When you complete your census forms which box do you check? Welsh? British? Both?
Or when you complete an online form that requests your nationality do you get an uneasy feeling when you have to check the ‘British’ box, or do you just check the ‘Irish’ box instead?
One of the major challenges facing the Independence Movement is to understand the sense of Britishness that a great many people feel in Wales, and to convince them that supporting an Independent Wales can also be compatible with someone’s British identity.
A few weeks ago in Aberystwyth University’s Debating Club, while debating the issue of Independence for Wales, Neil Hamilton, who was arguing against independence, said that he felt British, that his identity was British and that he didn’t want that identity to be taken away from him. Whatever one might think about the ‘liar and cheat’ Mr Hamilton, he is certainly not alone in his concern about losing his identity.
This of course could well change over the coming years, in the event of Scotland becoming an independent state and the breakup of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain will be no more. Nevertheless, as things stand, the people of Wales, more than any other part of the United Kingdom (if a recent Opinium survey is to be believed) take pride in being British.
It’s not a unique problem to Wales. Scotland has a strong British tradition, and take pride in their part in the creation of the British Empire.
In 1986 when asked about their identity, the Scots responded,
- Scottish, not British: 39%
- More Scottish than British: 30%
- Equally Scottish and British: 19%
- More British than Scottish: 4%
- British, not Scottish: 6%
- Don’t know/No answer: 2%
Note that 53% had a dual identity, to a greater or lesser degree.
The SNP tried – and largely achieved – to balance this by proclaiming that Queen Elizabeth II would continue to be Scotland’s monarch; and that they would retain the pound sterling as their currency.
Of course there’s nothing to stop anybody having dual identity. The Swedes, for instance, are both Swedish AND Scandinavian.
But maybe we should direct those who identify themselves as British to an article written nearly 100 years ago by one of Shrewsbury’s finest sons, barrister and journalist John Arthur Price.
In his article, ‘Welsh Nationalism and Mr. Lloyd George’s Speech’ published in the September 1918 issue of Welsh Outlook, Mr Price proclaims his pride at Wales’ roll in the British Empire, but takes a sledgehammer to the hypocrisies of the anti-Independence arguments spouted in his day, the same arguments which are repeated ad nauseam a century later.
Wales and Empire
It was a time when the spirit of the Brutish British Bulldog was at its peak, and, with the Welsh Wizard Lloyd George at the helm, Wales was right at the forefront of that British spirit. The Empire was at its largest; Kitchener’s pointed finger was telling everybody how their country needed them; TE Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, was earning plaudits for his British fortitude fighting the Ottoman forces, and the British counter attack on the Western Front was well under way.
In his article Arthur Price, while criticising the then Liberal Party, waxes lyrical about their leader Lloyd George,
“I admit fully that he (Lloyd George) has rendered inestimable services to the Empire and to civilisation at this world crisis. But I would remind my readers of Aristotle’s saying, that both Plato and Truth were his friends, and that when the two unhappily differed, he preferred to follow Truth,” says Mr Price.
He shows great hubris in the fact that a “Welsh swords placed on the English throne a Welshman, Henry Tudor” and described the Tudors as “a great dynasty”, before going on to express his pride at Wales’ part in Empire,
“I am, as I have often said, far from regretting this incorporation of Wales in the British Empire. From the sixteenth century to the present time, and never more than in the present war, Wales has played a great part in the building up and defence of that Empire”.
But while Mr Price has clear pride in what he sees as Wales’ central role in the British Empire, he also fervently believes that Wales could be, and should be, independent.
His historic references have clear echoes today. He refers to the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 and how the British Establishment tried to whip the people of Wales up against the idea of Irish Home Rule, much the same as what we are seeing with Scotland today,
“Wales in 1886, as Tom Ellis said, “saw the wreckers’ lights and shunned them.” Religious bigotry, racial prejudice, sectarian animosity, all were used to lure the Welsh ship on to the rocks of re-action, and they were used in vain.”
The Irish Home Rule Movement inspired many in Wales, again much like the Yes campaign in Scotland today, but sadly it was to no avail in Mr Price’s Day.
“In realising her duty to a fellow Celtic nation, Wales recovered her own soul, and for a moment she seemed about to recover her national heritage, -a place among the nations. But speedily the dream vanished.”
This is a lesson we must learn today.
