David Melding argues that the National Assembly has proved the worth and power of the British parliamentary tradition
The term “parliamentary sovereignty” beguiles our political imagination and too often prevents us thinking federal thoughts. This is the message of the second chapter of my e-book The Reformed Union. It is my contention that while sovereignty is indeed the supreme parliamentary attribute, it must now be vested in Britain’s parliaments and not solely in Westminster.
This development is not as audacious as it might first appear. British political experience created parliamentary federalism in the 19th Century and applied it to Canada and then Australia. In those Dominions sovereignty was divided but not diluted. Should Britain become a federation, Westminster’s sovereignty would be limited but none the less real where it pertains. Indeed, Westminster would gain in authority because its sovereignty would be practical and not based on fictions like its supposed legislative supremacy even over devolved matters. Could Westminster really abolish the Scottish Parliament without sparking a constitutional crisis and probably secession? Why cling, then, to such silly fictions?
|THE REFORMED UNION: Britain as a Federation
This is the second chapter in 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 is being serialised in eight chapters at regular intervals over the coming months, continuing with Chapter 2 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 this second 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.
In the British political tradition parliaments matter. They work their magic during the big political moments. It is no wonder that devolution has been such a dynamic and challenging process because it granted Scotland and Wales their own parliaments. Edmund Burke realised the potency of parliamentary tradition in the 18th Century when he warned Westminster that the Americans were not rejecting the British Constitution, rather they wanted to apply its principles more fully.
Unfortunately, Burke’s advice was ignored, but his speech On Conciliation with America stands as one of the most erudite ever heard in Parliament. I believe that Burke has much to teach us today. The Burkean response to issues like the West Lothian question in England or calls for independence in Scotland would be to turn to the genius of the British Constitution to find a remedy. I believe that parliamentary federalism is that remedy. It has already been applied abroad to what were once called British nations (Canada and Australia) and now needs to be applied at home. As well as offering a solution to our constitutional challenges, federalism would also provide an opportunity to strengthen Westminster as a legislature capable of fully testing the executive – an area in which Parliament has been surprisingly weak by international standards.
It is often said that federalism cannot work in the UK because England is so big. There is a logical problem here, because England was no smaller in the old unitary state and one must ask did it dominate that? In a federal Britain there would be little danger of an English legislature overwhelming Scotland and Wales. Even if it tried – and there is no evidence to support such revanchist fears – Scotland, and probably Wales, would simply secede. The real danger that a federal Britain would face is that an English legislature would overwhelm the British Parliament. It may be a stark truth, but it is true nevertheless. If England is too big for a modern British multinational state, then the Union is doomed whether it be unitary, devolved or federal. This is a real concern and one I will address at length in the next chapter of this work when I look at political institutions in a federation.
In considering what characteristics a federal Britain would have to embody, I draw on the seminal work of Jenna Bednar in The Robust Federation which sets out three requirements:
- Compliance so that the federal units do not attempt to transgress on the powers of the British state and vice versa. This is clearly happening today in Scotland where the Scottish Government is attempting to gain powers over defence in order to reject nuclear deterrence.
- Resilience, which requires an immunity to design flaws. Our current quasi-federal constitution has created the troublesome West Lothian question – a very basic design fault.
- Adaptation, an ability to adjust and evolve. Here the British Constitution has a better record – as was seen in the development of the Assembly between 1999-2006 when the institution’s more glaring design flaws were addressed.
The point that must be borne in mind is that a federal constitution is not fixed and final because the federal settlement is itself interpreted in the context of ever changing political and cultural factors. In the 1950s federalism in the USA was said to be in some crisis as the power of the federal government had grown with the New Deal. Today the 50 States are seen as resurgent and federalism considered in rude health. Yet the actual constitution remained largely unaltered, although its interpretation changed markedly.
The great vitality that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have displayed as political institutions is a cause for celebration. It proves the worth and power of the British parliamentary tradition. The constitutional conundrum that we now face would be much more perplexing if the devolved institutions had failed to move out of Westminster’s shadow. National parliaments are powerful institutions. They work their magic and inspire the political imagination. The old Union was once sustained by a single sovereign Parliament. The reformed Union will draw its strength from several. Burke would be proud, and perhaps Owain Glyn Dŵr too!