Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The politics of Goldilocks

Absolutely fascinating debate that has been hosted by Gwe, following on from a posting by Normal Mouth. This debate raises all sorts of issues about nationality and identity, and their role in politics.

I ran into some criticism from some nationalist bloggers with these two posts a month or so ago. Some of those who commented felt that I was arguing against the existence of a Welsh nation – but that was never my intention. What I struggle with is finding an objective basis for defining the existence of a Welsh nation which cannot also be used to define the existence of a British nation.

Some, such as AlaninDyfed, get around the issue by simply defining ‘nationality’ in a way which excludes any possibility of multiple or overlapping nationalities, and attempts to force people to choose a single defining nationality. Whilst this has the attraction of simplicity, it seems to me to ignore the simple reality that the majority of people in Wales define themselves as both Welsh and British. There is something deeply unsatisfactory for me in simply dismissing the view of the majority as a delusion.

Normal Mouth has suggested that nationality is to some extent a contrived concept; that's an idea that has some validity to me. If nationality cannot be defined in some objective fashion, but depends ultimately on what each of us feel, than it is, ultimately, a product of human invention. Does a baby have any inherent nationality before (s)he is conditioned into one by nurture? I would argue not, a point of view which supports the ‘contrived’ proposition.

But, for something which has been invented by humanity, nationality has a very powerful hold on almost all of us. I think that hold is as much to do with identity, though, as with nationality; and the two are not quite the same thing. Ultimately, our nationality is something that we choose. I am Welsh because I choose to be so; I choose to identify with 'Welshness' - whatever that is. Ordovicius (as well as Gwe and Aran) raised an extremely pertinent point in saying that there isn’t even a single ‘Welsh’ identity. ‘Being Welsh’ means all sorts of different things to different people, yet still somehow, we feel there to be enough commonality there that the idea of Independence for Ynys Môn sounds a very odd one.

Even though I choose to be Welsh, I have no real problem considering myself to be British and European as well – and why ever not? There is a very valid argument that, for most English people, ‘English’ and ‘British’ mean more or less the same thing. Sometimes though, I feel that we might be too quick to rail against the apparent arrogance of that view, and start to deliberately define ourselves in ways that distance ourselves from it as a reaction. Here in Wales, we know that they think like that, and we know that the two nationalities are not the same – but still most of our compatriots manage to be quite relaxed about being both Welsh and British.

However, fascinating though the debate about nationality and identity is, the real question we need to address is surely this – what does it mean in political terms?

For some Welsh nationalists, there is a straight line between Wales being a nation and Wales being independent; the one should lead automatically to the other. And much as I dislike the term ‘Brit-nat’, there are those who jump straight from the belief that we are a single British nation to the conclusion that devolution should be scrapped and all decisions should be taken in London. In both cases, it seems to me, this is the politics of Goldilocks; the idea that there is a structure of government which is 'just right', and that it is based on a simple process of equating ‘nation’ with government structure.

Defining things in this way works well for the nationalists on both sides; but it does little for rational and constructive debate, since neither side will ever convince the other. It looks to me as though what the opinion polls tell us is that the majority of people in Wales are ready and willing to support further devolution, but need to be convinced that it is a good idea on pragmatic rather than theoretical grounds. I suspect that the debate will be won or lost by those who are prepared to argue on bread and butter grounds rather than those who talk in terms of over simplistic nationalism.

We should remember that what was ‘just right’ for both Goldilocks and Baby Bear was far from ‘just right’ for either Mummy Bear or Daddy Bear. They need to be convinced that different really is better.


alanindyfed said...

"Ultimately, our nationality is something that we choose. I am Welsh because I choose to be so; I choose to identify with 'Welshness' - whatever that is."

Your position coincides with the point in my discussion on allegiance. You choose to be Welsh, as I do. What I am saying is that you cannot morally split your allegiance between Welsh and 'British'. You cannot be both Welsh and British if you cannot define 'British' as a nationality. There is no European nation so why say there is a British one? Wales is a nation in Europe. To me this fact is indisputable. The best logic is often the simplest.

Aran said...

I think a lot of it (or maybe even most of it) comes down to where decisions are made. A village council will choose what is best for that village, a county council what is best for that county, a national government what is best for that nation.

