Tax and Wales” earlier in 2021.  Collectively they explored, in very broad terms, the case for an “independent” Wales, including some of the economic  challenges and the radical  fiscal  changes  required by all countries to address our climate and environmental emergency.

In summary: Wales is not too small to be independent, there are no fundamental economic obstacles to being independent, it’s just a question of whether we want to!

Now I’d like to broaden the question to What sort of Britain do we want?

And as per earlier blogs…this is a first cut (and does cut and paste a little content from my other blogs). I will edit and modify in response to challenge and comment. It also combines some objective observation with my own subjective views; it is perhaps slightly incoherent as a result (as are most of my blogs!).

Postscript Aug 2021. I have had some criticism that “Welsh Independence” cannot be subservient to, or linked with, a constitutional upgrade of all of Britain. I disagree, I dont think it is credible to progress any “independence narrative” without addressing Wales’s relationship with England (…and Scotland) especially given the cross border interdependencies and politics. As I set out, Wales can be independent and sovereign – but will need to develop many cross border arrangements and institutions (which are common elsewhere in the world). I lean toward a form of “Confederation” – which is not really that different to the EU? Such an approach may also secure support more broadly in Wales as well as in England if framed as an “upgrade” to the “Union”. Remember no country in the world – apart from North Korea perhaps!- is truly independent. The real need is for Wales to have control on what sovereignty resides here and what is pooled for the greater good. That is very different from the current dysfunctional and subservient relationship with Westminster & Whitehall which should have no role in Wales’s governance. The velvet divorce and dissolution of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and The Czech Republic may provide a sort of template, as can their new relationship via the Visegrad Group and their roles in the EU. Similar arrangements across Belgium, Luxemburg and The Netherlands via Benelux also provide a template.

Firstly,  I’ll start by saying I am British.  I was born and live on the island of Britain. Yes,  I am Welsh first, and European but yes, I am also British as well as being a Homosapien too (any Pete Shelley fans out there?).   I am also very clear that any sense of indigenous exceptionalism is entirely  without merit.  At the end of the last glacial maximum about 10,000 years ago, no one lived in Britain; the mile high ice sheet that covered this island was melting.  Over the following hundreds and thousands of years, people arrived in waves from the south: early Neolithic settlers, the Celts, the Romans, the Vikings, Saxons, the Normans, the Huguenots, and in the last 300 years peoples from all over the world, especially from the British Empire. 

The reality is, we are more alike than some of us care to admit. My experience of growing up in Grangetown, Cardiff and going to school there and in Ely in the west of the city, was of many different nationalities with different histories and perspectives. We need to face down the misguided and dark forces of racial and/or geographic purity, of ugly right-wing nationalism and racism which exists within Wales and the UK.  It often comes wrapped in a flag. 

I would also add that the label “Britain”  has been badly tarnished of late, especially by  Brexit and the exceptionalist mindset and politics that was its primary motivating force, and which has emboldened in some people a rather reactionary and nasty world view.  I think this quote from a recent article by Nicholas Boyle, Emeritus Schröder Professor of German, University of Cambridge, captures the issue. He  described Brexit  as, “the result of an English delusion, a crisis of identity resulting from a failure to come to terms with the loss of empire and the end of its own exceptionalism”.  This is something I touched on in my Brexit and climate change blog in April 2019.

Nonetheless, I am British, but perhaps not in the way the media have portrayed Britishness of late. Now, perhaps I, and those like me, should be more vocal about the kind of Britain we are comfortable with and can associate with.

Firstly, let we me say what, for me, Britain is not…

The fundamental constitutional dysfunction at the heart of the British state…

Fundamentally and the essence of my position, is the fundamental dysfunction of the current constitutional machinery of Westminster and Whitehall.  These institutions in their current form are well past their sell by date and constrained by imperial structures and governance established in the 19th Century during Britain’s “Imperial Heyday”.  Dominic Cummings did not just hatch Brexit,  he has exposed how utterly dysfunctional the Westminster/Whitehall system actually is, and how this not only lets down Wales and Scotland…but most of England as well. 

