“There are four intellectuals in Scotland, and they’re all called Tom Nairn.” This was the tart response of a Scottish television news presenter to a hapless interviewee unwise enough to call himself an intellectual. It was repeated by Professor Will Storrar in his opening remarks to 700 attendees at the Break Up of Britain conference in Edinburgh on 18 November, setting the tone for the day.
Tom Nairn, writer on culture, constitutions, politics, history, and identity, died earlier this year. He was a polymath whose writings predicted why and how the British state would fail, and asked what would come next. How do you build functioning modern democracies out of the wreckage of a polity that has so clearly failed? It’s a question of profound importance for Wales and Welsh politics, in the face of obvious failures of statehood in Westminster.
Conference lessons for Wales
The conference debate was everything Westminster’s isn’t – passionate, constructive, optimistic, honest, reflective, rooted in ideas, intellectually serious. Above all, it was energised and energising. This matters because we in Cymru are, like Scotland, working to shape the democratic state that will emerge from the ruins of Union.
If the spirit of Tom Nairn hovered benignly over the day, there were four other spectres – Empire, Brexit, a Starmer-led Labour government, and – a dog that rarely barks in discussions of the UK’s future – the nature of Englishness. Each speaks to Nairn’s expression of the importance of national narratives; the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
In the opulent surroundings of Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms, built on the proceeds of the slave trade, Empire was unavoidable. The way it shaped narratives of Britishness was a constant conference theme. Labour MP Clive Lewis summed it up best by describing Britain as a construct of empire, but also a deliberate forgetting of what that means: a national identity founded on evasion.
Brexit reflected a continuation of the attitudes of imperialism – both exceptionalism and the many evasions the idea of post-imperial Britishness entails. As Leanne Wood reminded the conference, Wales voted narrowly to leave and hadn’t suffered the constitutional outrage of being pulled out of the EU against its will. But Brexit became a rationale for encroachment of Westminster onto devolved political territory.
As Nairn’s longtime friend and collaborator Anthony Barnett reminded the conference, Brexit isn’t something that’s been done. It’s barely begun. A recurring conference theme was the importance of understanding Brexit as something far more than an economic disaster – although it’s undoubtedly that. It’s a reassertion of the exceptionalism, imperial pretensions, and disdain for democracy of the Westminster constitution.
Lesley Riddoch reminded us of Nairn’s central thesis of the Westminster constitution’s backwardness. “We’re still living with the Divine Right of Kings embodied in a prime minister who can do what the hell he likes.” That’s what ‘taking back control’ really means. As the initial economic shocks of Brexit are assimilated, the constitutional implications become clear. They include increasing centralisation of the Westminster state and a disdain for devolution.
Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson encapsulated the position clearly. Scotland will and must return to the EU, “because only by pooling our sovereignty in Europe can we guarantee our sovereignty in Scotland”. It’s hard to see how the same isn’t true for Wales.
There was universal agreement that a Starmer-led Labour government promises no constitutional progress. Attendees found a copy of the National on their seats containing the conference agenda. The front page story detailed Starmer ordering the filleting of the Brown report on the constitution to avoid affronting Unionist opinion.
James Meadway of the Progressive Economy Forum noted that austerity is about a deeply-embedded structural failure in the UK’s political system and its relationship with finance. It weakens the UK’s resilience in the face of economic shocks. Yet Labour, with a shadow chancellor staking her credentials on her time in the Bank of England, part of that failed structure, is committed to its continuance.
Maggie Chapman MSP noted that devolution settlements denied Wales and Scotland the economic policy levers to mitigate austerity’s impacts. Labour’s commitment to a financialised economy and its institutions means both will be bound to economic policies that don’t serve their interests and for which there’s no mandate. Labour offers economic continuity: tempered by warm words and marginal tinkerings, but leaving the structures of austerity intact.
Englishness, and a new Cymru
A key conference session was devoted to a consideration of Englishness. But Caroline Lucas had asked the key question in her opening session remarks: why was the English Left comfortable with the flag of St George flying from a church, but uncomfortable when it was draped over the balcony of a council flat? The answer lay in its abandonment of the idea of Englishness to the Right, and the ambiguous relationship between Englishness and Britishness.
As Cardiff University’s Richard Wyn Jones, co-author – with Professor Ailsa Henderson, a former pupil of Tom Nairn – of a revelatory study of Englishness put it, the progressive side of Englishness doesn’t seek to develop an alternative progressive narrative. Instead we see a thicket of Union Flags. The regionalism of the Brown report was a way to avoid the question of what Englishness is; in every poll a single British or English state beat regional governance every time.
Professor Wyn Jones’ work showed that when people in England described themselves as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ it was often accompanied by a sense of grievance and victimhood – that the English lack respect and agency. It’s an important insight when Barnett funding is increasingly seen as a form of Scottish or Welsh ‘privilege’, and points to what Wales might expect in a rump UK after Scotland leaves. There’s a nascent ugliness in the attitude of Englishness towards Wales and Scotland.
What does all this mean for Wales?
The conference reasserted the seriousness and rigour with which the case for independence has been developed in Scotland. Despite the current SNP crisis, it still commands the support of half of Scots, and a far higher proportion among younger people. There were frequent reminders of the cathartic experience of the 2014 referendum. It energised support for independence but, alongside that, democratic debate more generally, and a sense that people could play a role in changing their society.
It points to the central importance of democratic engagement in the creation of a new Cymru. The question of independence, of constitution-building and state-creation, is not just about institutions but about the kind of society we want. Debate needs to move beyond the conventional institutions of Welsh political discourse.
Intellectual confidence is vital too, and nowhere more than in the economic sphere. A decade ago, political debate in Wales asked whether we could afford to be independent. Given the catastrophic economic failures of austerity – and in spite of the way pro-austerity Westminster consensus constrains debate – the question is increasingly whether we can afford not to be.
In Wales, of course, we already have a Labour government constrained by austerity. It presides over continuing decline and collapsing services, for which Westminster is blamed and which, we are told, change at Westminster will mitigate. Wales obviously needs more cash. With an incoming Labour chancellor committed to swingeing austerian fiscal rules, it obviously isn’t going to get it. But we need decisions taken in Wales too, about how we tax and spend.
The confidence to thrive
Welsh Labour, for all the ‘clear red water’ spin, remains our reminder that a Labour government in London installed by English votes is an assertion that Wales doesn’t have the right to ask big economic questions. And austerity economics has been providing the wrong answers for Wales for far too long, with incalculable damage.
To bring together the themes for this conference, we need confidence. We need an understanding of the depth of failure of the Westminster system, and the economic and political consensus and lack of ambition that characterise mainstream political parties there. We need to move beyond the timorous nonsense that the Union is in any sense Wales’ insurance policy.
Austerity destroys living standards and lives, but it destroys confidence too. We need, instead, the optimism and belief that a small(ish) confident nation, at ease with its history and identity, can thrive in a way that what Tom Nairn called Ukania – a large, failing polity obsessed with nostalgia for a fictionalised past – cannot.
That’s what I, for one, took away from this conference: an energising sense of optimism and belief. In After Britain, Tom Nairn wrote that a polity in a terminal condition has to negotiate, to manoeuvre constantly to survive. In such a situation, a renewed and confident Wales has everything to play for.