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Splitting headache: Wales must guard against nationalist rhetoric

4 min read

Constitutional wrangling is far from the top of voters’ priority lists, but the future of the union is under threat. With renewed calls for Scottish independence ringing in our ears, Wales must be alive to the danger of a nationalism taking root that seeks out differences to underpin division

A man staggers across sand dunes under a desert sun. He comes upon a sign with a vulture on it saying, “You are now leaving England”. He smiles and steps into a landscape of rolling green hills. The sound of a male voice choir grows as he lifts a pint of Welsh Bitter to his lips. The words appear: “Never forget your Welsh”

This advert will be fixed in the memory and affections of many a Welsh reader because it tapped into the affirming, even life-giving pride we have in our identity.

Wales is an old country being shaped by new ideas. No independent Welsh polity has ever encompassed the whole country or held Cardiff. Our distinctive flag is among the oldest in the world, but it was adopted only in 1959. Offa’s Dyke may be nearly 1,200 years old, but a modern border with England was settled only in 1972. And our devolved Senedd opened only in 1999. 

Our small population trebled in size during the industrial revolution after an influx of Irish and English immigrant workers. Today, three-quarters of the Welsh population still lives within an hour of Cardiff. 

North-west Wales is the Welsh-speaking heartland but the umbilical cords of commerce that connect us to England bind us together in a centuries-old embrace. Half a million people cross that border daily to work, visit friends or family – and, more recently, the pub. 

Like many other parts of the UK, Wales also enjoys devolved government. The devolved settlements have few champions, however: too expensive and too powerful for some, underfunded and ill-equipped for others. 

In 1997 half the electorate in Wales voted for an Assembly by just 0.6 per cent (6,721 votes) – a high point of engagement for our devolved politics. The recent Senedd election saw a record turnout of 46.6 per cent, but in 2016 the Welsh executive was elected on a constituency vote of just 10 per cent of the electorate.

Our union is the work of many hands, not grand ideas

Such poor engagement diminishes scrutiny, slows the dynamic of healthy democratic change and fosters nationalist rhetoric. 

The Welsh Labour government is the second longest serving in Europe (after Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus) but it took the pandemic for a First Minister to become a household name. 

In 2014, polling revealed most Welsh voters didn’t know the Welsh executive was responsible for the Welsh NHS. Wales’s pre-pandemic fiscal deficit was 48 times that of England’s – but without the democratic link between tax and spending, governments are drawn into lobbying a Westminster that “withholds” funding, and blaming it for failure.

Such a system has fostered place and nation-building rhetoric. The danger is real of a nationalism taking root that seeks out differences in culture and language, making narratives to underpin division not a means of enrichment. Collaboration becomes an opportunity for confrontation.

These lessons should concern every MP and it is in the spirit of learning from past mistakes that almost 80 Conservative backbench MPs have formed the Conservative Union Resources Unit (CURU), committed to strengthening the United Kingdom. 

We believe our country has a great past and a great future. Our union is the work of many hands, not grand ideas – shaped by answering the questions we faced. We believe identity is a complex web of memories, traditions and relationships, not a written document. 

The language of contract and “settlement” has diminished this, neglecting the real relationships which bind our parts together. They can be strengthened with time; supported by public institutions not defined by them.

Constitutional wrangling is far from the top of voters’ priority lists. As UK MPs, UK residents expect us to legislate for their best interests and the future of our nation. Like Wales, the UK must be a home to us all, whatever our politics, tradition – or our taste in beer. 

Robin Millar is Conservative MP for Aberconwy and chair of the Conservative Union Resources Unit

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