The question of nationalism within the United Kingdom is not a new one. The popularity of self-governance and separatism has ebbed and flowed, but it has been a constant force that has strafed against the Union. If Boris Johnson is truly intent on preserving the United Kingdom then he would do well to look to others who have navigated the nationalist question.
One such figure is surely David Lloyd George, the architect of the modern UK settlement who secured the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by resolving the Irish question during the post-war coalition. For all this, however, he spent much of his career as the gadfly on Welsh issues. During the 1890s, the ambitious MP for Caernarfon was the unofficial leader of Wales in all but office and name, heading the patriotic Welsh group Cymru Fydd (Young Wales). His dedication to issues that were the cornerstone of Welsh Liberalism – such as disestablishment and land reform – meant he often clashed with his own Liberal government, who were prioritising events in Ireland over Welsh issues.
Lloyd George’s nationalism was at its peak by 1894 as he became increasingly frustrated at how Wales was overlooked by successive governments. The legislative record supports his case; during the previous quarter century, there had been 14 years of Liberal government and not one bill dealing with the interests of the nationalists. Things became more tense as Lloyd George briefly refused to take the whip over Lord Rosebery’s failure to deliver on disestablishment, a policy that was finally achieved 25 years later and saw the removal of the Church of England’s formal powers in Wales. But this initial failure led Lloyd George to believe that Wales needed its own government and an independent Welsh Liberal party to better represent the Welsh people.
His dream of Welsh Home Rule was short lived. Lloyd George’s attempt to emulate the Irish National Party via Cymru Fydd was blamed by some of his own Welsh colleagues for the Liberal defeat at the 1895 general election. And in a meeting in January 1896, Lloyd George caused further division in his own party by attempting to merge the North and South Wales Liberal Federations – who often spent more time attacking each other than the Tories – into his Cymru Fydd League. At a meeting in Newport, Lloyd George was howled down by the industrialised and anglicised members of south-east Wales, who had no interest in being run by what they saw as the Welsh hinterland in the north. As was the case then, and later at the 1979 devolution referendum, the people of Wales were happy with their dual identity – to embrace both Welshness and Britishness, without the need for a separatist vision. After the fateful meeting in Newport, Lloyd George came to embody this dual identity.
By the turn of the 20th century, and after gaining notoriety through his opposition to the war in South Africa, David Lloyd George was a national politician. But that nation was the United Kingdom. He had come to realise that many of his priorities for Wales could only be achieved by using the levers of the British state. And indeed, that is what he did. As Chancellor and Prime Minister, Lloyd George delivered ﬁscal, welfare and constitutional reforms on a scale unmatched at that time in history – many financed by his People’s Budget of 1909, which radically expanded taxation and welfare spending – and touched more people in Wales than his early campaigns would ever have done.
By doing so, Lloyd George demonstrated the value of the British state to all its people, including those in Wales. It is still a powerful argument for sustaining our Union. Devolution, of course, means that there is now more than a theoretical case for arguing that smaller national governments make better policy decisions, although the ongoing exam grade debacle would suggest otherwise. And during coronavirus, it must be recognised that the UK Treasury has propped up the economy, demonstrating the strength of a British government to nationalists and unionists alike.
Importantly, Lloyd George never lost touch with his Welsh roots as he advanced in Westminster. In one sense he remained a nationalist throughout his life – committed as he was to the betterment of his native Wales – but he channelled such feelings through the power of the Union rather than separatist campaigning.
The challenge facing Boris Johnson is whether economic arguments and symbolic gestures are enough to keep the UK together. It is by no means assured. Instead, a wider re-articulation of what it means to be British will be needed. A cultural shift that recognises that all four nations are fundamental to this country and should be encouraged in their patriotism, which means at times that the British element of their identity takes a back seat.
After all, politics is a game of hearts and minds. And it is the challenge of winning both while articulating the value of being a part of Britain – something that Lloyd George did so well – that will be crucial if the Union is to be saved.