Developing devolution 2: Stopping the UK global menace

Gerry Holtham suggests how, even without independence, Wales could obtain a veto on Britain’s foreign adventures

Since the second world war and in my lifetime British forces have been engaged overseas in: Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Egypt (Suez), the Falkland Islands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. There may be one or two other places I have forgotten. Not many other countries could boast, if that is the word, such a list.

Views on those engagements will differ according to political persuasion and weltanschauung but few will argue that they were all a good idea. My own view is that six of the fourteen were clear blunders that contributed nothing to our security and visited more suffering than relief on the countries concerned. Several of the others are debateable. The ones on which we can look back with unmixed pride are a minority, fewer than a third of the total.

The earlier wars in that list were often the legacy of empire, an attempt to maintain colonial possessions or bases past their useful or sustainable date.  Three, Korea, the Falkland Islands and Kuwait, were precipitated by an armed attack by a foreign power on territory where we were considered to have an interest and two of those responses were sanctioned by the United Nations.  There, at least, we were on firmer moral ground. The remainder were presented as interventions to eliminate a supposed threat or as humanitarian expeditions to prevent massacres. In two of those recent cases the threat was illusory and death and destruction enormously magnified by our intervention.

We were on those occasions operating in league with the United States. One motivation was to maintain our influence on the world stage and ‘to punch above our weight’ by currying favour and influence with the world’s leading military power. The readiness to play Sancho Panza to the US Don Quixote surely indicated a reluctance to abandon a belief in our own importance, indeed indispensability, inculcated by the experience of empire.

That means that, far from being the good guys, the UK has been on balance a menace on the world stage. Whatever our intentions we have shown an excessive tendency to use military force, to maintain bases where they were not wanted or in a few cases to invade countries where we proved unable on balance to do any good and ended up doing much harm.

This is the unstated impetus behind a lot of the demand for independence in Scotland and, such as it is, in Wales. There is a reasonable hope that if the UK dissolves into smaller political entities it will more rapidly wean itself from post-imperial delusions of grandeur. Even if the English do not, they will no longer embroil the smaller brethren in their adventures. And if the smaller countries are recognised and represented abroad, they can say clearly ‘not in our name’.

However, full independence remains a minority aspiration, even in Scotland – and for good reasons. It is surely reasonable to want to take responsibility for one’s own affairs. But nationalism for its own sake always has the whiff of paranoia about it once identity is secure and there is no negative discrimination.

Moreover, attempting to unscramble the commingled economies of England, Scotland and Wales is either a vain or destructive aspiration. So economic management must remain a shared enterprise, whatever the political arrangements. The Scots are beginning to realise they would have to share a currency, even if independent, and that would be highly likely to constrain their fiscal policy. They could not do as they like with tax rates without triggering destructive tax competition and retaliation in some form.

Furthermore, it makes sense to share a social security system and pool risks. Even if political philosophies diverge, a country which wants more extensive social security can always top up benefits from its own resources without leaving the shared system.

That is why devo max as currently understood and sought in Scotland seems to me to be a thoroughly idiotic target. It seeks an impossible and illusory economic autonomy and it rejects a beneficial pooling and sharing of social security. Yet it perpetuates a union of foreign and ‘defence’ policy that commits the Scots to paying roughly 10 per cent of the cost of replacing Trident, building aircraft carriers without aeroplanes and getting young people killed pointlessly in Afghanistan. It seems perfectly designed to give you the worst of all worlds.

I have a much better idea. Devolution should proceed to the point that balances the claims of self-government in purely domestic matters with the shared interests of the UK and it should go no further. We should all move to a ‘reserved legislative powers’ form of devolution such as Scotland currently has. And if you want to know what fiscal powers could be devolved to Wales without damaging the economic union, I can recommend an independent report to the Welsh government that was published in 2010.

However, and crucially, the Westminster Parliament should pass a law that denies any British government the right to commit British forces abroad without a majority vote in the House of Commons and in at least two of the three devolved assemblies. The Welsh Senedd would thereby acquire, in conjunction with Stormont or the Scottish Parliament, a veto over overseas military adventures. So equipped, our Senedd could play its part in momentous affairs of State and we could all happily remain citizens of the United Kingdom.

