UK needs a Convention for a renewed federal union

David Melding argues that ‘Little Britain’ as a truncated union of England and Wales, would be unlikely to survive

On 5 May supporters of the Union received a shock so complete and sudden that its fundamental implications are only barely understood. Not since 1918 when Sinn Féin defeated the Nationalist Party in Ireland has an electoral event so disturbed domestic politics. Sinn Féin’s victory effectively ended the Union of 1801; the Scottish Nationalist Party’s victory threatens to end the Union of 1707. So is the game up for those who want to preserve the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom?

Only brisk and radical thought can challenge Alex Salmond’s masterful strategy to slip Scotland to independence. Unionists need to start thinking about the vast benefits of the Union and stop the tiresome vituperation against independence. Independence for Scotland is a rational, liberal and democratic option. Unionists must explain why it is second best to the Union. It is quite wrong to portray a SNP governed Scotland as the secession-prone South Carolina of Britain.

However, Scottish independence would entail the dissolution of one of the world’s most successful states. This is what Unionists must focus on. Is the political, social and economic union which so successfully protected our welfare and freedom in the 20th Century not the best vehicle in which to meet the challenges of the 21st Century? The work needs to start in Scotland before it does become the Québec-plus of British politics. But Unionists elsewhere, and especially in Wales, must join the debate. Should Scotland become independent, what, I wonder, would we call England and Wales? Perhaps Little Britain! Such a truncated Union is unlikely to survive.

Unionists need to produce a body of thought that could be later collated as the ‘British Federalist Papers’. This is not the place to evaluate the finer characteristics of federalism and whether the classical model could be replicated in the UK. However, it is difficult to see how the UK can survive without the use of federal constitutional principles. It is now surely obvious to all that devolution is federalism without the clear, clean lines of a written constitution. Devolution divides sovereignty without the girdle of a constitutional settlement. This is an unstable and dangerous position.

In the past British politicians have considered the case for parliamentary federalism, most notably during the Irish Crisis before and after World War I. Of course it was British politicians who invented parliamentary federalism in the first place for use in the Dominions. Similar creative options need to be explored now and applied at long last within the UK.

Two essential questions face us. First, do we want Britain to survive? It is not an ancient state (although it is tried and tested) and ultimately it is no more mystical than any other political association and could be dissolved if it fails to meet contemporary aspirations. Secondly, are we prepared to accept a British constitution which enshrines the political sovereignty of the Home Nations and of the UK as a whole? The second point is the federal leap Unionists must make.

The constitutional architecture that would be needed to embody these new realities can, when viewed at a distance, appear rather baroque and fanciful. But surely Alex Salmond has something to teach Unionists? There is no need to produce the full plan for a renewed Union at this stage, just as Salmond remains reticent about the nature of independence. If we want the UK to survive the detail of a more formal federation could be worked out later. Federal Unionists need only produce the basic outline of the great federalist tapestry that could be woven into the British constitutional tradition.

But some essentials should be noted immediately. A written constitution must set clear boundaries between the state and federal (or national) governments. A right of secession needs to be recognised but set at a high level for operation. The House of Lords should be reformed along federal lines with the rights of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland protected via over representation. There was a small hint of this in the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans for reform of the Lords. However, the most formidable difficulty would be how the English jurisdiction could operate. English Unionists need to engage in some expansive thinking.

In Wales the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, is recovering from a poor National Assembly election result, a failure magnified by the sweeping success of the SNP. However, out of this relative weakness Plaid might find a more creative role in the debate on Britain’s future and so shape nationalist thought in a different direction. The leading Plaid intellectual and former MP and Assembly Member, Cynog Dafis, has called for Plaid to talk about the future of Britain and explore the compatibility of Celtic nationalism with a British state. It sounds rather like a federation of the Home Nations.

Let no one doubt that the referendum campaign has started. The whole of the UK must be involved and in all branches of society. Scottish independence would have dramatic consequences for Wales and Northern Ireland. The Union must be affirmed throughout the UK if Britain is to survive. It is time for all political parties who support the Union to unite and agree a campaign strategy. This should take the form of a Convention for a renewed and federal Union.

David Melding is a Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales Central and the Deputy Presiding Officer of the National Assembly. He is the author of Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? (IWA, 2009).

31 thoughts on “UK needs a Convention for a renewed federal union

  1. The most sensible approach to the national question that I’ve seen from a supporter of the continuing union.

    “Independence for Scotland is a rational, liberal and democratic option. Unionists must explain why it is second best to the Union”

    Exactly so. Not only is that far better and more rational than the axiomatic assertion that the Union must be defended at all costs (or even “with the last fibre etc.”), it also forces those who believe that Independence is the right way forward to abandon some equally axiomatic positions and explain why independence is the best answer for Wales. And a rational debate about the relative merits of two options has to be better than a dialogue of the deaf where people talk past each other.

