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Wales has never been a nation Covid-19 might precipitate Welsh independence — but what would hold the new state together?

Welsh Independence is no longer a joke. Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Welsh Independence is no longer a joke. Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images


October 22, 2020   4 mins

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus: never tickle a sleeping dragon. It’s the Hogwarts motto. But no one in Government reads Harry Potter. And the Welsh dragon, asleep for nearly more than 600 years, is stirring into wakefulness.

Everyone is looking at Scotland. The coronavirus crisis has given Nicola Sturgeon’s government renewed purpose, increased visibility, new chances to differentiate from England and the opportunity to boast about its supposed superiority. Scotland likes nothing more than to complain about mistreatment by its English overlords. It’s no surprise that the polls now show a remarkable majority for an independent future for Scotland.

But all this excitement about England’s northern border is distracting us from what is happening on its western one. Exactly the same political forces are conspiring to boost the Welsh government and with it the legitimacy of the campaign for Wales’ freedom. Don’t get me wrong: Welsh nationalism is still a minority sport. But polls in the last month or two suggest now a third of voters would choose independence in a referendum tomorrow. 46% of under-25s say they want Wales to be an independent country.

Suggested reading
Wales has never been a nation

By Francis Young

Perhaps you need to know more about Welsh history to understand how truly astonishing this is. In particular, you need to understand that Wales has never actually been an independent country. Coronavirus is conjuring a modern nation state from the mists of myth and fantasy.

The Welsh are a people, no question: a people with a language, a culture and a heritage. But what are their lands? The Welsh (and the Cornish) are, in fact, the original British, driven west by the Anglo Saxon invasions that followed the departure of the Roman Empire from these shores. The Welsh word Cymru, used from the seventh century, means the land of the Cymry — it refers not just to the residents of the western part of the British Isles but also to the men of the North of England. And the English word Wales, similarly, was originally used to mean simply foreigner — a reference to any of the non-Anglo Saxon peoples of these islands.

The area now governed by the Welsh Senedd was, in medieval times, a set of warring principalities. The ruler of the strongest of those was known as Tywysog Cymru: ruler, or prince, of the Welsh. But that didn’t give him power or hegemony over the other principalities. The closest a Tywysog — cognate of the Irish word Taoiseach — ever came to ruling the whole of modern Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who secured the rule of Gwynedd from his uncle Owain and brother Dafydd in 1255. By 1267, he dominated modern-day Clwyd, Powys and Ceredigion.

But Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire — the whole of south and south-west Wales — remained under the rule of the Marcher Barons. And that was the peak of his power. In 1276, Edward I declared Llywelyn a rebel and marched a huge army against him. Llywelyn lost control of everything but Gwynedd, and after a brief resurgence of power in 1282, he was killed at Builth Wells. Llywelyn was, at best, the Temporary Prince of Part of Wales.

Owain Glyndŵr was another great hero of Wales and the leader of a 15th-century rebellion against the English. He was immortalised as Glendower in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. No one knows when or how he died because he simply disappeared, possibly living out his final years in disguise at his daughter’s house. So he has a place in Welsh myth as a kind of Arthurian-style once and future king. Yet even this great leader was not a Prince of Wales as we might imagine it.

Partly that’s because Wales in the 1400s was so integrated with England. The Tudor dynasty itself proclaimed its Welsh origins. There were hundreds of Welsh archers who served at Agincourt. Glyndŵr himself was a Welsh-born nobleman, but he operated as part of an Anglo-Welsh elite that operated seamlessly across the modern border. He was apprenticed in London as a lawyer, and served extensively in the English army. It’s possible he served as a squire to Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.

Glyndŵr went home to declare himself Prince of Powys in 1400 over a border dispute with a neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthin, who had seized territory in the north of Powys. The English king had not intervened to settle the dispute. So Glyndŵr set about a rebellion, known in Wales as the Last War of Independence.

My interpretation is that independence wasn’t quite what Glyndŵr had in mind. In 1405, he negotiated the “Tripartite Indenture” with Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland against Henry IV. The Indenture agreed to divide England and Wales among the three of them. Wales would extend as far as the rivers Severn and Mersey, including great swathes of modern England: Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire. Mortimer would take southern England, and Percy the North. The implication is that Glyndŵr sought to maximise his territory, and to eliminate the threat of a powerful, united England. That’s not quite the same as wanting independence for a romanticised Welsh people in their native homeland.