Indeed it’s uncanny how the events of over a hundred years ago are echoed in Wales today. Directing his venom at the Liberal Party and their elected representatives, who had a near monopoly on political representation in Wales back then, Mr Price states,
“The leaders of the national movement in Wales sank under what a writer in a recent number of the Welsh Outlook calls “the domination and damnation of the English party system.” How absolute and complete has this subjection become has been proved by the attitude of the Welsh party during the last twelve months. This subjection was shown when they allowed the Parliamentary Reform Bill to leave the House of Commons without any attempt to obtain for Wales a Parliamentary representation proportionately equivalent in point of numbers to that granted to Scotland and Ireland on the ground of nationality…”
The exact same thing could be said today. Just look at the abject failure of the Labour Party in securing anything remotely equal to that achieved by Scotland over recent years.
Liberate little nations
Then he recounts the arguments against independence, and bulldozes them with his sheer force of logic,
“In the first place England, we are told, is at war (WW1) to liberate little nations. One of its war aims according to Mr. Balfour is the highly laudable one of securing not autonomy, but absolute independence for the Czechs of Bohemia. Can it seriously be supposed that England, while ready to wage war for the independence of Bohemia, is unwilling to grant to Wales the same amount of autonomy as Bohemia enjoyed, on paper at least, before the War commenced.”
He forces his reader to see a parallel with other historic nation states across Europe,
“On historical ground, Wales’s case for self government is quite as strong as that of Bohemia, Transylvania, or even Belgium.”
Before giving historic context to Wales’ right to independence,
“historically, Wales can make out as good a claim to nationhood as can any country in Europe. Centuries before the Norman conquest, in the far away age associated with the name of Dewi Sant, Wales was a nation. For she was inhabited by tribes all of whom spoke the Welsh language and all of whom worshipped in a national Church, which was not the Church of the English. United in her language and religion, these Welsh tribes had their separate chiefs and were often at war with each other, but in the fellow name Cymro, or fellow countryman, by which they all knew each other, they recognised a common nationality.”
After a brief history lesson, he states,
“(Wales) has every passport to the title of nationhood…”
As his polemic comes to a conclusion he thunders about the foolishness of forcing English law on Wales, because of the Establishment’s failure to understand Wales and her needs.
“When we contrast the failure of the ecclesiastical, land and educational system, which have been under the control of English administrators, with the success of institutions worked purely in Wales by Welshmen, like the Eisteddfod and the Sunday School, we are forced to the conclusion that Wales can manage her local affairs better than they can be managed for her. When these affairs are managed from English Government offices, there is confusion, dissatisfaction, failure. When the sole responsibility for them is with the Welsh people, there is success and satisfaction.”
He finally asks of the future. It must be borne in mind that this was written when WW1 was still being fought.
Many modern-day commentators have said that the challenges facing the UK post Brexit are the biggest that we have faced since WW2. It is interesting to read Mr Price’s view on reconstruction as Wales and Great Britain, as it was, were looking to reconstruct post WW1.
“The question is shall Wales undertake its work of reconstruction, or shall it be undertaken for it by a bureaucracy in London? If the latter course is adopted, certain high placed persons will see that Wales gets what they think is good for it, whether she likes it or not. Is it probable that an English Office will realise the position of the Welsh farmer who has purchased his homestead, of the Welsh miner who has other ideals than the state nationalisation of the mines? Would not both the farmer and the miner, and may I add the landowner and the capitalist, come to a more satisfactory and permanent settlement of differences if they discussed these matters among themselves, than if a solution was forced upon them by the young aristocratic proteges of Lord Milner riding rough shod over Welsh sentiment from the English bureaucratic fortresses of Whitehall.”
Quite. The same is true today.
Mr Price gives a cautionary note, taking his own long view on history, and seeing examples from the past. We would do well to listen,
“The attempt to reconstruct Welsh social life after the Napoleonic war produced the discontent that culminated in the Rebecca riots. The principles of the servile state, borrowed from Germany, are the alternative to Welsh Home Rule, and if Wales does not get self-government, she has nothing to which to look forward, politically, except on the one hand the Prussian bureaucratic system of Lord Milner, or the socialistic bureaucratic system of Mr. Sidney Webb, either of which if seriously tried will bring back the days of Rebecca and her daughters.”
And so to us today.
As Theresa May triggers Article 50, how will we respond?
What will our role as a nation be on the world stage?
What part will we play?
Arthur Price so no conflict between his Britishness and his Welshness.
He challenged the people of Wales one hundred years ago to take up the task of building their nation free from London rule. Our forefathers’ failure to listen then gave us 100 long years more of Unionism and London rule. In those 100 years Wales has suffered greater economic decline, chronic poverty, and hopelessness.
It has now fallen on our shoulders. It’s now our choice. Do we let our children and grandchildren to suffer the same fate as we have suffered, or do we learn from our forefathers’ mistakes, and take responsibility for our own future?
Yes we do.
Yes we can.