Thoughts from Wales on the EU Referendum
It would be easy to forget that the United Kingdom is made up of four constituent parts this week. The newspapers have been full of information about the impact that Brexit could have on at least three of these nations. England, the dutiful father, is on the verge of a split with its wife, who voted in complete contrast to him. Northern Ireland, if the newspapers are to be believed, risks descending back into conflict with its perfect cousin. Scotland, having risen to prominence following its own referendum two years ago, is playing the part of the rebellious son and is on the verge of converting to a new faith, much to the chagrin of its overly controlling father. Wales. Wales can be observed fearfully tugging at its busy father's hand, staring up in the hope that it will be told what's happening. In the national newspapers there is barely a mention of Wales, and only then when it is mentioned as part of England.
Nationhood is a strange abstract concept. Yet it seems increasingly evident that such abstract notions as this, and the strange sense of pride that they cause in human beings, has led to many people questioning their own sense of identity. Wales, like any other modern country, is a complicated place. It has a long history of empire, of having been both subject and a willing participant in that empire. It also has a modern history of being part of a larger union that has allowed my generation to grow up in relative peace. It is these two different experiences that have, at least in part, contributed to the stark generational voting patterns that we witnessed on the 23/06/2016. The one harks back to a Great Britain that raped and pillaged its way throughout the known world, the other seeks reformation in a peaceful union of nations where Wales can take an equal part.
I count myself amongst the latter and have actively chosen to not define myself as 'British'. Instead, taking my lead from many of my fellow European citizens, I have come to define myself as 'Welsh-European'. I was seventeen years old when in 1997 Wales narrowly stopped short of voting itself out of existence and gave rise to the Welsh Assembly Government. I am therefore lucky enough to have belonged to both versions of Wales. I vividly recall us suffering from an habitual inferiority complex as I grew up. Painfully do I remember the accepted insinuations that we were somehow intellectually inferior and unable to make decisions for ourselves. Even more do I bristle when I still lower my head in abject silence when someone snidely suggests that Wales is merely a principality, despite the Prince of Wales not having had any constitutional powers in Wales for centuries. With pride have I observed the slow and steady erosion of this in younger generations, as the Welsh Assembly Government has slowly grown in stature. We do, of course, still fall in to these old behaviours. Occasionally you will see Welsh people mumble their native language, afraid to admit that they can speak Welsh, or even more annoyingly in the South, suggesting that the opportunity to use the language is not available. Yet we have progressed, and in the distant north we have witnessed a sudden and beautiful explosion of democracy and empowerment in Scotland. Many of this new generation look to the north, and dream of when we too will empower ourselves, and perhaps take our place in the world as equal partners of these other great nations in the European Union.
Yet despite all of this visible progress 53% of Wales voted us into irrelevance last week. Since 2000 The Welsh Assembly Government has been provided with over £4 billion to spend on infrastructure projects by the European Union. When Westminster suggested that we didn't need such an amount of money and tried to manage how it was spent themselves the EU insisted that it was for the Welsh Assembly Government to manage. To suggest that Wales has not benefitted from this union, which was designed to support poor areas to improve and to therefore become more attractive to investment and trade, would be simply incorrect. Progress has been slow here in Swansea, but anyone with a mind to see it can do so clearly in the University project on Fabian Way, the slow evolution of the High Street, the admittedly dubious boulevard, and in the plans for a tidal lagoon project in Swansea Bay and the complete redevelopment of Swansea City Centre. Would this investment and trade be available without the infrastructure projects that have been supported by this investment? I honestly don't know but I would rather not have us find out.
I have been extremely disappointed with the responses from welsh politicians this week. Plaid Cymru have entirely failed to assert themselves. I am sure that they understand the negative impact that this decision will have on Wales and I would like to see them not concern themselves with fears of short-term popularity. At least 47% of the population is likely to agree with them and there is a strong suggestion that a large amount of people have since changed their minds. If you know something is wrong then nail your flag to the mast and accept where your honour takes you. Worse though was to come from the First Minister, when he immediately exhibited behaviour that I have long perceived and had hoped to be a relic of our past. “Don’t worry everyone” Carwyn Jones asserted, “I will go to England, and I will not return without first ensuring that my nose is thoroughly brown”. Begging in an assertive tone is still begging.
During her speech to announce her candidacy for the Tory Leadership, and the unelected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May drew attention to the divisions caused by 'nationalists' in Scotland and Wales. She is either willfully ignorant or has simply chosen to ignore the reality that her party just held a deeply divisive referendum that had nationalism at its heart. The UK is already divided between two states of identity and her not realising this might indicate that she is not the person to lead the UK towards a long-term solution. This long-term solution is surely the further empowerment of devolved parliaments and the disempowerment of Westminster. If this referendum shows us anything it is that the current power dynamic cannot democratically represent such a diverse community anymore. If Westminster fails to recognise this then the the past week may well prove to be the final death throws of the British Empire.