TOWARDS the end of my father's life, he received a phone call from a stranger. "Your family", the voice on the telephone said, "has been my life's study."
The voice belonged to a professor from County Limerick, Ireland who explained to my father that he was in fact descended from the “Poor Palatines”, German immigrants resettled in Ireland by the Crown in 1709. My father was the proud son of a Welsh mother and an English doctor, and he had served his country in the Forgotten 14th Army so this revelation was unexpected and posed a difficult question: who was he really?
And what does it mean for me, one of his sons? I was born and raised in the cradle of the Welsh language, but I was raised as an English speaker who only learned Welsh at school. I now represent a constituency which has schools that teach through the medium of English and Welsh. The Party I am a member of – the Conservative and Unionist Party – introduced the Welsh Language Act and established the Welsh language broadcaster, S4C.
How should I define myself? By birthplace or where I live, by parentage and ancestry, by the party I belong to or what I do for residents? Is nationhood a matter of a language test? Or even a cricket test?
These questions of personal identity are timeless and force us each to search hard for an answer. National identity is the same: in 1709 the Irish resettlement resulted in fierce debates that changed immigration laws. Today, three centuries later, our country is facing similar questions.
In truth, these questions have heaved and rolled beneath the surface for at least a decade. Erupting in a series of hotly contested referenda and elections the results have shaped who we are, what our future holds and how we make those decisions. The media were wrong-footed, conventions were overturned, and our political landscape was reshaped. The struggle is real but last December with stunning clarity the British people put a Conservative government in place that is committed to leaving the EU, controlling our borders, levelling up the regions and strengthening the Union.
But turn on the television, read some newspapers or surf social media and you could be forgiven for thinking that this Union, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is in decline, drifting apart and into our peripheral vision. We might catch a glimpse at a Royal occasion, a sporting event or in the Union Jack on a Mini-Cooper light cluster. But it seems it is fading, an inconvenience – perhaps even to some, an embarrassment.
Seventy Conservative backbench MPs disagree.
We have formed the Conservative Union Research Group with one aim: support the government in strengthening the Union. We believe the United Kingdom is no small matter, or marginal concern. We believe its effects are evident in almost every part of life, that it is a potent force for good and it is fit for use in the 21st century.
This UK has deep and strong roots. Every corner and community of these islands gave its own, united in defence of liberty, to ensure a world free from Nazi tyranny. The NHS – conceived in Wales, delivered in Manchester, free at the point of use – only survives with the support of the UK’s economic strength. The language of our Union dominates the globe because of our success in trading, powered by the combined strength of our Union.
Something is stirred deep within when our values are not respected, and our traditions are tampered with. A quarter of our members are from Red Wall seats and these feelings surface quickly, gushing out in the stories they tell, like pressure released from a hidden reservoir. In the words of one MP, “People here have never had a Conservative MP before. They didn’t vote for me to get a new bypass – they were voting because they believed in something.” Those voices who wanted to be heard now have MPs who are listening intently.
This UK is also a whole, not a collection of parts. It is a reality that connects Carrickfergus, Conwy, Clayworth and Clydesdale. In fact, just one fifth of our group represent constituencies in Wales and Scotland. The rest are English constituencies – many represented by Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish members. Nationalists may seek to foster division and pick apart the Union – a task we know foreign powers are keen to encourage. But separatism has been rejected consistently by British people as a rupture and a tearing of the whole into damaged, diminished and incomplete parts.
This UK is diverse and big enough to embrace difference. It is woven with the interests of the many and concerned for the rights of the few. We should not overlook our own stories – each one a strand within the cord of the Union. Our unwritten constitution has endured centuries of strong debate and intense self-scrutiny and our ‘family’ of nations may argue as only families can. But we can do so with confidence in the strength of this cord that binds us.
And this Union is relevant today. Two-thirds of our group are newly elected MPs. A new generation of Conservatives who will not be dismissed as nostalgic flag-wavers, wandering Westminster humming “Rule, Britannia!” Since the general election, we have voted on withdrawal from the EU, on immigration and national security, a budget for the regions, on agriculture and the environment, on fisheries and international trade. Decisions on the UK’s internal markets, the repatriation of powers from the EU and more lie ahead.
These are votes about our identity: how we see ourselves and our future. They are informed by a vision of a strong United Kingdom that is a force for good in the world.
This is a Union that has grown over centuries, is held together by our shared bonds and respectful of the differences within it. This Union is alive today and relevant for a modern world. It is a Union that can continue to grow and can sustain us all for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
We need to start talking about this Union.
Robin Millar is the Member of Parliament for Aberconwy and Chairman of the Conservative Union Research Group.
Published in the Sunday Express.