Why sovereignty needs to be shared across the United Kingdom

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:

  1. The present is not an ordinary time
  2. Parliament, sovereignty and federalism
  3. Governing and legislating in a federation
  4. The economy, finance and taxation
  5. Political institutions in a federation
  6. Civic institutions in a federation
  7. Unionism and nationalism
  8. The reformed union

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

David Melding is Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly and Conservative AM for South Wales Central.

11 thoughts on “Why sovereignty needs to be shared across the United Kingdom

  1. What a breath of fresh air! As an Englishman I am more than happy, thus far, with all that David Melding has said. I look forward to further instalments.

  2. Two most interesting chapters so far. I am looking forward to the rest. Wales badly needs more ideas of this nature and quality from the centre-right. David Melding is doing a signal service for Welsh politics and who knows, these are the kind of ideas that may well make the debate about the future of the union a far more engaging one.

  3. David Melding’s intelligence and open-mindedness are a great ornament of the Assembly he serves. His vision of a federal UK, however, is likely to founder – not on the rocks of the relative size of England but on the reef of money. Federalism works for Scotland but Wales and Northern Ireland had an excess of government spending over local tax receipts amounting to some 25 per cent of their GVA even before the recession. Their deficits now must be around a third of their total annual output. With such huge subventions from England, how much autonomy can they expect to enjoy? There is little sign that they are ready to purchase that autonomy by accepting a much lower income. He who pays the piper…

  4. David Melding’s thinking is a breath of fresh air from within his party and I too look forward to the forthcoming chapters.

    He states that, “England was no smaller in the old unitary state and one must ask did it dominate that?”

    My answer is an unequivocal yes – in just about every sphere of government and administration. Its language and culture have permeated to the furthest corners of this island. When one reads the comments of Scottish nationalists on blogs, it is clear that the dominance of England, and Westminster in particular has been and is a real issue for them.

    I expect that David will deal with the constitutional implications of a federal union in his subsequent chapters. I believe that this will be the fundamental stumbling block for staunch unionists, especially within the Tory party. I cannot see a federal state being created without a written constitution, and all it implies. Everything that is presently nebulous would have to be scrutinised minutely and codified, from the nature and role of the head of state and her relationship with the Church of England, to the electoral system. I can’t see parliamentary sovereignty surviving such a constitutional upheaval – it is simply not consistent with federalism. Is it a price that unionists, particularly Tories, would be willing to pay for preserving a Union, with the likely risk of it subsequently falling apart over difficult defence and foreign affairs issues? I suspect that retaining the current system in England would be preferable, if the Scots (and perhaps the Welsh) can’t be persuaded to remain aboard. This would explain Cameron’s insistence that the Scots must choose between the status quo (including the changes coming with the Scotland Act) or independence.

    Gerald Holtham,

    I agree that Wales finds itself in a Catch 22 situation. It is poor because it is part of the UK. Even a cursory study of its history and relationship with England, and later the British State, shows that it has been exploited to its disadvantage in just about every respect. That continues – the UK government owns and controls its natural resources even today. The Welsh Government was specifically denied control over Wales’ water resources in the 2006 Act.

    I compare Wales’ situation to that of Oliver Twist, who found himself orphaned, destitute, and dependant in the workhouse, where he was inadequately sustained, and destined for a life of exploitation and misery, whilst the governors of that institution wined and dined to excess, and cared not a jot for the inmates.

    Essentially, you are telling us that we are too poor, that we must remain in that condition, and we can expect no relief from it any time soon, if ever. I agree that Wales is poor, the poorest part of the UK, one of the poorest regions in Europe. Poorer even than Slovakia! Where does the responsibility lie for such a state of affairs?

    The UK has shown itself incapable of generating Wales’ economy to the benefit of the those of us who live here. The move towards regional pay indicated by the Chancellor yesterday (and initiated by the previous Labour Government) will have the effect of further weakening Wales’ economy by reducing fiscal transfers from Westminster.

    If that process continues then, logically, there would eventually be no economic reason, certainly no benefit, for Wales to remain part of the UK. Indeed, it would be better off, as it would not be paying its share of a nuclear deterrent, illegal and immoral wars, huge aircraft carriers, and disproportionately large military forces etc. It would also have enhanced and direct representation in the EU.

    Technically, at least, the ‘subventions’ to which you refer come from the UK Treasury, and not from ‘England’. We must also remember that there are fiscal transfers from the UK to other regions, including parts of England. Unfotunately the picture is blurred by the asymmetric and differential current devolution settlement(s), taxation regimes, social security (including pensions) and the Barnett formula. It’s time that the people of Wales had the facts about just how badly their country has and is being governed from Westminster.

