Act of Union

John Osmond listens in to a debate about the sovereignty of Wales

For the first time in nearly 40 years reporting on political life in Wales, at the weekend I listened in to a discussion about Welsh sovereignty and what it means. It happened at the National Museum in Cathays Park during a debate about the Act of Union, currently on display (until Wednesday) for the first time in St Fagans, courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster.

Four politicians from each of the parties had been brought together to say a few words about what the Acts of Union between 1536 and 1543 meant to them. Mark Drakeford, Labour AM for Cardiff West, referred to a lecture given by Professor Scott Greer, an American expert on devolution and health, delivered in both Edinburgh and Cardiff, entitled “Scotland is good, but Wales is better”. The interesting thing, he said, was that in neither place was Professor Greer’s message believed. “It tells us something about a cast of mind that continues to flow from 1536,” Mark Drakeford said.

Baroness Jenny Randerson, late of the Liberal Democrat benches in the National Assembly, said the Act of Union had created an anglicised political class in Wales. However, the last few decades devolution had put this in reverse. “We have created a Welsh ruling class and laid the foundations of a modern democracy,” she said.

Suzy Davies, the new Conservative AM for South West Wales, said the Act of Union must have had some good points since it had lasted for centuries without challenge, until the industrial revolution prompted a demand for representation by the working class. Since then she thought Wales had suffered from both socialism and Thatcherism. Devolution had been accepted in the 1997 referendum as a pluralistic alternative to both.

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Plaid Cymru’s AM for Meirionnydd, insisted that it should not be called the ‘Act of Union’, since that implied there were two parties to it. “There was no such thing as a constitutional union between England and Wales, so what future is there to that union?” he asked.

However, the meeting really became interesting when during questions it focused on the sovereignty of Wales. Vaughan Roderick, Welsh Affairs Editor with BBC Wales sparked it when he asked where sovereignty lay in the age of devolution. He pointed out that in Spain it would be unconstitutional for one of its constitutional regions, such as Catalunya or the Basque Country, to secede from the State. In the United States a civil war had been fought over secession. Yet in the United Kingdom, the state was calmly accepting that if the Scots voted yes in their independence referendum they had every right to secede.

He wondered whether Wales could be considered differently from Scotland where the 1707 Act of Union was more authentically a coming together of two sovereign states, if largely involuntarily on the part of the Scots. Could Wales claim sovereignty in this sense when it had no history of sharing it in the same sense?

The panel had no difficulty in believing that Wales could, in so far as when people thought about it they would agree that sovereignty lay with the people. “Its what we mean by self-determination,” said Dafydd Elis-Thomas. “The people have the right to determine their political arrangements at any particular time.”

Mark Drakeford, Suzy Davies and Jenny Randerson all made the point that in the modern world sovereignty tended to be shared between institutions much more than in the past, in our case between Cardiff, Westminster and Brussels.  “It makes for ambiguity in legal and political discourse,” reflected Mark Drakeford. “It is inevitably a flexible part of devolution.” However, he added, “It is the will of the people in a democracy that is sovereign. Identity and sovereignty are linked and the new settlement in Wales will strengthen this.”

This notion of the sovereignty of Wales sounds a bit exotic to the Welsh ear, untutored as it is to our identity being considered in relation to institutions rather than primarily, or even exclusively, in terms of language and culture. I think it is an encouraging development, one which we shall hear a lot more of in the coming years.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. The 1536 ‘Act of Union’ is part of an exhibition Making History: 1500 -1700, an exhibition at the St Fagans national history museum.

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