    One point where I disagree, however. “It is now surely obvious to all that devolution is federalism without the clear, clean lines of a written constitution.” It’s something that should be obvious, but I really don’t think that it is as yet. It’s possible that people on both sides of the debate are simply afraid of the ‘F’ word, of course; but I suspect that it’s more to do with an unwillingness by all except those of us who seek independence to start thinking about a destination rather than a process.

  2. I think it’s difficult to state a positive case for the Union when Unionists themselves don’t outline a positive and fair vision for the Union.

    In England we’re not even permitted a debate on England’s position in the Union. Labour ignored all demands for an English parliament or English Votes on English Laws, and the Coalition Government has kicked the West Lothian Question and Barnett Formula into touch. The people of England remain unconsulted as the Scots and Welsh are consulted again and again. So unfortunately the Union remains asymmetric and unfair. When a Government puts in place a funding formula that is transparent and gives each nation of the UK the same democratic representation, then, and only then, will they be in a position to make a positive argument for Union. Until such time they deserve to be laughed out of town.

  3. So the rights of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be protected via over-representation? What about England and her rights? If the other three countries have over-representation, that inevitibly means under-representation (more likely to be no representation) for us. No, thank you very much. A federal unon needs a national parliament for each country, with all national parliaments having equal legislative powers and the same relationship to each other as well as to the British centre. The House of Lords (or federal senate) needs to have equal representation from all the nations in the kingdom. It also needs checks and balances to stop the Celts from ganging up on England and winning votes purely by a simple majority of people in the House/Senate.

    Mr Melding, I can’t help thinking that you are a typical ‘Unionist’ – hypocritically and rabidly Anglophobic.

  4. I don’t see why Scotland cannot be given the powers to fully control it and still remain part of the Union – they still get to govern themselves which is essentially, as i see it, what they want – and still are able to remain in the Union, which could be argued has existed not since 1707 but since 1603 when the Scottish monarch James IV also became the English monarch James I.
    This way it ought to satisfy both sides, those who want Scottish Independence get full power to govern Scotland, and those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom get to stay part of the union.

  5. Does David Melding honestly believe that the following applies to Wales?
    “the political, social and economic union which so successfully protected our welfare and freedom in the 20th Century…”

  6. Why bother with such a small and uninspiring British federal union? Shouldn’t we be focusing on building a pan-European federation? Such a federation would be far more effective at dealing with issues such as trade, the environment, international crime etc. than a paltry British federation.

    Let Scotland, England, Cornwall, Wales, Man and the Six Counties go their own ways, then one day we can all hang out together in some chic European city and talk about the old British imperial days.

  7. Geoff – “The House of Lords (or federal senate) needs to have equal representation from all the nations in the kingdom.” I think this is what David Melding is proposing when he uses the term “over representation” because if all nations in Britain have equal representation then that would inevitably mean that the smaller nations would have to have over representation. Like what happens in the US senate. I suppose the lower chamber would be the proportional one.

  8. The Union of 1707 should be consigned to the history books. It is certainly no longer in the best interests of Scotland.

    Why on earth should Scotland not become the 28th state of the European Union with all the advantages that would entail-we certainly would not have given our fishing rights away for nothing as the Tory PM Heath did?

    Currently the island of Ireland has 15 MEPs, the more populous Scotland a mere 6 (and no seat at the top table).

    The British Empire is dead. There is a new and non-imperial union in which the more European minded Scots should play a fuller part.

  9. A most thoughtful and welcome analysis from Mr Melding. Alas, I am afraid – as a couple of unionist commentators on here have shown, it is likely to fall on deaf ears. That would be a pity, because, as we saw in the recent Welsh referendum, the absence of a cogent opposition renders the result a foregone conclusion.

    ‘The union has to be saved BECAUSE IT IS’ is no longer a credible position, but it is the one that is being stridently argued by London politicians and UK media. These are the very people who would regard federalism as an unacceptable compromise, and will not countenance it at any cost. Unless they do, it appears that they are destined to lose that which they hold most dear.

  10. A stimulating discussion. Two points. The difficulty some politicians have in describing devolution as a form of federalism is that it was presented as conceptually a very different type of thing. It grew out of post-war Labour thinking about regionalism, the mindset that produced the Welsh Office as a way of negotiating ‘regional’ policy with the central state apparatus. Arguably, a significant portion of current Labour people still think in these terms, though I suspect that is partly generational.