  5. Dave: first, a point of fact – Wales is not poorer than Slovakia. The latest Eurostat figures for regional GDP per head show Slovakia at 71 per cent of the EU27 average and Wales at 82 per cent. Wales’ GDP is of course disappointing, but we *don’t* actually feature amongst the twenty poorest EU regions.

    Second, the notion that Wales is poor because it’s part of the UK is, frankly, bizarre. For most of its economic history, Wales was poor because it was a sparsely-populated, mountainous and remote place with a pastoral economy. In the coal and steel boom of the 1890s GDP per person in Wales actually rose to a relatively prosperous 95 per cent of the UK level. Unfortunately for a variety of complex reasons we never developed a diversified economic base that would have given us resilience against the decline of those industries. Suffice to say that forces in economic geography (demographic and technological change, economies of scale, shifts in trade patterns) usually generate persistent spatial disparities between cities, regions and countries.

    Contemporary Wales is relatively poor because we have a low employment rate and low productivity per job. The low employment rate is related to the slightly older population profile and the relatively large number of people with poor skills. The productivity ‘gap’ is due to the adverse mix of industries and occupations and our lack of a major agglomeration. The constitutional issue is completely irrelevant.

    What can we do about these things? Well, there’s scope to increase the employment rate through raising educational standards; and scope to attract new investment by improving our infrastructure and making the planning system more responsive. All of these issues are already within the Welsh Government’s competence.

  6. We had a reasonably equitable form of shared sovereignty! Devolution incorporating Regional legislatures broke that system, introducing anomalies and fault-lines which were not strongly evident before.

    The normal way to repair a broken system is to roll-back to a set of conditions that worked – like system restore. The current political class are either too vain or too stupid (or both!) to realise that you don’t repair a broken system by breaking it further. But that is what so many of them are now proposing to do with a federal UK where the fault-lines will be deeper and the chance of fracture will be greater.

    The MOST equitable system is one of so-called common representation where everybody operates according to the same set of rules. One parliament, one legal system, one taxation system, one needs-based public spending formula, one education system, and so on. What could be fairer or more efficient? So why are so many in the political class apparently doing their level best to take the UK in the opposite direction?

  7. Rhys

    “Wales’ GDP is of course disappointing”

    You bet it is, Rhys! It is abysmally bad. Who or what do you hold responsible for that extremely poor performance?

    There isn’t anyone other than successive Tory and Labour administrations at Westminster, and Labour-led governments in Cardiff Bay.

    To claim that Wales is poor because it is mountainous and rural is nonsense. There are nations and regions in Europe which are more mountainous and more ‘rural’ but far more prosperous.

    “In the coal and steel boom of the 1890s GDP per person in Wales actually rose to a relatively prosperous 95 per cent of the UK level.”

    The GDP may have risen, but the benefits of it did not remain in Wales. The steam from coal mined in the Rhondda fuelled the trade of the Empire, but Wales got little or nothing out of it. The miners were paid a pittance. It was pure exploitation. The wealth was siphoned off. The evidence is there today in depressed and impoverished neglected communities across the valleys of South Wales.

    “…we never developed a diversified economic base ..”

    Wales was never allowed to develop an economic base. The powers to allow it to do so were and are held at Westminster. Wales has no fiscal or monetary powers to develop any kind of economy. The wealth has been sucked into London and the south east of England.

    “Contemporary Wales is relatively poor because we have a low employment rate and low productivity per job.”

    That is the same as saying that Wales is poor BECAUSE it is poor. The question to ask is WHY does Wales have “a low employment rate and low productivity per job”?

    You blame it on relatively poor educational standards and lack of investment. Who is, or was, responsible for failing to address these issues? Until last year the Welsh Government had no real legislative powers and still lacks any fiscal levers to develop Wales’ economy. In reality it has little more power than a succession of Secretaries of State, mere governor generals, appointed by successive Tory and Labour Westminster governments, which left Wales and its economy in a parlous state. That downward spiral has continued, and there is little likelihood that things will improve given the climate of austerity. It is the result of an appalling failure by London governments to create a balanced economy and to regulate the financial sector.