The command-and-control culture based out of No 10 and the UK Treasury, which hold  the most important levers of power – especially fiscal, is ill suited to  the world we face. This renders the devolved administrations strategically impotent, and so more focused on the administration of spending rather than having a substantive capability to influence their economies and the well-being of their populations.  In fact, Whitehall struggles to see how it could work more collaboratively where interests align, with a devolved nation with full responsibility over particular matters.

The current “levelling up “mantra can only be realised with a major constitutional overhaul; it will never work if based on a little more cash being dispensed though politically compromised Westminster largesse. A handout economy and a handout constitution based entirely around Westminster and Whitehall, has not and can never really work for everyone and every place on this island.

Furthermore, Westminster lacks really effective checks and balances, which are fundamental requirements of a functioning democracy. The House of Lords is completely out of sync with the country, and we have a “first past the post” voting system that allows a party with minority support to deploy radical reactionary policy with virtually nothing to stop them.  For me there is also not enough of a distance between the executive (which is getting perhaps too powerful), the legislature and the judiciary, and those relationship have not really been designed to effectively accommodate devolution.

A further failure of Westminster is that Britain, in the main, been run by an elite of public-school boys for most of its modern history.  Look at Prime Ministers; of the 15 since the end of  WWII  5 are ex pupils of Eton,  3 are pupils from private schools, another 4 are grammar school pupils, with only the balance of 3 being from more typical comprehensives.  Then add only two women and no representative from ethnic minorities.  Hardly representative.  This privileged access is also true of the senior echelons of the Civil Service. Whilst most PMs graduated (mainly from Oxford), only one graduated in a physical science. This I believe has contributed to a culture where rhetoric is more important than considered reflection, data and analysis and can lead to some very dark places.  I fear Britain has taken its first steps on that road.

I am also concerned ay the increasing “anti-expert” rhetoric most manifest in the current Westminster Government.  We need more than empty populist rhetoric offered with no appreciation of the details or impact of such.  Most stuff is hard and can’t be dealt with in a sound bite. 

When you add a media owned by and used for a very wealthy minority to amplify a narrow world view and to sow disinformation and discourse, our situation appears even more desperate. I assert that Brexit is a symptom of this dysfunction.

Nor is my Britain flag waving or deference…

Nor is my Britain a Union Jack. As stated in an earlier blog, I think it is worth us all doing this rather simple test. Take the flags of St Andrew and St Patrick out of the Union Jack, what do you have left?  That’s right, the flag of St George. I have never really felt any strong association with the Union Jack given Wales’s omission. Now the last fires of a UK and Union Jack I could support, as presented by Danny Boyle in 2012, have been extinguished under the populist heals of the reactionary political forces now at liberty in the UK.  I can’t help thinking how uncomfortable some successful Welsh sports men and woman feel having to take accolades under the Union Jack and to the sound of God Save the Queen, instead of the Y Ddraig Goch and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau; in fact, Geraint Thomas (and  I may be entirely wrong here so apologies if that is the case) looked quite uncomfortable when he was crowned the winner of  the Tour de France  in 2018.

So, the Union Jack is really not my flag (you wave it if you want), in reality it never has been and not sure how it can in future, especially given how it was waved around in jingoistic fashion by some MEPs on their last day in Europe.   But that is only a gesture, a symbolic fit of pique; Wales and Britain have some more serious questions. 

I would also add for me, Britain is not the Royal Family – I am a republican – but acknowledge for many that they are an important component of their “Britishness”.  Similarly, whilst the military is an important institution for many in the UK, I find some of the associated jingoism and flag waving distasteful. However, even though I am dismayed by some of the political decisions that have put those serving in unjustifiable situations, I have the utmost respect, and am in debt as we all are, to those who put their lives on the line for their country. I am sure every family has at least one family member who has served.  I say all that with a part Irish family and recollection of the historical role of the establishment and armed forces in Newport, Merthyr and Peterloo.

So, I often don’t wear a poppy or wave a flag….given the social pressure to do so, but I don’t have any issue with those that do so respectfully, and I support charities that support ex-service men and women.  The armed forces are an important part of what Britain was and is, good and bad.

British Values? What are they, who decides?