    The second point relates to why Scotland is different in this scenario and how to approach what is emerging constitutionally as ‘the English problem’. There is a strong sense (partly reflected in some comments above) that the English are ‘not allowed’ to discuss these matters. During the 1990s Scottish civil society mobilised to establish the terms of what it wanted for Scotland through the Constitutional Convention, which effectively provided a different conceptual basis for understanding how devolution in that country would proceed thereafter. This did not happen in Wales and it has not happeneded in England. Perhaps English civil society needs to mobilise in a progressive way to thrash these matters out rather than waiting for permission: is there a distinctive English civil society, does England have real grievances and if so how are they best dealt with institutionally? Perhaps Wales could do with that too.

  11. I agree with Robert Tyler and Philip Hosking. The Union and its marginalisation of Wales is what has led to us being the poorest “region” of the UK. If we are going to continue being a part of the increasingly federal European Union -and I think we should- then it is much more advantageous for us to represent ourselves. Maybe that chic European city that we all meet up in could be Cardiff as a genuine capital of a nation of Europe.

  12. Interesting and thoughtful, yes, but very insular, i.e. the island of Great Britain. I see no reference to the actually existing Union, the European one. We don’t need something else which continues our subservience to England. We’re not likely to get them to pay a fair rate for our water, energy, airspace, quarries, etc unless we become an EU member state (like them if they want to). With autonomy, we’ll be able to develop mutually beneficial links with Ireland too. Within the EU we have lots of allies, states of a similar size and outlook.

  13. Too late: I very much doubt if there are any unionist arguments that will do anything to change the will of the people of Scotland. Scotland’s ancient independence is coming back, whether England (or Wales, or anyone else) likes it or not. Get used to it.

  14. Do we want Britain to survive? A good question. Does it make sense in the context of the EU?
    Can we say that Nationalists inside the UK are all pro-EU (I make the distinction here between Europe and the EU).

    Overrepresentation in the upper chamber is a plausable option to defend minority rights, but if it permits the Celtic Nation’s representatives to overrule the English and impose their own agenda it is in fact setting the UK up for a more violent dissolution, though its intrinsic injustice.

    A UK federal chamber running foreign policy, defence and UK wide issues may work. IF and only if it is a symetric set of ‘national’ chambers running their own domestic policies.

    Until the Westminster elite stop supressing England and the English, how can a federal union be created?

    Wales and the Welsh are recognised, and have through develution their own representative chamber, as do the Scots, and the Northern Irish. But the bulk of the UK population which live in England have no such thing, government even avoids using the word ‘England’. And as for the Cornish……

  15. This referedum will be rejected. 75% of people in Scotland don’t want it, the only reason people voted SNP was to keep the free uni and prescriptions at doctors. You really think they can pay for that on thier own? Not to mention pay their own membership to the communist E.U.

  16. @ Joshua Wren: It would be good if you knew what you were talking about before commenting. Support for independence varies widely. There have been polls which have shown majority support for independence, the lastest poll published 2 days ago showed 37% for and 45% against.

  17. @AlexBuchan: Those are not percentages in any meaningful sense. 37 + 45 = 82 , not 100. Translating them into percentages of those who have said they will vote and have expressed a preference, that means just over 45 percent for independence, and just over 54 percent against. That would require only a 5 percent switch to give a pro-independence majority, and that’s before the campaign even starts. And David Cameron has assured us he will lead the pro-Union campaign in person. Oh good. Maybe he can even get deputy prime minister Clegg to help, even better. On the other hand, maybe they will deputise the job to somebody more Scottish. Tony Blair? Gordon Brown? Bring it on, as somebody once said.

  18. While it is welcome that a Conservative politician should recognise it is quite wrong to portray Scotland as if it is “the South Carolina of Britain”, David Melding’s comparison of Scotland with Quebec is also extremely misleading.

    Quebec has disputes with half a dozen “Native-Canadian” nations which were there long before any white men, whether French-speaking or English-speaking, got there; and these native nations lay claim to forty percent of the land area of Quebec.

    To reject other comparisons also, there are, in Scotland, no “six counties”, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two, nor even one, which might “opt out” of independence as in the case of Ireland. Catalonia has boundary disputes in every direction, in the east, west, and south with Spain, and in the north with France. It is impossible to say which street in which Brussels suburb forms the boundary between Flanders and Wallonia. In seeking independence, a long settled land boundary is an enormous advantage, one which most other “stateless nations” wish they had. We in Scotland have that enormous advantage.

    The answer to David Melding’s question, so far as Scotland is concerned, is “yes, it’s far too late for a federalist solution”.