Glyndŵr was defeated and disappeared. His plans for an uber-Wales that was united, extensive, and self-governing faded into history. That’s why I’ve never before imagined that this never-quite-a-country could ever become an independent, modern nation state. What would hold it together? As the global West becomes ever more diverse, and international migration grows exponentially, the era of self-determination on the basis of an ethnic identity is over. I believed that the logic of a federal structure would hold Wales permanently in the union: local freedom within the protective embrace of a larger country.

Only now, as Cardiff’s leadership effectively erects a land border down Offa’s dyke, and bans the English from entering, does it seem a possibility. Perhaps the deepest irony is that among the highest support for Welsh independence is in the south west of the country: Pembrokeshire. But it is also one of the parts of Wales that never even fell to Llywelyn: it has never been part of a sovereign “Wales”.

Wales may be a generation behind Scotland in its journey toward independence. But if the union starts to crumble; if the logic of Brexit drives us toward a united Ireland; if Scotland paves the way with an exit out of our union and into the European one; then Welsh independence will become an inevitability. Perhaps a thousand years later than expected, the nation of Wales will finally come into existence.


Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.

pollymackenzie

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Dave Smith
Dave Smith
3 years ago

Two points. I usually spend much time in Mid Wales. There seem to be as many English there as those of Welsh descent. Each year more and more. It has become an alternative to Devon and Cornwall as the property is cheaper. I doubt many see it as an independent nation to be.
Next the historical perspective I have is that the Anglo Saxons were small in number and settled the fertile lowland and chalk counties of England first. Marrying into the Celtic residents. They quite sensibly left the hills and mountains alone. Difficult to farm and no money in it Then rather than the myth that the English drove the Welsh back into the hills is the possibility that they just left them alone. Follow the border rivers and the place names are usually English and as soon as you get on the high ground Welsh.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Smith

Indeed I believe scholarship has settled (forgiving the pun) on a less extensive migration and instead more on integration with pre-existing communities.

Place names, and culture most definitely shifted towards Anglo-Saxon dominance, especially in the lower lands as you say, but there is next to no evidence of a violent or forceful eviction of Britons (no mass graves, evidence of destruction, burning etc.) that are quite prolific in other regions of mass migration in this period.

Pro-Celt nationalists have tended to adopt the Gildas view of violence and subjugation, whereas Germanic-focused Victorian scholarship tended to seek to maximise the Germanic purity of the people of England. Neither of which seem to be supported by evidence.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The DNA of the average English person is between 10 and 40% Germanic. Not an extermination of the natives then, but a great deal more than can be accounted for by the cultural diffusion theory fashionable in recent years.

The latter theory always seemed unlikely given the almost total change of language, settlement names and religion which occurred in the 5th to the 7th centuries.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Completely agreed. Perhaps wasn’t clear in my initial post that the migration was very much an occurrence and culturally, socially and politically supplanted a lot of what came before. What it almost certainly wasn’t however was a mass violent or forceful displacement of Britons to be replaced.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Look at the later English conquest of Scotland, Ireland, and wee little Wales. Although we appropriated much of the decent land, we did not exterminate the original inhabitants.

However, over the years English became the language of authority and commerce, and the native tongues virtually died out, as was to be expected.

A similar process is entirely plausible with Anglo Saxon England.

venk.shenoi
venk.shenoi
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Industrialisation and the British Empire suppressed nationalism all through the 18th and 19th Centuries as also the 20th.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

As much as 35% of the Roman Army allocated to the Invasion of what we now call 43 AD, may have spoken German as a first language. The outstanding Batavian Cavalry Regiments certainly did.

A high proportion of German speakers would remain in the garrison of Britannia for next three and a half centuries or more.

Heretically, some claim German speakers had been gradually infiltrating what is now East Anglia from at least the beginning of the first century. (as we now call it).

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Smith

The corollary of what you’re saying is, that the English are not a nation themselves. Care to tell an Englishman worth his salt as much and attempt to dodge a thick lip, or worse?

Paul Hunt
Paul Hunt
3 years ago

Is ‘Little England’, home of retirees, folk bands, sailing clubs and tenby rock sweets really the heartland of Plaid??? I’ve tried to go through the history of the party to find one person or thing based there in its founding or today and came up with Zilch. A quick wikipedia shows Plaid have only once got better than fourth place in a General Election in the North Pembs constituencies and hasn’t had more than 15% South of the Haven since the seats were reorganised. PC finished behind UKIP in 2010!. Can’t just make stuff up mate! Ceridigeon is a Plaid hotbed- that’s not the same thing even thought they were once in the same seat.