There are those who talk about British values, and robustly offer their view of what these values are, without really considering  how true, relevant or  widespread they are.  The fundamental  problem is that we never took time to agree any “British Values”, to write them down (in a constitution), to develop and ensure such values are entrenched in a democratic and accountable system of government.  Something we need for the 21st Century.

British expats or immigrants?

Another stark truth is that  that the “British” are the planet’s most “successful” immigrants and as an imperial  power over the last 500 years “Great Britain” engaged in expansionist activities all over the planet. It seems slightly hypocritical therefore,  for some in the UK to have an issue with immigration when we wrote the book.  The reality is that a lot of people in a lot of countries have a slightly less then rosy view of Britain’s imperial past and many in the UK have an overstated and sadly unchallenged view of both Britain’s past and its current status in the world. David Olusoga’s 2019 article in the Observer captures this phenomenon very effectively.

A more settled and honest place in the world order…

I also think a new Britain should stop trying to present itself as a global superpower and reflect more on its political naivety  manifest  in the legacy of many of the conflicts it has engaged in, it also  needs to  come to terms with the darker side of its history and the treatment of those it has encountered on the way and many of those who have settled here.  We then collectively may develop a shared respect for a true picture of the past and craft a  place in the world with which, we can all be at ease. 

However, at the present time, I see Britain turning into a parody ladybird book story we are told, often by mainstream media,  increasingly wrapped in flags and bunting, but ill at ease with itself and its place in the world and now with manufactured enemies all around. This false narrative is both unpleasant but also enormously damaging. The Windrush and now the Settled Status scandals are symptoms of this malaise.  The growing calls for independence in Wales and Scotland and the re-unification of Ireland are further symptoms.

So, it seems to me, that now is the time to ask….

What could Britain be?

For those engaged by this question it is worth looking at a very good article by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones that appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Agenda (IWA) which summates his earlier work and the various constitutional options before us.  David Melding has also made some insightful contributions; and more recently Mick Antoniw has offered a vision for constitutional renewal and radical federalism.  Just recently the Welsh Government also set out some of its thinking re a re-invented union.

There  is clearly a space, a big space, for a mature discussion to help shape a major constitutional upgrade of Britain.  I would argue there is no alternative,  given the dysfunction at the heart of the current UK state.  As I set out later, this is for me, is entirely consistent with the idea of an independent Wales; it may in fact, be a necessary enabler.

Diversity and plurality…

In crafting a new narrative, we have to embody contradiction, of feeling Welsh or English or Scottish or British or from somewhere else, or from some or all of the above,  of different flags, of different world views and political leanings of different social perspectives….a plurality of politics and social views. There is no single answer. 

Across Britain we need to respect all the constituent nations, all its languages and cultures, new and old.   Yes Welsh, also but Gaelic, Scots, Cornish –  it’s not just English – as well as the languages and cultures brought from other places by expats from other countries. 

Britain is the ultimate melting pot and so there has to be accommodation of all; this for me is and should be a definitive British value than can be adopted by its constituent nations and people.

Freedom, liberty and collective responsibility

We need a renewed sense of freedom and liberty – but with a social conscience and collective responsibility. So yes, to the right to gather and protest,  no to blasphemy laws, yes to free speech (no one has a right not to be offended);  at the same time, we have to exercise  responsibility and sensitivity in how and when those freedoms are discharged with an avoidance of violence, hate and deliberate antagonism.

I would also note, that everyone’s freedoms and rights to do and say as they want, are limited to the point at which in doing so, they diminish someone else’s right to enjoy the same freedoms.  Be careful if in demanding your rights, you are diminishing someone else’s at the same time.  The sex/gender debate is a manifestation of this; it seems to me that one needs to ask how the unarguable rights of an individual to be how they feel and/or want to be,  are to be reconciled with legally enshrined and societally important sex-based services rights and protections,  and biology. 

Some maturity and consideration in this space is sorely needed. I would also observe for those dogmatic  ideological purists; as individuals of an imperfect and often collectively  destructive species we can never be 100% consistent in our individual beliefs. It’s a psychological reality that we all hold some naturally contradictory views.  If more of us understood this, we’d be in a much better place.

