Category Archives: Wales

The European Union is an Empire of Peace and Democracy

The history of the world is littered with the debris of empires: Roman amphitheatres, Inca cities, the great wall of China. Empires have been very successful in many ways. They have facilitated trade, travel and communication, they have enabled innovators and artists to work, improve lives and inspire people. The ancient Romans and Arabs influence our lives and cultures in many ways to this day. The British Empire was the latest and greatest in the procession, and it has shaped the modern world most of all, leaving many benefits around the world, not least parliamentary democracy and an independent judiciary in North America and India.

Yet empires are not something to wish for. Historically they have been forged by bloody conquest. Usually a people, led by ambitious generals and power-hungry leaders, attacks, subjects, controls and exploits other neighbouring or far-away peoples, mostly against their will. That’s if they are lucky. If they are not they will find themselves forcibly converted to an alien religion, with their language repressed, not infrequently accompanied by ethnic cleansing in the form of forced removal or straightforward murder and genocide (such as in the formation of the modern US). Not a pretty picture, and a high price to pay for railways and trade with the wider world.

The European Union is an attempt to create the benefits of empire: cooperation between neighbours, free trade over a large area, easy travel, order, prosperity and internal peace and security; without the bloody conquest and draconian repression. Uniquely, the EU is the coming together, by choice, of democracies in a larger formation which is governed partly by elected representatives of the member states, and partly by its own institutions, such as the elected European Parliament. It is based on the idea that you can have a large scale geopolitical entity without the domination of one culture over many others, without the persecution of minorities or the eradication of languages. Inevitably there will be tensions as such an organisation develops. The United States (which is a kind of empire, too) has always been riven by competition between the power of the individual state governments and the federal government. That is part of the checks and balances of the system. In the same way it is inevitable that there will be tensions in the EU between Brussels and the member states over many issues, perhaps sometimes leading to certain countries leaving. It is actually an important aspect of the nature of the EU that a country should be able to leave peacefully, because it underlines that this is a union of choice, and not one of coercion, both in terms of joining and staying in.

Why EU Regulations Help Us

One of the common complaints of Eurosceptics about the EU is that there are too many regulations coming from Brussels. Some of these, such as those protecting employees from exploitation, or rules protecting the environment, are welcomed in certain quarters. Even Boris Johnson’s father is a strong supporter of the EU’s environmental work. But other types of regulation are often resented and the ‘outers’ say that they want the single market, but not all these rules.

What they seem to overlook is that the single market has to consist largely of such regulations. Let me explain. Protectionism, i.e. the opposite of free markets, is not just a matter of tariffs which make imported goods more expensive. It is also often something created because countries have particular rules about products and services which in effect make it difficult or impossible for outsiders to import them. All developed countries have rules about the standard of manufacture of certain items, the safety of toys, for instance, what chemical may or may not be present in domestic paint, or the permissible ingredients in processed foods. If you are a British manufacturer of toy trucks, for example, you have to comply with the standards in your own country to sell at home, and then you need to comply with the standards of any country you sell into. If you are going to export to a dozen countries and they all have different regulations about your product, this will make your life much more difficult, and your product more expensive.

But suppose your country belongs to an organisation in which many countries agree the product standards for toy trucks together. This means that all you need to do is to manufacture to the standards which apply in your own country and the trucks will automatically comply with those in all of the other countries, because they will be the same. Your life will become much easier, your toy trucks cheaper, and the likelihood that your company can export and grow, much greater. This is why many EU regulations are not a hindrance but a help to British businesses and therefore to the prosperity of the whole country.

Leaving the (EU) Club

Listening to the Brexit debate in recent weeks I have been struck by the negativity of the ‘inners’. They spend almost as much time saying they have no love for the EU as the ‘outers’. The argument generally is very much fought around ‘what is in Britain’s best interest’. This is inevitable in the run-up to the referendum I suppose, but it also misses the point. Staying in or leaving are about much more than short or medium term economic interest. The outers are really motivated by nationalism and a deep seated antipathy towards the EU which has been fed for decades by the British Eurosceptic press. This is also informed by nostalgia for the days of Empire, when Britain had superpower status. These campaigners like to talk down Europe as a failed project (as MP Kate Hoey did on tonight’s Any Questions). This is ridiculous considering that the EU collectively is the world’s largest economy, even bigger than the US.

