Launching his new book David Melding says federalism is the answer to the dangers of devolution
Today I start to publish in serial form my response to those who urge the abandonment of Britain as a political union. From the early 1990s when I first seriously engaged with the devolution question, I have been a federalist. Well, this is not quite true – my conclusion then was that if Britain could not remain a unitary state it should become instead a federation. This has been my conviction ever since.
Devolution always struck me as a little daft because it refused to grapple with first principles. This is usually a wise course of action in politics, but not on questions of ultimate constitutional importance. It must now strike people as bizarre that devolution’s architects thought it a milk and water mixture which would leave most of the British constitution intact. However, a slug of strong brandy got into this brew in the form of nationalism. Britain did not devolve to bland administrative regions but to some of Europe’s oldest and most magnificent nations.
THE REFORMED UNION: Britain as a Federation
Today we launch the online serialisation (here) of a new book by the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, David Melding AM. Entitled The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation, the book will be serialised in eight chapters at regular intervals over the coming months, starting with Chapter 1 today:
Online serialisation of a book in this way is a first for ClickonWales and demonstrates the new directions that dissemination of serious thinking through the social media is taking. Responses to the first chapter are welcome and can be posted in the normal way. Once all the chapters are published David Melding intends to rework the material in light of any criticism it receives. We will then re-publish the revised edition as an e-book.
This online publication is a follow-up to David Melding’s earlier work Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?, published by the IWA in conventional book format in 2009, and available here.
It is no easy task to get people to accept that a British federation is feasible. Parliamentary sovereignty has been the one true god of the British constitution, and federalism its most destructive idol. Yet, as the political philosopher William Riker observed in the 1960s, “there is something in the British political tradition that is especially conducive to the federal form”.
Indeed there is. While the Americans are rightly seen as inventing modern federalism, they did so by reconfiguring British political experience. In the 19th Century British politicians invented parliamentary federalism, an audacious variation of the Westminster model of government, and it defined the Canadian, Australian and, a little more ambiguously, the South African constitutions in 1867, 1900, and 1910 respectively. It did not stop there. Edwardian Conservatives proposed an Empire federation that would have created a global state!
Time is short for unionists. Constitutional questions can generate a momentum of their own and what were once fanciful dreams can be transformed into practical propositions with disarming speed. Independence for Scotland is now the official goal of the Scottish government. Who would have thought that possible in 1999? Of course, the character of Celtic independence has changed significantly since the 1960s. It would be more coherent to call it neo-independence today. To many Scots this neo-independence seems more cosmopolitan and less insular than the separatism implicit in Euro-sceptic thought. It is surely a pity that unionist ideology has not adapted itself with any such alacrity and finds itself stuck with a rather 19th Century vocabulary.
Only a reformed unionist ideology can hope to respond to the momentous constitutional events of our times. Reliance on what one critic calls ‘banal unionism’ may have worked in a quieter age, but it will not do so now. It is my belief that the materials are at hand in British political experience to create a reformed Union. For the old Union has run its course and a new unionist vision is required. There is nothing novel in having to face great constitutional questions. As the unionist thinker F.S. Oliver wrote in 1906, “it is the business of the British people today, as it has been for four centuries past, not to follow precedents, but to make them”.
The challenge facing Welsh and Scottish unionists is to project a vision of a reformed and expansive Union. This is not a debate that can be won in London, as the PM wisely realises. Yet English unionists face a great challenge too. They must convince their compatriots that the Union really means more than England and should be seen to do so in Scotland and Wales. The alternative would be a Union on English sufferance which is surely not viable. Those Tories who are weak unionists might be tempted by visions of an England ever Conservative with the restless Celtic cousins cut adrift. However, this would be a fantasy. After all, Labour expected devolution to cement not erode their dominance in Scotland and Wales.
The first chapter (available here) is entitled The present is not an ordinary time which is another quotation from F.S. Oliver. It sets out the background to the debate on Britain’s future, a debate which started in earnest with the SNP’s astonishing victory at the polls in May 2011 and will end with the Scottish independence referendum sometime in late 2014. Understandably, but not altogether helpfully, the debate about the future of the Union has focussed entirely on Scotland. But it is the very future of Britain that will be decided by the Scots. Wales does not get a vote but it needs a voice in the referendum campaign.
The succeeding chapters will follow at roughly monthly intervals. Next month’s instalment will be Parliament, Sovereignty, and Federalism. After that I will focus on more practical matters such as what a federal Britain would look like and the sort of challenges it might be expected to face. But let me say at the outset that I believe the lesson to be perfectly clear. Devolution can be dangerous, while federalism will be much safer for Britain.