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

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