This year of 2014 may come to be the most fateful in a millennium for the peoples of Britain. Certainly, one who believes that this is “no ordinary political moment”, and that it has to be prepared for, is David Melding, the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly and Conservative AM for South Wales Central. In 2009 the IWA published his book Will Britain Survive beyond 2020? It is now followed by The Reformed Union, published in digital form only and available here.
In his earlier book David Melding wrote as a Welsh Conservative, quite happy to call himself a Welsh nationalist, but believing also that Great Britain still has value, that steps are needed to safeguard it, and that the answer lies in its transformation from a unitary or incorporative state to a federal state. The Scottish parliamentary election of May 2011 intervened, with the SNP sweeping to power with an overall majority. This has given new urgency to Mr Melding’s argument, and his new book is a last-minute appeal to unionists, that they should embrace the federal option before it is too late.
Alex Salmond and his party did, indeed, prove stronger than a system designed to exclude them from power. It was a remarkable feat, and yet not something that defied all the laws of nature. “Who would have thought in 1999 that this was possible?” asks Mr Melding. Answer: the SNP.
Some have remarked that Mr Melding and myself have said similar things. In a few scribblings down the years I may, indeed, have shown a weakness for the federal option. I saw in it something in tune with certain traditions of Welsh thought, articulated in literature. I saw it also as a means of acquiring powers which could be used constructively, to safeguard and to build up the institutions of Wales, chief of which was the Welsh language. “Naive assumptions”, you may say, and in your favour you can quote much of the experience of the last fifteen years.
I still believe, and all can disagree, that if federalism had been on offer in 1979, with a campaign properly conceived and organised, Yes would have won in Scotland and in Wales, even then. I also believe that if this were the choice offered to Scots this coming September, it would be Yes by a big majority.
But it is not the choice. The Scots are asked to say Yes or No to another option, the only one which the SNP, from its settled conviction, wants the electors to consider. That option is independence. It would be an easier climb towards some form of federalism. But evidently Alex, his party and government, are convinced that what awaited them at the end of that climb would not be the real reward.
By that, they mean two things. First is the wealth from ‘Scotland’s oil’, for long-term investment in funds for the benefit of the Scottish people, with the example of Norway an obvious inspiration. Secondly, is the expulsion of Trident from the Clyde.
This last aspect worries Mr Melding. And it is here, having travelled together a considerable distance, that he and I have to part company. Through its rejection of Trident, Mr Melding believes that the Scottish government is ‘encroaching’ on a ‘state matter’. The assumption is that ‘defence’ can only be a matter for a unitary or federal British government, or – to sum it up – for the English. The traditional nationalist, Scottish or Welsh (and I say ‘traditional’ because Mr Melding is also a nationalist), starts from a very different position, that ‘defence’ is pre-eminently an ‘own affair’.
To the counter-argument, that you cannot defend part of an island, the case of Ireland will suggest one answer; the Six Counties, we have to assume, are defended against someone or other by Trident, but the 26 counties are not. But there is a more fundamental answer, in what ‘defence’ is taken to mean. A British ‘Ministry of Defence’ is a recent thing in history. It grew after the Second World War as an appendage to the War Ministry, borrowing its name from ‘The Committee for Imperial Defence’. The name made the purpose clear – to defend the Empire, not the populace.
It is, indeed, Mr Melding who has noted a striking fact, that no European state successfully defended its own populace by joining in the Second World War. It can be maintained that, in the circumstances of the day, the only states which were able to protect their peoples were the neutrals – Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland. Of course, this will lead to the argument concerning the morality of neutralism in those same circumstances. Extending the argument one may say – and I wonder whether Mr Melding would agree – that the two defining features of the two 20th Century world conflicts were:
(a) peoples attacking peoples in what have been variously characterised as ‘total’ or ‘democratic’ wars; and
(b) states attacking their own subjects.
When I put it like this, Mr Melding and other Welsh Conservatives may not agree with me today; but I am confident that some of them are intelligent enough to agree in time. Scratch the traditional or full-blooded Welsh nationalist, today as in 1925, and you will find that he entertains two hopes. Functions such as Education, Health, Roads, Housing, Agriculture, Industry, Energy, Jobs have been devolved, demanding attention all the time. But there are two, more basic concerns? They are (a) to safeguard the Welsh language; and (b) to cast down imperial pride. The founders of modern Welsh nationalism came out of the First World War. They burnt a bombing-school.
For three centuries England has posed as ‘Britain’ to confront the world and attempt to control it. In her guise of ‘Britain’ she built an Empire – one of very short duration, as Mr Melding stresses. With Scotland independent there could still be a United Kingdom (or possibly at some point in the future, as Mr Melding again has suggested, ‘United Kingdoms’). But ‘Great Britain’ would revert to its original meaning, a geographical expression; we would no longer have the Britain into which the Great should be put back. (This, incidentally, has puzzled me. Was not the Great put back by Margaret Thatcher? Did it slip out again? It must have done, for a succession of politicians over the last quarter of a century have been promising to put it back once more.)