Roger Antell
Roger Antell
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Hunt

I waded through this academic piece struggling to see the point that was being made and then came to: ‘support is highest for Welsh independence in the south west of the country: Pembrokeshire.’ I had to read it three times to be sure it had been said. I live in Pembrokeshire and if this piece of nonsense is the standard of the rest of what is said then I have wasted 10 minutes of my life. Disillusion over the Senedd and Drakeford and his cronies? Right on. But here that does not equal support for Welsh independence – look further up the west coast for that.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  Roger Antell

Perhaps it’s independence for Pembrokeshire that’s popular in Pembrokeshire. It would make more sense given its ancient Anglophone identity.

Iain Hunter
Iain Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

I can go with that. My wife is from Pembrokeshire (born in Solva) and I love the place. I’m a Scot btw.

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Iain Hunter

There are English people in favour of independence. Perhaps because they’re fond of their home, regardless of their own provenance, and want it to do better.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago

‘the era of self-determination on the basis of an ethnic identity is over.’

l don’t think the Kurds and the Zionists would agree.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

Or anyone outside of the Wokehadi West, for that matter. The Japanese and South Koreans would have quite a chuckle at this, to be sure, from their enduringly monoracial homelands.

Rhys Owen
Rhys Owen
3 years ago

It’s fascinating to see as someone who is living through these tumultuous times. The #indywales thing was a tiny fringe of Welsh politics for as long as I’ve been following it.

Brexit put a rocket under the movement, and the current UK Government has given the rocket steroids.

At the moment the danger for the union is that it’s resting on arguments such as that made by D Alsop (couldn’t afford it), rather than understanding that the ghastly sight of the incompetent iconoclast kleptocracy in Westminster is sufficient to propel us in the direction of independence.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Rhys Owen

Yes agreed! The black hole of real leadership in Westminster is largely to blame. Politicians are too busy chasing the proverbial political football about, bouncing from opinion polls to media outrages and trying neurotically to avoid upsetting the imaginary ordinary British citizen of the polls.

Instead they should be identifying and planning for longer term solutions to the many problems we have, clearly outlining their principles and goals that people can get behind.

At the moment the cart is driving the horse. And more and more people in Wales understandably (rightly or wrongly) see a clear message from nationalists and get behind it.

Mark Sullivan
Mark Sullivan
3 years ago
Reply to  Rhys Owen

Until you look at the Senedd and see an even more voracious totalitarian kleptocracy, with even less talent than Westminster. There would be a mass exodus of private companies and the wealthy if an unholy alliance of Plaid Cymru and Labour ruled here. Scotland’s delusion was at least based on North Sea Oil, and while hatred of the English can keep the balloon up for a while, when push comes to shove there will be an intense reality check in the North. But if they do go, it will at least demonstrate to Wales how impractical it is, what a close shave they had, and everyone will get back in their box.

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Sullivan

Westminster has written the book on kleptocracy, and I submit to you that the Senedd is wholly subordinate to it and entirely dances to the tune thereof. You fail to grasp that independence will be a chance to do things differently; your analysis is blinded by viewing through the prism of the status quo.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
3 years ago
Reply to  Rhys Owen

Incompetent? Probably. But kleptocracy? Drivel. And the Welsh Government is a paragon of competent virtue? Not from where I sat in Wales for 16 years. Health and education all over the place but hell, we bought a national airport.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago

This is a non-subject for serious discussion. It matters not what a recent opinion poll suggests – when realities are faced, more rational thinking comes into play. As for the view of the young – so what? Very tech savvy, but about the most ignorant generation ever. Far from lowering the voting age, we should be increasing it to a minimum of 25 since that generation does not contribute to the tax base until that age at the earliest.

And as others have pointed out, the country has seen so much immigration and emigration that the “Welsh” – many generations who have lived in Wales – are probably a minority.

And the final nail in the coffin of an independent Wales is the performance of the Welsh Assembly and the behaviour of its members. I doubt that the people who live in Wales will want to pay for an even bigger gravy train from their own resources.

r.lloyd1996
r.lloyd1996
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

If you don’t live here, don’t concern yourself with us. Honestly, we’ll be fine, don’t worry.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  r.lloyd1996

What makes you think I don’t?

