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).

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