The change would be momentous, and it is doubtful whether any of us, English, Welsh or Scots, fully comprehend it. And what of the Ulster Unionists? Where would they go? Who would own Gibraltar? Or the Falklands? Did Britain take possession of these, or did England? Would there be a British Commonwealth, a British Broadcasting Corporation, a British Boxing Board of Control, the British Lions? I am sure there would be, because we British, to avoid trouble, are good at living with anomalies.
But the biggest question of all, when there is no longer a Britain to possess Trident, will England retain it as her own? Or would she accept that the game of a thousand years is at an end?
The possibility having come so close – close enough to frighten a good many people – it is only right that we ask again, in all conscience, why we would want it to happen? Could our motive be, for example, one of the following: spite towards the People Next Door, envy of the less successful for the more successful, or A servant’s betrayal of his master, as in Othello, Cysgod y Cryman and A Man for All Seasons?
Let us accept that all great powers are bad. Small powers can also be fiendishly bad within their own spheres, as the Balkan conflicts reminded us with appalling clarity. Without her mask of ‘Britain’, England’s world rôle would be severely impaired. By the same token America would lose her ally – some would day ‘partner’, some would say ‘poodle’ – on this side of the Atlantic. For the world, what would be the consequence? Would we have struck at the less evil of the evil empires?
The Scots will no doubt consider these and related questions, and readers may want to comment. I revert to an entirely selfish motive. It’s high time we had some FUN. Fun is what we have not had in Wales since devolution, what with Labour’s banality and Plaid Cymru’s feebleness. A Scottish Yes this September would be tremendous fun.
With a No, we can expect a long period of dejection, recrimination and nothing much else. We can forget about ‘Devo-Max’. As for a ‘federal bargain’ by which the Scots would be rewarded for staying in the Union, I doubt whether anyone except Mr Melding has thought seriously about it. What could Scotland bargain for? She already has her legal system, educational system, established church, historic cities, rich literature, and her dialect plus another language of which she is at liberty to make more. She has whisky, porridge, heather, thistle, Burns Night, Highland Games, Hogmanay, the Loch Ness Monster, Rab C. Nesbitt, pipes, the kilt, sporran, the skian dubh – many things to which the English have no objection, things they quite like and are sometimes happy to borrow for a bit of fun.
What more can the Scots ask for? We come back to the same two answers: control of their own wealth, and no Trident. In a federal state which is also multinational, there could, in principle, be a provision by which the ‘national governments’ (Mr Melding’s term) could veto the waging of war by the federal government, but no-one has so far suggested any such arrangement for Britain, and evidently the SNP does not think it possible.
Alea iacta est. It is not for us the Welsh to cry ‘hold on till we’re ready’! When a Welsh First Minister goes and urges the Scots to take the low road, they are ever more likely to take the oft-quoted alternative.
We must try to imagine what would be left if Scotland went. There would be a partly decentralised unitary state for which Mr Melding has suggested some amusing names – ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Greater England’. It could not be called ‘the United Kingdom’, because the United Kingdom would be a different entity, existing alongside, thus named and still substantive because of the union of Scottish and English crowns.
The new state could be correctly designated as ‘England and Northern Ireland’. ‘Wales’ need not be included in the name, for without a repeal of the 1536 Act of Union, the Principality of Wales would remain forever incorporated in ‘this, our Realm of England’. When would the Welsh begin to realise the extreme abjectness of their position, and embark on that ‘backward march to independence’ which Harri Webb foresaw? Sooner? Later? Never? Again I hazard a guess: sooner. But to give substance to the realisation would demand a quality of leadership that we do not seem to have today.
Another question, as important as any. What kind of England would it be? Some will shudder at the prospect of a madcap Tory government with Boris as Prime Minister and with the policies of the Daily Mail. It need not be so. Without the nuclear deterrent, the ‘world rôle’, the hankering after imperial pomp, Conservatism would be different. The Scottish author’s ‘Britannia’ would no longer rule any waves. England could at last venture forth in the entirely different spirit of Blake’s tremendous anthem, which should become the National Anthem.
With the unitary state gone and the federation not even at the planning stage, David Melding gives some consideration to an alternative, a confederation, by which is meant a loose, voluntary association for the furtherance of common interests. In his final paragraphs he warms to this possibility as being somewhat better than nothing. He reckons also that the nationalist parties may embrace it, implying a change from ‘nationalism’ to ‘neo-nationalism’, or ‘independence’ to ‘neo-independence’. We can say with some certainty that there is nothing neo- here. It is something which Gwynfor Evans discussed extensively and advocated fifty years ago.
For it to have any influence on this year’s decision, Mr Melding, myself and like-minded folk – if there were any – should have put forward our federal vision much earlier. But we are once more indebted to David Melding for an illuminating discussion.