As per my earlier reference, and as an example, I am and always have been a little uncomfortable and resistant to social or group  pressure to act in a certain way.  This includes wearing a poppy and “taking the knee”.  However, I am clear that I am 100% supportive of the fundamental underlying rationale and demonstration of solidarity of both wearing a poppy and taking the knee – even given my personal discomfort in joining such collective actions.  I would also observe that we are all to a certain degree hypocritical. For example,  I would guess that some of those being critical of taking the knee have no issue with wearing a poppy and vice versa.

For me, people can choose to do, or no to do; it’s not my call, none of us can honestly claim to know what dictates the choices of each individual. Part of what Britain was and should be is our capacity  to accommodate these contradictions and different, often passionately held views. We are a plurality of nations, people, views and politics.  We need a constitution that accommodates this plurality,  tolerance and contradiction; the only thing I am really intolerant of, is intolerance itself.

As I said above, the limits of everyone’s freedoms and rights to do and say as they want is the point at which in doing so, you diminish someone else’s right to enjoy those very same freedoms.  This should not be controversial.

In that regard, I would observe that some of the ugly racism on display following England’s defeat in the Euro final to Italy in July 2021, aptly demonstrates the need for and importance of the “taking the knee”  and for leaders to call out this abuse.  The likes of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka deserve our support given the heinous abuse they have received from knuckle dragging racists masquerading as English football fans.  It’s so uplifting to have seen the huge outpouring of support for them in the days that followed the initial abuse. Let’s be clear, the unpleasant views and behaviour demonstrated in this instance have been enabled by the othering political rhetoric and the inaction of Janus politicians.

Shared struggles and progress…

There is also much commonality across this island; the struggle for workers’ rights, in fighting for the right to vote, improving  equality, inclusivity, social justice and democracy; in our collective effort in facing down fascism in the 1930s (Cable Street) and the 1940s, both from and without and the Bristol Bus Boycott in the 1960s; securing women’s rights ( eg 1975 Sex Discrimination Act) and LGBT rights ( eg 1967 Sexual Offences Act, 2010 Equality Act ), the sacrifice of the military, the welfare state and the National Health service, whose roots were in Tredegar. The innovation and ingenuity of those people and communities who helped shape the industrial revolution, and the intellectual and philosophical insights of the enlightenment.

We can also reflect on the  impact of individuals over the centuries in shaping our patchwork collective cultures and histories. Aside from the more obvious names, these include people such as Robert Owen, Samuel Johnson, Mary Seacole, Betsi Cadwaladr, Nye Bevan, Alfred Wallace, James Watt, William Lovett, John Frost, Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Alan Moody, Paul Dirac, Jan Morris, Edward Jenner, John Cale, Alan Turing, Leo Abse…

Despite many of the failings of our current Whitehall/Westminster system we have so much common ground…if only we were to look for it.

We need to know all our histories

However, any new Britain needs to acknowledge its past and ensure all of us have a greater and more accurate historical knowledge of each nation  of Britain, its peoples and its imperial legacy  – good and bad. However, in doing so I am not sure aggressively trying to allocate responsibility for Britain’s Imperial past  to disenfranchised working class and generally white communities in say the South Wales valleys or the old coalfield towns of northern England is a useful endeavour. Blame is easy to allocate, taking responsibility is much harder and more nuanced and is often preceded by debate, discussion and a willingness to listen.

Humility, honesty, integrity & leadership: especially to deal with the Climate Emergency

Humility and integrity  in government and leadership is essential if we are to deal with  the world’s  problems – Inequality, Covid and especially The Environmental & Climate Emergency we have enabled.

In fact, The Climate and Environmental Emergency should be the primary concern of the leader of every nation. This is a global responsibility we should take very seriously; in fact, Britain can and should be a “world leader” in both action and rhetoric in this space. This is no time for narcissistic indulgence which has become all too common across the world.

So, what does this mean for Wales?

In any a new relationship and constitution, I absolutely  favour “Welsh independence”.  However, it could/should also be framed in a formal constitutional relationship between Wales, England and Scotland with all powers/sovereignty residing in Cardiff, Edinburgh London and their respective national parliaments but pooled in areas of mutually agreed interest.