The problem is that the further you go away from the village, the more likely it is that things which cause damage to some communities (and which those communities would never choose for themselves) look reasonable, because they appear to work on a national basis (over-reliance on GDP as a statistical tool has a lot to answer for here, by way of example).

This doesn't mean that all decisions should be devolved to village level - we benefit enormously from having some common frameworks.

But it does perhaps mean that we would benefit from starting with the presumption that decisions should be made locally, and then arguing the case for those which need to be made further away from the community.

Seen in that light, Wales as a nation should be responsible for the decisions which affect people in Wales (and should devolve those decisions internally as far as possible), unless a legitimate case can be made for the decisions being made at a British or European level.

One of the reasons I believe that independence is important is that it is necessary in order to create debate about such decisions - otherwise, as has historically been the case, Westminster does not have to make a case for retaining some (or indeed all!) decisions.

With independence, a Council of Britain would be free to make the case for some joint decisions, while needing to persuade the national governments of England, Scotland, Wales and perhaps even Ireland of the validity of its arguments.

Ceredig said...


“What I am saying is that you cannot morally split your allegiance between Welsh and 'British'. You cannot be both Welsh and British if you cannot define 'British' as a nationality.”

Morally? Where does morality come into this? Are you seriously suggesting that people who feel a split allegiance are behaving immorally?

On the more substantive point, yet again, you repeat the mantra without explaining the basis on which you have decided that Wales is a nation, but Britain is not. You don’t even appear to be consistent, as far as I can see, in your basis of defining nations.

You recently carried a very positive post about Mazzini for instance, describing him as a great Italian nationalist. Forgive my alternative view of history, but wasn’t he in favour of eliminating the smaller kingdoms (nations?) of Italy, most of which had their own languages, and merging them into a single Italian nation? You seem to think that it’s a pretty OK thing to crush Sardinian nationality in favour of Italian unity, but not to crush Welsh nationality in favour of British unity. Given that Sardinia has a nationalist party, campaigning for Independence, and working largely through the Sardinian language, I was greatly surprised to see an avid Plaid supporter such as yourself being so supportive of centralised Italian nationalism.

I think that you have started from a definition that says Wales, England, Italy are nations, but Britain, Sardinia, Sicily are not. What I don’t understand is the basis of your definition of a nation which leads you to these conclusions. My point is simply that on what I understand a ‘nation’ to be, I could argue that all six are ‘nations’, whereas your definition seems to be considerably more selective.


Good points. I’d tend to agree that decisions should be taken as locally as possible, although that is not without its problems (to which I may return at another time). But I think we’re in agreement about the fundamental point, which is that there is a need to justify why decisions should be taken at any particular level. And that is a point which supporters of the ‘Union’ need to take on board every bit as much as supporters of Independence. I’m not only challenging one side of that debate; to me, the status quo is no more obviously ‘right’ than any other status; it's just a result at a point in time of a particular series of historical events.

Nationality and national identity are factors which affect our views, of course; but I’m not convinced that they should be the sole drivers, which appears to be the basis on which some Welsh and British nationalists work.

Anonymous said...

Personally Id like to see the kind of devolved democracy seen in Switzerland governing Wales.

As far as Im concerned Wales exists, it is not merely a geographic expression. People can choose to identify themselves with Britain or Europe, but Welsh nationality is able to exist independently of both of these.

alanindyfed said...

The Swiss canton system works well for them.
Why not introduce a similar set-up in Wales?
This is devolution in practice.

Aran said...

Good heavens - I'm in complete agreement with someone! That doesn't happen often...;-)

I suspect that many people become involved in the nationalist cause because of either romanticism or a sense of the importance of non-central decision-making. Whatever their initial trigger, it then becomes far too easy to concentrate on one issue, instead of trying to juggle the whole kit-and-caboodle.

The flip side of that, though, is that it is important that there is enough focus on 'independence' to get the necessary granular policy discussions happening - at the moment, my money would say that the blogosphere is somewhat ahead of Welsh civic society (and certainly politics) on that front.

Unless you count the blogosphere as part of civic society, of course...;-)

alanindyfed said...

The Blogosphere resembles a Think Tank. It leads the way in forward thinking.
One day civic society will catch up
(and so will some bloggers ;-)

Ceredig said...


"Good heavens - I'm in complete agreement with someone!"

Henaint ni ddaw ei hunan. But I'll try and be more argumentative in future.

Aran said...

Ha! But I've been saying that since I was in my early thirties...;-)