But the ‘inners’ have a much more positive story to tell, and this is one which should contain much loftier concepts than economic self-interest. The EU is primarily about co-operation. It is about solidarity, and it is about the peaceful and voluntary pooling of resources. It is a relationship, it is a partnership, and anyone who enters into either one of these simply for what they can get out of it, is not going to be a good partner – and is not going to get the best out of it. In order be a good partner or club member, you have to be committed and you have to be prepared to work for the common good. That surely is how joining together with others works. You recognise that you have common ground and you decide to club together to share the benefits and face the challenges together.

It is not just Britain that seems to have a blind spot here. In the refugee crisis a number of countries have refused to help either the desperate people fleeing war, or their European partners. Such emphasis on apparent self-interest is very short-sighted. Because working together means that today I help you, and tomorrow you help me. And if there is something I do not like, we talk about it and find a compromise. And ultimately we know that it is worth belonging, not because we are going to be so many millions better off today or tomorrow, but because if we help our neighbours they will also help us. Whereas if we are constantly trying to get the better of our neighbours, we will have to watch our backs.

If we are part of a Union with our continent, we can compete with the US and China, face down Russia and help Africa in ways that are just not possible for any European country alone. But most of all, we can help each other.

On Being Welsh (Speaking)

I’m not Welsh. No Welsh Not for me. But I have some experience, a few decades, and a language acquired from friends and girlfriends, and many others, at work, in shops and pubs. Being Welsh involves a particular perspective. There is a small country, next to a big country. There is a language spoken by very few, next to one spoken by (it seems) nearly everyone. We can all see that. But it is seeing it from the Welsh point of view that is so different to seeing it as an outsider.

On face of it there is not much difference between English people and Welsh speakers. One of my Welsh nationalist friends was embarrassed to admit as much to me on moving to France. They share so many many of the same cultural references, from TV to food, to history and music. But it is the perspective on language which is so different. For English people, their language is like water to a fish. They hardly realise it is there, it is so all-pervasive. They do not think about its power and its reach, and when they do they tend to (wrongly) assume that it is universal. They are suspended between not realising it is there, to thinking it is everywhere. What is more, there is the supreme confidence, not only of the native speaker, in the sense of speaking one’s mother tongue, but also of being from the home of the language. In other words, an English person’s English has a kind of authentic primacy over that of those who grew up speaking it in the US, Australia or Nigeria. What this confers is a kind of enviable supreme cultural confidence, which unfortunately sometimes expresses itself as unthinking arrogance.

Perhaps the most important feeling that many Welsh speakers have towards their language is a sense of responsibility. There are so few speakers (about half a million) compared to English that the need to protect and nurture Welsh is felt very personally. They are the keepers of the flame, and if they let it go out, it will not revive. Their language is a remarkable cultural survivor. It has outlived others which, much further from the hub of the English Empire, have disappeared. Welsh is the main native language of Britain, which was here before, during and after the Romans, and of course before English. It was displaced by Anglo Saxon (which developed into English) after the invasions from the continent, and who can seriously doubt that such a major language shift would have taken place without horrific ethnic cleansing. Why else did Britons flee in sufficient numbers to Northern France to establish the kingdom of Brittany, where a language like Welsh still exists today?

Welsh is not a version of the majority language, like some outsiders presume. It is not a dialect of English, but belongs to a different language family, that of the Celtic languages, to which Irish and Scottish Gaelic, also belong. But of all the Celtic languages Welsh is the most widely spoken. It has a written literature that goes back to the Dark Ages and includes the first written sources of the Arthurian legends. Arguably, Welsh is the cultural trace of a Celtic culture that encompassed much of Western and Southern Europe in Roman and pre-Roman times. But when Welsh people use their language, they are not primarily thinking of it in those terms, they are simply expressing their living culture and identity. As a result of 20th-century political activism Welsh has a professional and lively presence in all modern media, from radio to TV and the internet. It is used in education and in government institutions. This is not a dying language, or a museum piece. It is very much alive, kicking and contemporary.

Indeed it is something of which all of us should be proud and protective, because this is an important part of the cultural richness and heritage of Wales, Britain and Europe. Unfortunately, however, outsiders often cannot see the point. Even the most liberal, ready to espouse every other minority cause, are quick to dismiss something so remarkable as pointless. This is where the gulf opens up, between insiders and outsiders. Welsh speakers are the guardians of a precious good, of which their more numerous and powerful neighbours are largely ignorant and intolerant, and on this point they could not be more different.