Wales would no longer send MPs to Westminster, which should be an English parliament and which for many, I suspect,  is how it is viewed anyway.  The conflation of England and Britain is part of the problem and is manifest in how Westminster and Whitehall currently functions.

A British Confederation and English Federalism…

So, for me Britain needs new relationship between its constituent nations. Perhaps like the EU, or Benelux, Scandinavia, etc.   This may be manifest in a form a British Confederation with a confederal senate with a very much smaller number of members than Westminster, with representatives from Wales, Scotland and the various regions of England.  Again, all set out in a revised “constitution”.  In all this I am making the presumption that Ireland will eventually choose to unify.

Postscript: This independence and membership of a British Confederation could, should include parts of England – the north of England perhaps, Cornwall, The English Midlands. The great English cities of Manchester, Newcastle, etc need a more prominent role, so at the very least England needs to be federated and freed from the straight jacked of Westminster and Whitehall and a narrow world view dictated by observing it through a London and SE England lens

Under this new arrangement, Wales would be free to choose its own course where it wishes and work across Britain where that is appropriate.  But Wales gets to choose. For example, whether it wants to compete independently in the Olympics or as part of the British team (depending on what the other nations wish off course), little things like whether one wants a Union Jack on their driving license (I don’t),  of picking bank holidays, of borrowing money to invest in its essential economic infrastructure, to encourage entrepreneurship at all levels, in supporting left behind communities,  to levy different & more environmentally  focussed taxes, in how it deals with a pandemic, how it deals with its natural resources to decarbonise our energy systems, in deciding to welcome people from other countries, in setting animal welfare and environmental standards and defending workers’ rights, in protecting rural communities from second homes, etc.

Issues and decisions related to major pieces of cross border infrastructure, for example, energy and transport, would require mature cross border arrangements and decision making (which is completely normal elsewhere in the world. For example, between Aachen, Maastricht and Liege, 3 cities, 3 countries all less then 30Km apart – so the “but the border” argument in favour of the status quo is rather ill-informed and without substance). Not like now, where many decisions affecting Wales are made in Westminster/Whitehall with little regard for, and often to the detriment of, Wales (e.g. especially Rail investment, energy, water, telecoms,  etc).

Open, inclusive self-determination, not exclusive wall building nationalism

Some characterise  independence supporters as narrow exceptionalists who want to put up walls and cut Wales of from the world!  That does not have to be the case and is certainly not how I, or I suspect most  “YesCymru” supporters, feel.  Most countries around the world, work together across borders, they cooperate, pool sovereignty for the greater good,  and jointly apply resources and execute administrative functions to manage cross border issues; this is normal. This is the kind of Wales  I want.    The only walls I see of late are those associated with Brexit and the dark British nationalism that has infected Westminster. The irony for me is that UK had far more influence in Brussels (it even had a veto) than Wales ever had, or currently experiences at Westminster.

A progressive alliance…

In setting this out, I and others have to acknowledge,  the “Why would England want to do this?“ question.  On the surface this seems a big challenge, but I do think we can find common cause with progressives in England who would see this as an opportunity to establish a decentralised English constitution as well as independent Welsh and Scottish ones, to fill what  is now a damaging void.  This could,  should and must cross the political divide.

It seems to me that an essential first step from a Westminster perspective is Proportional Representation. From a Welsh perspective I’d like to see the Wales Labour and Conservative parties becoming completely independent of their London based masters.

This all seems entirely possible and is for me perhaps a way we can combine a Welsh  independence agenda with a complementary and necessary British constitutional renewal. I even think this will work for Scotland. In fact, it is the growing independent minds of Wales and especially Scotland that could save England…and craft a new Britain we can all be comfortable with.

One thought on “What sort of Britain do we want?

  1. An excellent analysis as always. But English ‘progressives’ will never support an independent England because they need the Welsh & Scottish to counter-balance the English conservative majority. We would need a realignment of English politics before we could rely on England to deliver Welsh independence. Better we jyst rely on ourselves to make it happen.

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