Gerry Holtham, an IWA Trustee, chaired the Independent Commission on the Funding and Finance of the National Assembly

9 thoughts on “Developing devolution 2: Stopping the UK global menace

  1. “The Welsh Senedd would thereby acquire, in conjuction with Stormont or the Scottish Parliament, a veto over overseas military adventures.” Perhaps we should adopt the Anarchist idea from the Spanish Civil War of a debate on whether or not to attack the enemy. We can all disagree on the merits or otherwise of UK actions since 1945 but the above suggestion is just so completely bonkers that I had to look at the date to see that it wasn’t April 1st. For a start Malaya wasn’t a colonial war designed to keep the British in Malaya. It was a successful guerrilla war designed to stop a minority communist party from imposing communism on the majority Malays who supported the British. As for Cyprus and Aden they haven’t exactly been success stories since the British left. At the monent Kenyan police are looking for terrorists who are being supported from the Yemen which now controls Aden. Intervention in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo might offend those who support Bismarck’s idea of what constitutes foreign policy but were clearly motivated by humanitarian reasons. As for Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya the juries are probably still out. But on Libya if we hadn’t intervened then Gaddafi would have been given free rein to massacre his opponents in Benghazi and other cities. Even when it comes to Suez which we were winning until the USA pulled the plug you could argue that Nasser staying in power led to two further wars with Israel and a dictatorship which lasted until last year.

  2. I don’t think that a Tory government in London would have much difficulty in getting the unionist majority in the NI Assembly to rubber stamp Trident, a war against Iran, gigantic aircraft carriers (if built in Belfast) etc, so that idea isn’t much good from a Welsh or Scottish standpoint. It’s a non-starter. An effective veto (such as three of the four nations voting in favour) would be regarded as the tail wagging the dog by Westminster, completely unnacceptable and unworkable.

    In any case, the Tories would prefer to cut the fringe nations adrift rather than lose the incredibly privileged status and power they have at Westminster.

    Let’s face it, the UK is bust economically and politically. It’s a hangover from an imperial past. It simply doesn’t work for large numbers of people who live in it – especially in Scotland and Wales. Taking a long view of history, what is happening is part of an extended process of disintegration which has been taking place gradually for the best part of a century. The only question is how long it will take to fall apart.

    The failure to address the West Lothian Question illustrates the problem, in that there isn’t a viable solution within the Union which will stand the test of time. The Westminster elite know that only too well. The rise of national sentiment in England will eventually bring about a resolution which will mean the end of the UK, if it is still in existence by that time.

    Jeff Jones, Your comment indicates the extent that Labour has travelled across the political divide so as to be indistinguishable from the Tories.

  3. The 7% support for independence for Wales seems to suggest that most people living in Wales haven’t yet given up on the UK. 9 of the conflicts mentioned by Gerry Holtham were fought by Labour governments. How anyone can argue that Labour has moved closer to the Tories baffles me. There might have been elements in the Labour Party in the past who might have adopted a pacifist view of Foreign and Defence Policy but they were always a minority. Labour whether in government or in opposition has always argued that the UK should be properly defended. Hardly surprising given the attitude of most working class voters when it comes to defence. Wales might have given the world Henry Richard the ‘Apostle of Peace’ but it also saw more men volunteer in percentage terms to fight in the First World War than any of the other regions of the UK.

  4. As expected, a robust British Nationalist defence from Jeff Jones. The point of the article, however, appears to be to firm up, and expand, devolution within the UK. Defence may be one of those powers that will, over time, filter its way into any new devolution settlements. If you are a Unionist then this proposal should please you, as it would surely lock Wales into the UK, and increase democracy, rather than fragmenting the state. All said and done, Gerry Holtham’s article is a fine start to a much needed debate.

  5. Jeff

    If the Scots exit post 2014, one wonders how many converts to nationalism (particularly in the Labour ranks) will appear overnight in Wales when they realise that the likes of Cameron and Osborne are going to be dictating to them virtually indefinitely from Westminster.

    Devolution (as per Labour’s design) won’t protect the health and education services in Wales while the Barnett formula is in operation, because hefty savings in funding in England (as per the NHS Bill) will eventually be reflected here. Some Labour AMs have woken up to that already. Even the lethargic Carwyn has realised that constitutional change has to take place post 2014.

    Unfortunately for him, I don’t see Gerry’s idea (or Carwyn’s ‘federal’ proposal) being acceptable to those who want to preserve the Union, because it would entail the demise of a cosy political and electoral system which has kept two parties alternately in power for generations. To the Tories, who represent the majority of the electorate in England, it would be anathema, preferable to cut Scotland and Wales loose or give them a shove in that direction.

    We could well be faced with the choice of perpetual Tory government or independence – which would the people of Wales choose, I wonder?

  6. Dave, recent polls indicate that the vast majority of people in Wales, and a somewhat narrower majority in Scotland, still believe that the UK ‘works’ for them.