  19. @Dave Coull: Well the Cornish have the 1,000+ year old border of the Tamar, and all the UK PM can say is .. it isn’t the Amazon. No the Amazon isn’t the border between nations, but the Tamar is!

    If unionists want a federal solution they better get on with it then. Cornwall better be recognised it it though …

  20. @ Dave Coull: Although there are no six counties there are the Orkneys and the Shetlands which were opted out once before (in 1978) and which I’m sure can and will be opted out again.

  21. @Robertson Jim: “Can and will be opted out” is an outsider’s way of putting it. Also, everybody lumps the Orkneys and the Shetlands together, but they are in fact two quite distinct island groups, with different characters, and different histories, and an awful lot of sea separating them. If Shetland, or, less likely, Orkney, wanted to go their own way after Scotland becomes independent, the Scots would be sad to lose them, but wouldn’t stand in their way. However, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Every region of Scotland, including both Orkney and Shetland, voted for a Scottish Parliament in the 1997 referendum. Identification with Scotland, and support for independence for Scotland, have grown steadily in both Orkney and Shetland since then. As for the mainland of Scotland, like I said, no “six counties”, nor 5, nor 4, nor 3, nor 2, nor even 1.

  22. The greatest obstacle to federalism in the UK is that the bulk of the UK and especially the political establishment don’t view it as an existing collection of nations and provinces but as a unitary nation. One of the principles of devolution in the UK was that handing power to provinces did not affect the central functions or procedures of government which can be evidenced by the West Lothian Question. Changing the roles or powers of MP’s dependent on the geographical location of their constituency was tampering with the powers of the Westminster parliament so it was not considered.

    In an English context switching to a radically different federal model would entail a lot of upheaval and constitutional change for no apparent reason. It would not be considered a modification of an existing partnership agreement but the ripping out and rebuilding of an ancient system of government just to appease the lightly populated northern and western provinces of Anglo-Britain.

    Federalism is a good buzz-word and is one of the favourites of the Lib-Dems but all it means is that the powers of a regional government are entrenched in the constitution. Unless the powers of each parliament are spelled out, the regions of the UK which will have federal parliaments are spelled out and the overall UK framework in which each of the parliaments sit is spelled out then it is simply a vacuous buzz-word.

    Entrenching the current devolved powers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a constitution and playing about with the House of Lords will have no impact on the current situation because to head off an independent Scotland much more power for Scotland will be needed and that will entail a radical change in Government in Westminster. And as I’ve said, radical change at the centre is simply not going to happen.

  23. Of course, Melding is proposing a kind of Faustian bargain where if Anglo-British unionists would only concede the principle of federation they have a better chance of defeating an independence vote (note he says that there is no need to flesh this out with firm proposals) and, if necessary, to ensure stability in the longer term, a constitutional straightjacket could thereby be imposed on Scotland. “A right of secession needs to be recognised but set at a high level for operation.” Of course the setting of “a high level” would not be left to the Scots to determine but would be imposed on them.

    Apart from rhetoric about Scotland being as able to prosper as an independent country as anywhere else, there is nothing in these proposals that would be in the interests of Scotland. By taking its destiny into its own hands Scotland has moved beyond this kind of tinkering in order to save the union. Wales is a very different place, but the litmus test is whether Melding would still be keen on federation after Scotland departs, I think not.

  24. What would a federal UK be able to do that a federal Europe couldn’t do better? Perhaps some form of federalism in the UK is preferable but only as a stepping stone to a larger more effective federation. If the Scots want to skip the UK federal stage and jump straight to getting on with EU federalism then good luck to them. Hopefully Cornwall and Wales will catchup with them a little later.

  25. David, you are right that the only way to save the Union in the long run is to set up a proper federal struture. Sadly there seems to be no appetite at all in Westminster even for any kind of discussion at all of true constitutional change – which HAS to entail the creation of an English Parliament, quite separate from the UK Parliament, with powers equivalent to those of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and N Ireland Assemblies, and implicitly an acceptance for the first time that the UK constitutes 4 separate nations and not mere ‘regions’.

    More, I would say that each nation needs to have more devolved to them, for example to vary local tax rates, tax collection and spending within certain bands to take account of local conditions. N Ireland and Scotland want a different rate of Corporation Tax. Why should they not have this power, so long as it comes with the responsibility that they will either have to raise money elsewhere or cut spending to fund the cut? Some competing across the UK ideas might allow comparisons that would enable the best ideas to win out.

    The European Union has shown that in the 21st Century there are many grades of independence, with no mainstream Western or Central European nation having absolute sovereignty anymore (even non-EU Switzerland and Norway are actually deeply enwtined into European institutions). Scotland and Wales can move quite a distance further from Westminster without having to give up the UK umbrella altogether if there was a will in London to allow this.