Not worried in the slightest, diolch

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

Perchance a realisation that there’s a boatload of small, dynamic and independent countries the world over that prosper without their larger neighbour pissing in their pocket and telling them it’s raining.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

Ah! The Welsh assembly, a rabble less representative of the Welsh people you could not find or even dream up. Lived and worked in Wales for many years and the one overriding impression I left with was the truly endless meaningless groups (committees) set up layer upon layer to discuss? Yes well what? By the second third or was it sixth meet the subject had joined the other myths and was lost. No Welsh man or women with half a grain of wit would back these charlatan’s.
Wales is a wonderful place and as beautiful as anywhere on the planet. The bonus is it has the best male voice choirs in the world and they do include female voices. Sublime.
Sadly it ain’t got no income of the volume to go it alone. Sad but true.

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

The Welsh Assembly [sic] is a British State project that would never let Wales get too ahead of itself. If you can’t see that then you’re obviously as simple as you seem.

N A
N A
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

I disagree with characterisation of the young as ignorant. But even if they are it doesn’t matter because eventually they’ll be the majority, it’s just a matter of time. As to the whole they don’t pay taxes, that’s just blatantly false, plenty of them pay tax. If they don’t pay more it’s for two reasons: 1) The Tories raised the tax threshold (I don’t disagree with that but to then blame young people for paying less tax is absurd) and 2) there’s a lack of secure employment across the board, which effects the least experienced workers the most.

You’re attitude is problematic. If the young are already economically disenfranchised, making then politically disenfranchised too is terrible idea. Do you want young people to give up on this country completely? Because that’s part of the reason so many young people support independence up here in Scotland.

D Alsop
D Alsop
3 years ago

simple fact is they couldn’t afford to be independent, they take a lot more then they contribute to the Union. Scotland puts up some decent arguments for what they bring and if they actually pay in more then they get out- its a big argument and very technical so i wont go into that now – Wales on the other hand can do no such thing. They take more than they put in to the pot, if they wished to be independent, they’d have to explain where the money is going to come from.

Gray Rayner
Gray Rayner
3 years ago
Reply to  D Alsop

A Welsh nationalist once argued to me that the economic “might” of a future independent Wales is water. So much of England depends upon Welsh reservoirs – including the highly controversial Llyn Celyn. Not sure you can fund an entire economy on it though.

apsiencyn50
apsiencyn50
3 years ago
Reply to  Gray Rayner

You may want to include the 50% of electricity we generate as well. Sneer at water if you wish but try living without it?

Gray Rayner
Gray Rayner
3 years ago
Reply to  apsiencyn50

Where is the sneer? England depends upon Welsh water. I merely question whether that is enough. Since writing I did, however, reflect that it is an infinitely more sustainable resource than oil – and the Saudis have done Ok out of that.

Isla C
Isla C
3 years ago
Reply to  Gray Rayner

Interesting point Anthony, Scotland is also resource rich (did anyone say oil!) and “exports” water, gas and electricity south of the border.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  apsiencyn50

You may wonder why diamonds which are fairly useless for most human activities are so expensive while water which is fundamental to human life is so cheap. And if you think a little more, you will realise that on these islands rinsed so frequently by warm, wet, westerlies, perhaps water is not the foundation of an economy you think it is.

apsiencyn50
apsiencyn50
3 years ago
Reply to  D Alsop

You need to examine the facts a little more. GERW is a fiction made up from guesstimates on revenue mostly conjured up the treasury. Our expenditure is a laughable list of incredible expense that make little or no sense. For instance our defence budget is set £1.8Billion that makes Cymru per capita the highest defence spenders in Europe! Crazy!
We then note that we are generally a net exporter despite export figures that do not include the 50% of electricity we generate that is exported. Nor the £billions that Severn Trent make from extraction of our water. Also note vagaries like £1/5 Billion for Foriegn expense when we don’t have a single embassy. We also will contribute £5.5 billion to HST a development that will actually have an adverse affect on our economy! The list goes on to conclude with the premise that despite our economy being run to satisfy the needs of SE England, we probably run a deficit of £5Billion. That compares more than favourable with the UK deficit of £222Billion!! Read a book not the Daily Fail!

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  D Alsop

Where does this dividend fall, smart arse? Our border towns are decrepit, while Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford are bountiful. We export qualified talent who can’t find work and import holidaymakers and retirees. Our language is being displaced and identity snuffed out, theirs isn’t. Generalisations I admit. Need I go on?

Andrew Hall
Andrew Hall
3 years ago

According to the ONS, Gross Disposable Household Income (ie pre tax) per head in Wales was £17,100 (2018) and in England £21,609. The difference of £4,509 is alleviated by the Barnett formula favouring Wales with an additional £1,350 per capita over England’s settlement (Scotland is more favoured still with an additional £2,000 per capita over England).
But Wales’ domestic tax base is too small to sustain its present infrastructure and public services expenditure. Quite a few of affluent Welsh residents are not employed in Wales but commute into England, to Bristol/Liverpool/Cheshire etc so there would likely be further erosion of the tax base in a newly independent Wales.

