BRITAIN would be a happier place if both England and Scotland paid more attention to Wales. Returning from two weeks’ family holiday in Pembrokeshire, I was struck by how comfortable and confident Wales is at wearing both elements of its identity at once. Everywhere you go the Welsh flag and the union flag are flown together. Wales is distinctly not England, but it does not measure its Welshness in units of anti-Britishness.

Once upon a time, Scotland was much the same. But, unlike Welshness, Scottishness has now become much angrier, asserting itself by reference to what Scots are not (we are Scottish not British) rather than by accommodating and embracing both at the same time.

In Wales the sense of pride in strong national identity is both palpable and ubiquitous, but it is offered as something to celebrate rather than in any adversarial spirit of us-versus-them.

Admittedly, Wales’ links with England have always been different from Scotland’s. Consider the two borders, for example. Our border with England is sparsely populated, miles from any city on either side, relatively short, and crossed by only a handful of major road and rail routes. Only a small percentage of Scots (and a tiny percentage of folk in England) live their lives on both sides of the border.

In this regard, Wales could not be more different. England and Wales are integrated, in terms of communities, transport links, work and social life, whether one thinks of Chester and Wrexham, Shropshire and Welsh market towns such as Welshpool, or further south in the Wye valley. Thousands of people either live in Bristol and commute to work in Cardiff or vice versa, making these cities more closely interlinked than any Scottish city is with a conurbation in England.

These are contrasts of geography and demography – and, while they matter, they have not changed in decades. But it is in the political and cultural relationship each country has with the idea of Britishness where Wales and Scotland have moved apart in the devolution era. It is in this regard that Wales now feels so much more at ease with itself than Scotland.

There is, for example, very little creative thinking in Scotland about our future relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom – whether we remain part of the union or pull away from it towards independence. Given the centrality – indeed, monotony – of the constitutional debate in Scottish politics this is as surprising as it is disturbing.

But it is true. Ask yourself: who (whether nationalist or unionist) is leading the thinking in Scotland about how Scottish ministers should work alongside ministers from the UK in managing coronavirus, or trade across the border, or new innovations such as free ports? Even if we one day become “independent” (however you define that term) none of these questions is going to go away, and each will require to be answered, just as they do now.

Instead of thinking about these issues, we bury them in the quicksand of what we risibly call our constitutional debate. In reality, it is no debate at all. Nationalists pretend that, in the golden age of a newly independent future, there will be no need to have a close working relationship with London on anything.

Unionists pretend that the best thing for Scottish ministers to do is to implement policy (whether on coronavirus, trade, or free ports) as set in London, without asking awkward questions. Each position is as thoughtless as the other.

Not that you would find a great deal of critical thinking about these matters in Whitehall, either. When she was prime minister, Theresa May knew this was a problem, and she commissioned Andrew Dunlop to look into it and make recommendations.

Lord Dunlop’s recommendations are modest but sensible – if implemented they would be a positive and useful step in the right direction. But Mrs May’s successor in Downing Street chose to sit on the Dunlop report for nearly two years and now, even after it has been published, we still await any sort of government response, never mind implementation.

It is the Welsh who are leading the thinking on the future relationships our governments will need to have with one another. But their work is like tumbleweed in the corridors of power in both Edinburgh and Westminster.

Scottish ministers have a reason for not wanting to engage – they don’t want devolution or the union state to work under any iteration. They strive only for “independence”, whatever that means. UK ministers, on the other hand, should be shaming their Scottish counterparts into action rather than emulating their determination to look the other way.

For the Welsh are right. Whatever our constitutional future, we are going to have to figure out a few basics. Where does sovereignty lie – with the people (which people?), with parliaments (all of them?) or with both?

What value should subsidiarity have in pushing power down from state to nation and from region to local community? How should our broken inter-governmental relations be fixed? And what sort of fiscal framework will be required to under-gird all this? You do not have to agree with the Welsh Government’s answers to know these are the right questions to be asking.

The Welsh know that the future will need more shared governance, not less. Whether we are talking about public health or international trade, this is manifestly true. The Welsh also know that the current structure of the UK state is astonishingly poor at managing shared governance in practice. We have a tendency either to devolve and forget, or to over-centralise: it’s either your problem for you alone, or our issue for us alone.

Yet, as the Welsh Government says, this is the opposite of a strong and durable settlement. It is a weak and brittle way of approaching power and, unless we adapt – unless we become more like the Welsh – it will snap and break.

A kinder, gentler nationalism, and a more constructive, collaborative unionism. These are the hallmarks of Welsh politics. Both Scotland and England would do well to take heed.

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