With the Welsh government today launching its plans for a national conversation on Wales’ constitutional future, Glyndwr Cennydd Jones asks “If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we consciously choose the model of a centralised unitary state that we have inherited?” This essay extracted from Whose Wales? The Battle for Welsh Devolution and Nationhood: 1880 to 2020 explores this and other questions.
Accepting that the federal horse has already bolted, particularly before the relentless wave of SNP electoral successes in recent times, never has there been so much at stake for the future of our nations’ relations. We are approaching an uncertain moment in this island journey, if not too, in our collective affairs internationally, with the UK’s standing much reduced across the globe. Secessionist tendencies are increasingly prevalent, whether nationally in Scotland and Wales, or at a UK level driven by Brexit. There is a crucial need for us to explore some form of broad, strategic compromise, which embraces the concerns of both unionists and nationalists, in moving away from a narrow ‘winner takes all’ answer to the constitutional question posed. If successful, the long-lasting rewards could be enormous, with fresh political narratives promoting a new kind of partnership across these isles—one which draws on past and present experiences in forming an underlying bedrock of effective collaboration for the century ahead.
At the time of writing, the world is embroiled in the Covid-19 pandemic. The four constituent nations of the UK have taken different tacks in their responses to the social distancing challenges presented, including the application of lockdown conditions. This has reaffirmed the national borders extant within these isles. The trend for significant divergence in policy stances, across the various parliaments, has compounded other clear political disagreements centred on constitutional change, with different parties holding power in each institution for over ten years.
If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we consciously choose the model of a centralised unitary state that we have inherited?
I suspect England would not have any real intent or interest in pursuing such a proposition as the nation has its own marked difficulties of internal inequality and tensions to overcome. The UK is the legacy of a different era in world history, one which was embroiled by conflict, empires and two World Wars. Indeed, the main political groupings of our age remain those which rallied and formed around the issues of those times. The constituent nations of Britain have long since travelled at differing economic rates. More recently, the EU has been part of the fabric that holds the UK together. The pre-eminence of EU law, and its interpretation by the EU Court of Justice, has safeguarded legal and regulatory norms across copious fields, including the devolved areas. The UK internal market has been sustained by the conventions of the EU internal market. Brexit risks these interrelated competences becoming increasingly unsound. The need for a renewed isles-wide framework made fit for purpose for the 21st century is now paramount, beating at the heart of our current condition of constitutional soul searching.
If we had a second chance, would we not simply recognise the sovereignty of the different nations and peoples of the UK and seek to work within a robust social, economic and security partnership directed by a limited, but mature, political legislature?...
Globally, these isles are known, amongst many other things, as home to the mother of all parliaments. Would it not speak powerfully of our stature, confidence and foresight, if we acted together, but as individual nations, to enact the mother of all reforms too? Our collective shoulders would have to be broad in setting aside any differences, whether substantial or petty, real or imagined, firmly to embrace shared interests and responsibilities in continuing this remarkable island journey, hand in hand as sovereign nations, but within a League-Union of the Isles of Britain*.
Glyndwr Cennydd Jones is an advocate for greater cross-party consensus in Wales and for a UK-wide constitutional convention. A catalogue of his articles and essays can be found on Constitutional Continuum. Read the full essay: A sovereign Wales in an isle-wide confederation.
*Devolution involves a sovereign Westminster, in effect, delegating a measure of sovereign authority to the devolved institutions. A League-Union of the Isles turns this constitutional approach on its head, advocating four sovereign nations of radically different population sizes (Wales c. 3.2m, Scotland c. 5.5m, Northern Ireland c. 1.9m and England c. 56m), delegating some sovereign authority to central bodies in agreed areas of common interest such as internal trade, currency, large-scale economic considerations, defence, foreign policy, and isle-wide affairs.
The model proposes a confederation of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England, with aspects of federal-type control built into key policy portfolios to reflect the principles of equality and solidarity among member nations. Each nation holds all powers and rights which are not by treaty delegated to joint institutions, operating distinct legal jurisdictions. The British monarch continues in role as Head of the League-Union of the Isles.