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Hall

So you conflate the ‘now’, with ‘what could be’. I’m afraid your application for clairvoyant has been summarily declined.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Wales, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, is yet another putrefying Albatross, hanging around the neck of the long suffering English taxpayer.

It’s time they were all jettisoned, and retuned to the state of medieval barbarism, from which they sprang.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

If what you say is true, then they would all come over the border into England as so many Irish do and always have done. England would be even more overpopulated and bottom heavy.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

We shall just have to rebuild Offa’s d**e and Hadrian’s Wall.

Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Nay, the Welsh and Scottish can rebuild them for us. They’d love to as well.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

Only if ‘we’ paid them handsomely.

Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Oh Mark, you are a charmer! Your posts really make me laugh.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Price

Jolly good!

Isla C
Isla C
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Mark why then did the UK Government campaign so hard (and dirty) to keep Scotland part of the Union? This point always interests me, as I too imagine any government would gladly jettison a putrefying albatross. Could it be that with Scotland gone it would become Little England on the world stage?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Isla C

I must say I’m as baffled as you as to why anyone in HM Government should wish to retain Scotland, or for that matter Northern Ireland, or even wee little Wales, in the moribund Union.

‘Little England’ left the world stage some time ago, in my opinion, certainly after the Blair creature aided by many wretched Tories, launched the disgraceful Iraq War.

However, and remembering that “self praise is no recommendation”,
England was the progenitor of the greatest event in human history, the Industrial Revolution, besides building the second greatest Empire the world has ever seen.
“Every dog has his day” as they say. Our is now firmly over, as the astonishingly spastic response to this C-19 Panic so clearly demonstrates, do you not agree?

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Oh, pray tell, what would your jingoistic onanism have amounted to, without Scottish ingenuity, Irish builders’ hands, or Welsh coal. Come on, little man, do inform!

Dominic Straiton
Dominic Straiton
3 years ago

The Welsh mostly come from the Birmingham area. They migrated to Wales for jobs. The actual Welsh are a tiny group of small stature,very dark hair , very white skin people who live in North Wales. They have been there for thousands of years.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

What colour eyes do these remarkable pygmies have, may I ask?

Peter LastSpurrier
Peter LastSpurrier
3 years ago

One statement I would like to take issue with is; ‘the era of self-determination on the basis of an ethnic identity is over’.

I hope not. ( Not that I want the Welsh to leave the UK. )

Otherwise, a generally interesting and informative article.

venk.shenoi
venk.shenoi
3 years ago

Nations come and go – that is how history shapes human societies. Then again the concept of the nation-state evolved in the 19th Century. Most of today’s nation states did not exist in the 19th Century.

Iain Hunter
Iain Hunter
3 years ago

“The original British driven West by Anglo-Saxon invasions”. No, I think that has been, as we say these days, debunked. Archaeologist are much more inclined to a narrative of integration and adoption by the native British of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. That plus inter-marriage means the English are a lot more Brythonic Celtic than they imagine. This updated idea is backed-up by DNA of English people which shows descent from people who have been here for thousands of years. This undermines totally the idea of the English and Welsh being ethnically separate people.

Pembrokeshire as an area of high support for independence, Little England Beyond Wales? I really don’t think so.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago

Coming between any group and their myths about their origins is very brave.

Isla C
Isla C
3 years ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

Especially for an ex Tory government advisor :0

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

So the English nation is a falsehood then? That is the logical conclusion of what you’re saying.

glebeparc
glebeparc
3 years ago

Interesting summary, albeit marred by lack of clarity over such terms as ‘people’, ‘nation’ &c. The processes described, of internecine conflict, cynical manÅ“uvering, and plain folly, would adequately answer for the early career of just about any polity.

Was rather tickled to read the remarks about the Tripartite Indenture. Let me assure your English readers that there is in Wales no appetite for irredentism. Nor have they anything to fear from Cornwall, which has not attempted to impose régime change on its neighbour since 1688.

David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago

Also, calls for independence would be largely nullified were it not for the fact that in this ‘partnership’, one ‘member’ is five times the size of the other three put together; and lo and behold, indeed it grabs the lion’s share of political representation and wealth. The English are a fantastic nation – it’s the one-sided relationship my country has with theirs that I take issue with. Still, thickoes can only deal in absolutes and feeble-minded interpretations of nuanced issues.