    The union is indeed changing but you cannot extrapolate perceived trends crudely into the future. Various political models are possible. Wales is very different – economically, demographically and geographically – to Scotland, and different constitutional arrangements are probably appropriate in both nations.

    You seem to imply that independence would ‘protect’ health and education services in Wales – but how would they be adequately funded without fiscal transfers within the UK?

  7. Rhys

    Fiscal transfers, as you call them, to Wales from the UK treasury, are required because Wales is part of the UK. The latter is so structured that growth, wealth, and prosperity are drawn to parts of London and the south east of England, making (very inadequate) fiscal transfers necessary, and not just to Wales. The Barnett fiscal transfers are only part of the equation. The record on infrastructure investment in Wales has been poor, and there is no reason to expect that it will improve. If the past is anything to go by, we can expect a relative decline.

    For Wales, the UK is the problem, not the solution. If we follow your reasoning Wales will be perpetually dependant on such transfers and increasingly so. It is not surprising that this situation prevails when the monetary and fiscal centre of government is dominated by people for whom Wales is peripheral.

    Many small nations have prospered from independence. There are examples of former Soviet bloc countries which have overtaken Wales in terms of economic growth. Actually, Wales has stagnated in relative terms.

    Do you contend that the present devolved constitutional settlement is satisfactory as far as Wales is concerned? As far as I can see there are only two possibilities, more devolution (where sovereign power is retained at Westminster, and the ensuing tensions between Cardiff and London remain) or an asymmetric federal solution, where there will be tensions over defence, foreign policy and the associated costs. I can see that neither of those will be satisfactory, or will assist in re-generating Wales, if it has to share the enormous burden of the UK’s massive defence budget.

    In any case, we have to await forthcoming events.

  8. I think Dave misunderstood me. I was proposing that three of the four constituent assemblies of the UK would have to support military action overseas, the House of Commons and any two of the devolved assemblies. Contrary to the IWA’s headline, this would not give Wales alone a veto; it would have one only in conjunction with another assembly. But Scotland and Wales together could do it.

    In my view Dave’s arguments for independence are without merit but I won’t bore readers with my own critique.

    Jeff Jones makes a game attempt to justify British actions but it won’t wash. I won’t argue about Malaya; perhaps that was justified. But in Aden, Cyprus and Kenya the fighting did no good since we left anyway and left our opponents in charge. We could have cut a deal and left without violence as we did elsewhere. However badly people run their country does not excuse us trying to use armed force to run it for them. I made no case against Korea, Kuwait or the Falklands, where some principled justification existed (that said the Falklands was a reckless gamble and we lucked out; different air tactics by the Argentinians would have resulted in a fiasco as our own service chiefs acknowledge). Of the subsequent ‘humanitarian’ expeditions only Sierra Leone resulted in a clear alleviation of suffering. On Libya the jury is indeed still out. There might well have been massacre in Benghazi; there has certainly been one in Sirte and now there are scores of summary executions and 280 militias are contending for control of Misrata.

    But if the jury is out on Iraq and Afghanistan it must be in a coma. In Iraq anywhere between 150k and 900k dead, two million displaced people, half of whom in foreign exile, no peace 9 years after the invasion with street bombs a weekly occurrence and Sunni as shut out from power as the Shia were under Saddam, not to mention thousands of allied troops dead or maimed. A clear catastrophe. Afghanistan was riddled with communal strife and corruption when we went in, is now, and will be after we have gone 400 British lives and counting later. Why? To deny Al Qaeda training camps? They moved to Pakistan; the last two attacks were launched from the Yemen. Are we going to attack them as well? Better include Somalia and the Sudan then. This is madness. I am no pacifist and the small safety catch I propose on the trigger happy UK is long overdue.

  9. Dave,

    I think your notion that Wales’ economic growth would suddenly accelerate after independence is wishful thinking. It’s not really instructive to compare the experience of post-Soviet states at a very different stage of economic development.

    Globalisation means that the prospect of economic sovereignty is an illusion – presumably an independent Wales would still be part of a currency union, either the Euro (hard sell) or Sterling (the SNP proposal). Some advocates of independence think that control over income and corporate tax would enable Wales to attract investors. But it would be difficult for Wales to win a game of beggar-thy-neighbour tax competition and the consequences for its public finances could be crippling.

    Besides, the reality is that most of Wales’ population live within 50 miles of the English border and the key connections are east-west rather than north-south. So an independent Wales would still be closely linked to English economy, whatever the political settlement.

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