The UK’s forgotten frontier?

When we think of devolution, it is not unusual for the Scottish independence referendum or the bloody struggle over Northern Ireland to spring to mind. Wales, by contrast, is often treated as an afterthought – nudged towards an Assembly when Scotland was getting one, and subsequently overshadowed in national debate by Edinburgh and Belfast.

Of course, historically there are reasons for this. Wales has shared a monarch with England for much longer than Scotland, and does not have Ireland’s long history of conflict. But that does not mean that it is any less culturally distinct. If an English person arrives in Wales, they will hear a different language, see a different landscape, and taste different local specialties.

In fact, Wales can plausibly claim a level of uniqueness greater than its counterparts. It may not print its own banknotes, but the Welsh language is both in living use in many communities and is actively promoted by the devolved government. And yet, Wales has never produced the same support for devolution seen in Scotland.

It might seem as if I’m straying from the point, or even arguing that Wales needs to up its game and demand more powers. In fact, I believe that we must not allow Wales to be pushed by default towards more devolution or, worse, a desire for independence.

As I alluded to above, the Welsh referendum of 1999 delivered the Assembly by only a razor-thin margin – much narrower than either the Scottish independence referendum or the Brexit vote. Since then, turnout at devolved elections in Wales has barely hit 50 per cent, much lower than in general elections.

Why then should we assume that half the population, who voted ‘No’ in 1999 and ignore the Assembly today, are happy with the current state of affairs? And why are these voters so underrepresented in Welsh politics, compared to the well-organised movements which have emerged from the losing campaigns of the Scottish and Brexit referendums?

There is clearly political space, and up to hundreds of thousands of potential voters, awaiting a party or campaign group who will give voice to this scepticism and, if not actively advocate for integration, at least subject the devolved settlement to critical scrutiny. If such a group could harness the energy of Wales’ devosceptics, in the manner of the SNP and ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, it could grow into a influential force in Welsh politics.

Westminster should recognise that Brexit has re-lit the fires under the question of independence, if not yet for the public then at least for sections of the Welsh establishment. Earlier this year, Plaid Cymru – the Welsh nationalists – chose a new leader, and this has sparked a fresh push for independence post-Brexit. Whilst full independence is a marginal interest at the moment, Welsh politicians are watching the negotiations carefully for opportunities to push their agendas, whether devolutionary or separatist.

Wales might have voted Leave – to the great surprise of politicians and commentators – but that doesn’t mean that a botched Brexit couldn’t undermine our Union, which has stood since the 1500s, if politicians in Westminster overlook our United Kingdom’s oldest and deepest partnership.

Experience teaches us that campaigns are much more successful if waged over the long-term. Compare the decades-long push for devolution to the last-minute scramble to save the Union in 2014. With both Plaid and Labour gearing up for a fresh campaign for “more powers”, based on Wales’ supposedly distinct needs and character, the British Government has a duty to act from its present position of strength and make its case to the Welsh people, utilising discontent with the Assembly and reaching voters before the nationalists (whether in Plaid or Labour) can take control of the narrative and entrench their own anti-Westminster agenda.

Now more than ever, at a time of political upheaval when unrest is increasingly a feature of day-today politics, we must recognise both the strength and precarity of Wales’ place within the Union. We must neither succumb to pessimism and scaremongering about independence, nor allow ourselves to grow complacent about the potential challenges posed by Welsh nationalism.

Brexit has revealed that Britain’s position in Wales is stronger than many assumed. We must grasp this opportunity to make our case with clarity and with confidence – and not let 500 years of history slip through our fingers.

 

Megan Williams is a former Conservative Welsh Assembly Candidate, and works in the House of Commons. She tweets @tory_meg

 

 

Devolution is not the Solution

The biggest challenge facing the next generation of unionists will probably not be a direct separatist challenge to the Union.

Scottish capital-N Nationalism has stalled as Brexit pulls the rug from beneath ‘independence in Europe’; Welsh separatism remains a very minority pursuit; and whilst the situation in Northern Ireland is more precarious it’s economic circumstances are such that it would likely take the active collusion of the British Government to make any merger with the Republic viable in the decades ahead.