    But the impression one gets (I live in the north of England) is that the Westminster village treats the SNP as upstarts to be quelled and outwitted, and the whole issue of independence will go away. It will not. Indeed even for Yorkshire, the pervading feeling is that the Government think that what is good for London is necessarily good for the UK. And this is England! How much more ampilified must that view be over the border in Scotland and Wales, where national figures like Alex Salmond can come to the fore and offer to fight for the interests of the people of his nation? Viewed in that way, it is no wonder that he won so convincingly in this year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

    And as for the English, better not utter the name ‘England’ or ‘English’ at all – as if we do not exist as a nation. The longer that situation persists without being remedied the more dangerous it becomes. At some point, probably when everyone least expcts it, a consitutional crisis will occur over the consitutional fudge left behind by Blair and Brown. Some law will be passed affecting only England but carried by votes of the other home nations and it will cause a backlash. For now the London media, especially the BBC, have given the UK Government a remarkably easy ride over this, as if there was a real desire not to rock the boat, but that is only sustainable for so long.

    Of course, the border of Wales is a long way from London, Scotland much further away than France or Belgium, and, as for N Ireland, it has always been shamefully ignored by the whole political establishment. In fact, apart from a recent sex scandal, I cannot remember it ever really being discussed by mainstream media for any reason other than terrorism. No wonder there is so little understanding of their aspirations!

    It is not surprising then that Westminster seems to be asleep over the real changes occuring in those ‘far flung’ parts of the UK. Personally I have no fear of Scottish independence, but for those who want to maintain the Union the clock is ticking but I do not think that either Cameron or Clegg can hear it.

  26. I strongly agree with this extremely cogent and timely post. I have been arguing the case for completing the devolution process by moving to a full-blown federation for a long time, in my blog, letters to the newspapers, and comments on other blogs and websites, including Our Kingdom. It will, or would, involve some controversial changes: a parliament and government for England; full powers over all domestic affairs for each of the four constituent nations; a sharp reduction in the powers of the federal parliament and government at Westminster (whose main remaining responsibilities would be for foreign affairs and defence) with a second chamber — or senate — in which each of the four nations would have the same number of senators, regardless of population, as in the US and Australian federations; a justiciable written constitution defining the respective powers of the two tiers, and an enlargement of the powers of the present Supreme Court to enable it to interpret and enforce the federal constitution. None of this could be done in a short time, but the basic objectives and salient principles could be set out for national debate quite quickly, in the hope that the principal UK parties (and even the SNP? no, I suppose not) might eventually sign up for it. I have no doubt that this is the only framework capable of preserving the United Kingdom from eventual and possibly imminent disintegration.

    Unfortunately it will all sound far too revolutionary for our risk-averse, timid political leaders of all parties. In fact we are at least half-way along the road to exactly this eventual goal, with devolution, so the first steps have already been taken and many of the key institutions are already in place. Most of the obvious problems and obstacles have already been tackled and addressed by the many successful democratic federations around the world, so there’ll be no need to invent the wheel, provided that we are sufficiently humble to learn from other countries’ experience.

    But where to begin? Here and there in the blogosphere the same arguments are being deployed and the same obvious solutions touted, with no-one and nowhere to pull them all together into a coherent campaign and launch it into the real world outside the blogosphere. The SNP victory in May makes the matter extremely urgent, yet our political leaders are contentedly haggling over such momentous national crises as the decision whether suspected criminals should get a 33% or 50% discount on their sentences for pleading guilty early, and what some scribbled notes passed between Messrs Brown and Balls in an earlier administration actually mean, if anything. Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.

  27. UK minus Scotland shan’t last long. What shall we even call it? United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Very Balkan… It will not take long to collapse. But that will be a good thing. I just hope my fellow proud English folk drop the whole eurosceptic thing… Northern Ireland might be a bit of a mess, though…

    I’m a patriotic Englishman and honorary Welshman. Proud of the British past but looking to Europe for the future.

  28. This interesting article is merely a hypothesis of no consequence. This man fails, singularly fails, as all our Westminster politicians have and do, to realise that this country whether in one bloc or in 3 or 4 separate parts, is headed for “enrichment” as an Islamic Republic. Why? Simply because those invited in from the Muslim lands have waited patiently for the power of their womb to work and very soon they will be able to control the democratic process which, then, they will dismantle and impose Sharia law on all.

    This, nice little subject is merely an academic discussion diverting our attention from the coming onslaught. Cameron et all have not a clue on how to stop it.

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