A few weeks ago a most unusual occurrence came to pass. The Guardian ran a piece that focused some of its attention on Wales.
Whatsmore, despite Brexit being its focus, it did not involve another of those narratives about a journey into the Heart of Darkness – the latest attempt to find out why the natives indulged in such flagrant and frenzied self-abuse in that one off ritual of madness known as the Brexit referendum.
It was, instead, a reasoned reflection on the constitutional conundrum facing the UK as a whole.
It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that such a contribution would flow from the pen of a Law Professor safely ensconced in the far away Ivory Tower of Princeton University. Having an ocean between oneself and the basket of deplorables that is now the UK seems about the adequate distance for being able to reflect with any assurity on the current impasse.
And yet, any hopes that this would be a commentary providing valuable insight into Wales’ predicament were summarily crushed before even reading it by the headline, which declared ‘A Semi-Brexit, with just England and Wales leaving the EU, is the solution’.
Indeed, here was the nightmare scenario – hinted at by some Scots and Irish as the dream move – being woven into some form of possible future reality, by a seemingly sensible and thoughtful American academic.
A disaggregated union
In fact, Kim Lane Scheppele’s solution did have a compelling simplicity to it.
The UK should simply follow the example of others where – within the same state – some parts are within the EU and others are outside – the bonus being that those that are outside get far more opportunity to cherry pick the type of arrangements they want with the EU than your average non-EU state.
For the EU this would be relatively simple; in fact the more complex adjustment would be that of the British constitution, including granting powers for international agreements to allow England and Wales out whilst allowing Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain, and devolving all laws covered by the EU so that they could forge the requisite relationship with this body of law.
Having previously reached a not insignificant level of fury in seeing those I admire, Adam Ramsey and Gerry Hassan chief amongst them, brazenly sacrifice Wales’s future on the altar of this dream of an EU-Gaelic rapprochement, witnessing it being expounded by a Princeton Professor – who had seemingly no self-interest as an excuse to fall back on – was too much for me to bear.
In my righteous indignation I set about composing an extended Twitter thread summarizing my concerns around this scenario.
“As much as it’s interesting to get the perspective of a Princeton Professor on Brexit,” I opined, “this piece by Kim Lane Scheppele is deeply problematic.”
“Firstly the Welsh people were asked if we wanted the UK to leave, not whether we wanted to leave just with England. If any proposal of this type were put forward it would by definition require a separate Wales-only referendum as it’s an entirely different proposal, and one in which the will of the Welsh people would be respected and not subsumed under the will of the English people.”
At this point I strode onto my soap box:
“Moreover, it is ignorant of the issues surrounding Wexit and the manner in which it was an undemocratic vote, held after gruelling Assembly elections, fought on the grounds of English interests because our public sphere and discourse is drowned out by the London press.”
And on to the coup de grace…
“It also has no understanding or sympathy for the consequences of what is proposed for Wales as a country, where it would enter into agreements again based wholly on English interests, detrimental to our economy, our communities & our language. Wales as the “sacrificial lamb”.’
In fact, by the completion of my thread I had become animated enough to presume it would be a good idea to share my thoughts with the author. I promptly sent her an explanatory note and a copy of my rather shrill – or being kind to myself, impassioned – tweetage.
Professor Scheppele, in responding, did so with that easy and open nature so typical of the usual American academic (in comparison to the austere nature of some of their British colleagues) – and with characteristic equanimity and good humour. Moreover, she went on to provide the details of the unedited version of her paper:
“I said in my [original] piece that Wales had by now come around to “Remain” as evidenced by the fact that the Welsh government has been coordinating with the Scottish government over strategy for some time and therefore that practically speaking, only England would leave.”
“Nothing in what I said precludes a democratic process within a devolved government coming to a different conclusion than the referendum results. I know that the Welsh government would Remain if it had that option, and most probably a second referendum fought outside the noise from England would conclude that too. My piece initially said that I thought Wales would – and should – remain.”
“The complication with Wales, of course, is that the English and Welsh legal systems are a great deal more integrated than England is with either Northern Ireland or Scotland. My proposal – if Wales stayed in the EU with Scotland and Northern Ireland – would strengthen a separate Welsh constitutional identity within UK constitutional law.”
To say these points provide a somewhat different gloss on the printed argument would be an understatement. In short, rather than hitching the Welsh wagon to the English horse in order to secure a clean Semi-Brexit for the good of the UK, it is suggested that what should happen and what would follow is that Wales, in such a scenario, can vote again on their EU membership – and in such circumstances would likely vote remain, paving the way for the creation of a separate Welsh legal system and a significantly federated UK where Wales would remain in the EU as part of what we might, for good measure, call a Celtic Union.
This response was somewhat unexpected. I felt rather like an irate neighbour knocking on next door’s front door to complain about the din from the party, only to be invited in by the host and sat down with a beer for an enjoyable chat.
The one-eyed monster
So with Wales’ future now looking far more secure, there remains only one question, which is what happened in the editing process?
The alternative narrative is hinted at very briefly in parenthesis in the second paragraph of the published piece, where it was noted the British government could honour the referendum ‘permitting England and Wales (if it still wants to) to exit’. With the red mist descended I read this initially as adding insult to injury by suggesting the one entity of England and Wales could think again – however in hindsight this looks like the only brief reference to the alternative future course suggested by Scheppele.
It is not referred to again, as England and Wales really does become one entity for the purposes of the argument. This is indicative of the London Press’s broader treatment of Wales (the obvious exception being the work of the wonderful Aditya Chakrabortty) – it is a stark demonstration of how we are waylaid by mainstream British coverage, and how our place in the world and our future is written for us.
And of course, it is the reality of this narrative that is consumed by the majority of the Welsh public and politicians. Here is a Wales that has no real agency, no real significance, and operates as an adjunct to England that it is to be dealt with in such a way that is of least bother to everyone. And this is the narrative that is reproduced in our thoughts, reflections and actions. It is no wonder that we see ourselves as “too small, too poor, too reliant upon England”.
The argument above, set out in full, represents a potentially vital get out clause for Wales and a justification for thinking again about our position. An emancipatory narrative even, where we take control of our fate and decide on our future for ourselves and our relationship with the EU. To an American academic with no baggage or stultifying preconceptions, this seems a reasonable and rational approach to the situation.
In the same way as we never voted to leave just with England, we might make the argument we never voted for a No Deal, and so merit another choice on the matter – especially given the manner in which the British Government have ignored all our requests. Even if we voted remain again, there would be every right to argue, along the lines of the disaggregated UK that Scheppele imagines, that we have the same claim to powers for our own international agreements and our own arrangements with the EU.
More generally, of course, this story bears witness to the importance of Wales having its own media that focuses on Wales’ story first – whilst also suggesting that what such a media requires is not a view of Wales from the perspective of the UK and the weight of historical assumptions and (lack of) expectations that brings. Rather, we need to view Wales from the perspective of the world that exists beyond.