The task facing unionists of my generation is an internal one: shaking off the decaying intellectual orthodoxies of the devolution movement.

Since 1997, and arguably for several decades before that, unionism has been in thrall to the very whiggish idea that there is somewhere a ‘solution’ to separatist sentiment – some combination of powers and payments which will satiate the nationalists and stabilise the constitution. The foundational logic of the Scottish Parliament was to “kill nationalism stone dead”, and when that signally failed to work the devolutionaries have (much like revolutionaries all over) kept insisting that it just needs one more heave, one more round of “more powers!”, for the whole thing to come right.

The insidious effect of the devolutionary capture of the leadership of unionism is, two decades on from its crucial triumphs in the Welsh and Scottish referendums, undeniable. Not only has the incessant flow of powers out of Westminster failed to deliver better governance, constitutional stability, or weaker nationalism, but until recently the new arrangements have been placed almost entirely beyond criticism.

As a result, popular devo-scepticism remains stubbornly under- or even unrepresented in any of our legislatures, which in turn helps to fuel the devolutionary ratchet effect. Even worse, unionists are obliged to behave as if this ‘new United Kingdom’ were what we wanted all along. Thus when the Nationalists, who of course continue to unashamedly strive for their desired end state of independence, demand more concessions (or ‘compromises’) we are ill-equipped to point out that the Scottish Parliament is the compromise.

The nadir of this process could be seen during the Scottish independence referendum, when many on the ‘No’ side set out a position they termed the “best of both worlds”. It involved Scotland cutting the British dimension out of more decision-making than ever, whilst retaining undiminished access to UK fiscal transfers. Suffice to say, you aren’t saying much to Britain’s credit if you suggest that the only thing it brings to an ideal arrangement is cash.

What we have forgotten, or at least stopped pointing out, is that Britain is a nation, and ‘the British’ are a legitimate community for political decision making (although witness how both nationalist and devolutionary politicians and commentators have been confounded by popular acceptance of a vote to leave the EU conducted on just that basis). That at its best the Union is a way of ‘pooling and sharing’ wisdom and experience as well as money.

Shedding several decades’ of devolutionary intellectual baggage will not be easy. Whilst devo-sceptic sentiment is no longer quite as verboten as once it was, there are still too few prepared to make the case in public. The old more-powers orthodoxy will also be fiercely defended, both by those unionists of the old guard who have staked their reputation on the wisdom of devolution and by the new class of devocrats – politicians, journalists, academics, and civil society figures who derive some combination of power, pay, and prestige from the new institutions – which have grown up around the various legislatures.

But shed it we must. Constitutional malfunctions play out at a glacial pace compared to politics, and time and again we have seen politicians making short-term concessions only to leave the next generation dealing with the consequences.

Brexit has illustrated why this is necessary: too many unionists joined forces with the nationalists to fight the Government over the devolution of powers after Brexit, with potentially serious implications for the long-term harmony of the British internal market.

Yet it has also shown that it can be done. Contra to the received wisdom of the ‘fragile Union’ theorists, who posited that disappointing the separatists on any major issue would break up the UK, the Leave vote has revealed the British people still willing to act as ‘the British people’, and accept the result of a country-wide vote even if the result went differently in their local patch – much to the disbelieving dismay of devocrats in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

We must seize this opportunity. If we don’t wrest the leadership of unionism back from the professional pessimists, their self-fulfilling prophecies will come to pass in time.

 

Henry Hill has covered the Union and constitutional issues for ConservativeHome for over six years, and has also written on the subject for Reaction, CapX, and the Daily Telegraph. He tweets at @HCH_Hill.

The Emotional Case for The Union is Just as Important as the Economic Case

The Brexit imbroglio has encouraged separatists in Northern Ireland and Scotland to intensify their attacks on the Union, as fundamental constitutional issues have become the focus of UK politics.

A little ironically, their short-term goals have coincided increasingly with the short-term goals of the most adamant remain-voting liberals, who were dismayed and disorientated by the referendum result, and are instinctively suspicious of any assertion of national sovereignty. Scottish and Irish nationalists believe they can dilute London’s influence by pursuing a closer relationship with Brussels for these regions, and therefore boosting their own visions of nationhood, while their liberal allies see the EU project as a means of containing all forms of nationalism.

Lessons from elsewhere.

I have had the privilege to live and work in one of the presently most vibrant and exciting cities in Europe, Budapest. It is not only now apparently “Party Central” for every Northern European waif and stray but it is also a place absolutely dripping in history, admittedly most of it melancholic.

Of course, like everywhere else there were aspects which I found difficult to cope with (more on that anon).

One of the indirect advantages of being there was that I could indulge my travel fetish for the obscure and “off-the-beaten track”. Ever since I left Belfast at the age of 18, I have wanted to visit places that you are unlikely to find in the typical travel brochure; places that even today where you are unlikely to access accommodation on Airbnb or Booking.com. For example, last year I was lucky enough to fly the 45 (!) minutes to Sarajevo, a place and people that have left a very real lasting impression on me.

The Case for the Union – A Personal Perspective.

The union for me has always been defined by what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. And one can at least measure this practically.

The United Kingdom offers Northern Ireland the best advantages in terms of economic, military and diplomatic standing on the world stage. Its greater links to trade and investment all over the world provide opportunities for job creation both here and in the rest of the UK. The whole shape of the world economy will change over the next two decades – robotics, artificial intelligence, new technologies – and I see the UK (post-Brexit) being well-placed to adapt to this change. The fragility of the Irish economy and its narrow dependence on foreign subsidiaries was demonstrated clearly in 2008.

This Union

Next Generation Series

A while back This Union asked for articles from younger or newer writers/commentators, the next generation. Rather than have established(ment) political statements on repeat, we want to try to gauge a range of views from younger writers and commentators. Contributions have been stored ‘on file’ for a while, trying to find a gap in the endless Brexit headlines to break out onto a more fundamental track that will remain on the political agenda past Brexit (if Brexit ever ends….).

Next week, starting Monday 19th August, we will post a series of five articles that provide individual perspectives on The Union.

The five articles offer personal perspectives and make different arguments, reflecting the individuals’ particular background and experience.

Where we might be, or not. Who knows?

 

 

 

 

Brexit, of course.

Legacy – a series of essays

 

 

 

 

 

 

The News Letter has sent an email to registered readers providing a summary of its recent series of essays on the Legacy proposals currently the subject of “consultation”.

The premise in publishing the series has been simple: has been a scandal the way in which the whole weight of the British state has, at great expense to UK taxpayers, turned in on its own security forces who prevented civil war here in Northern Ireland (the introductory stories to the series list the current imbalance against security forces).

It is “Time to stop the terror legacy scandal” (August 20th). The series was backed with a strong Morning View editorial.

Inevitable, for 100 years

 

 

 

 

Since the foundation of Northern Ireland nationalism has seen the existence of the Province as temporary and therefore refuse to ‘accept’ partition. Partition, in nationalists’ eyes, was(is) means through which Britain maintained a presence in Ireland for its own ‘selfish and strategic interests’; and Unionists were (and still are) their ‘patsies’.

Legally speaking partition was to be temporary: this was the position of the London Government, quite possibly to avoid an argument. For Northern Ireland to be close to a century old, must therefore clearly depress nationalists. Instead of viewing Northern Ireland as a success, it is therefore essential to label it as a ‘failed’ entity based on historic grievance laid at the door of political Unionism.

To imagine that Northern Ireland would be still in existence nearly a century later, would would have been simply ‘unbelievable’ in 1920.

DITCH THE DOGMA – DO THE DEAL

 

 

 

 

 

In the imagination of remainers, the Tory European Research Group is a cadre of irreconcilable Brexit ultras, determined to wrench the UK from the EU in chaotic fashion. It’s ironic then, that the ERG’s latest paper is one of the calmest contributions to the Irish border debate, delivering low-key, rather technical solutions to practical problems raised by the frontier, rather than overheated rhetoric.