    Wales’ infrastructure has been neglected for generations. The Welsh Government doesn’t have the financial clout or the powers even to electrify the main line from the border of Wales to Swansea. London makes all the decisions. Not a single mile of track in Wales has been electrified. It is an indictment on Tory and Labour governments alike. Wales is on a par with Albania and Moldova in that respect. All of Wales’ natural resources are controlled from Downing Street. We don’t even own our own water, large quantities of which are piped to the English conurbations which pay less for it than we do. That is appalling. Carwyn Jones’ great ambition is to beg London for powers to control up to 100MW of generational capacity. Wales should control ALL of its natural resources, instead of being bled dry to create millionaires in the prosperous south east of England.

    It’s no wonder that we’re in the mess that we’re in when Welsh people like yourself blame the people of Wales for the exploitation of our country by others.

    Until we as a nation wake up to the fact that we have been screwed by a succession of Labour and Tory governments, acting out of party interest, then Wales will continue to decline. The Scots have had the sense to ake up to the fact that they have had, and are having a raw deal from London. It’s only a matter of time before the people of Wales wake up to that reality too.

  8. The Church of England historically since the disestablishment of the Church in Wales and the preceding nineteenth century reforms re Ireland prior to its partition and seperation in the 1920s (and noting the two recognised Scottish churches since the reign of James VI of Scotland in the reign of Elizabeth 1st of England), is the only church / kirk / faith to have ex officio number of bishops / leaders to sit in the House of Lords as Lords spiritual. As such, a written constitution which codifies which Chruches, faiths and NGOs from across the four ‘kingdoms / terrotories (England, Cymru/Wales, Alba/Scotland, the six counties of Northern Ireland) and any former colonies (the crown dependant territories) can sit as cross-benchers, may be required for parity and to reflect the realities of the territories that have and may continue to be part of what is presently refferred to as the United Kingdom. Within that, given Wales has primary law making powers, perhaps its time for it to become a Kingdom rather than a principality.

  9. Lots to take issue with in your post there Dave!

    “Who or what do you hold responsible for [Wales’] extremely poor [GDP]?”

    Doubtless policy mistakes have been made by successive governments, but much of what happens in the economy is beyond political control. For example, the Welsh Government cannot replicate the demographic and locational advantages of London and South East England. You can’t change the facts of economic geography.

    Moreover, you shouldn’t put *too* much stress on GDP as an indicator. Regional differences in GDP don’t necessarily equate to similar-sized differences in economic well-being. Incomes are much higher in London than in Wales but then so is the cost of living. When you look at measures such as GDHI (gross disposable household income) Wales’ performance relative to other UK regions isn’t so bad.

    “To claim that Wales is poor because it is mountainous and rural is nonsense.”

    I said that Wales *was* poor (note the past tense) because it was sparsely populated, mountainous and remote, with an economy based on pastoral agriculture. Prior to the industrial revolution, this was true. Large parts of Wales are still very distant from big economic centres and Welsh cities are generally small compared with the English ‘core cities’ or even most capitals of smaller European countries. According to some economists, this reduces our productivity potential.

    “Wales was never allowed to develop an economic base.”

    Never *allowed* to develop an economic base? What possible motive could any British politician have for consciously undermining the economic performance of one region? Goods and services produced in Wales contribute to UK GDP; taxes raised in Wales contribute to the Exchequer. All major British political parties compete for votes in Wales.

    Successive Westminster governments have offered grants to companies investing in Wales, moved public sector employment here (DVLA, Royal Mint, Patent Office, ONS) and built infrastructure like the Severn Bridge and the Cardiff Bay barrage. The relative ‘failure’ of these policies to change Wales’ position in the regional GDP/GVA ‘league table’ points to the deep-rooted nature of regional disparities in Britain.

    “Until last year the Welsh Government had no real legislative powers and still lacks any fiscal levers to develop Wales’ economy.”

    You seem to forget that what you call ‘fiscal levers’ (taxes) are also needed to fund public services and welfare. And you must be aware that Wales already suffers from a very large fiscal deficit! An independent Wales could of course cut corporation tax, but this ‘beggar my neighbour’ policy (a) would exacerbate the already-large deficit; (b) would require lower public spending or higher personal taxes in Wales (or both); (c) could provoke retaliation; and (d) might not work anyway given (b).

  10. Rhys

    Just one example, it would take too long to deal with them all. Basically your contention is that things are as they are and, ‘tough luck’

    “this ‘beggar my neighbour’ policy”

    When the big bully has his foot on his victim’s neck, he says, ‘I can’t take it away. you might get up and hit me back’.

    Just exactly who has been beggared in this dis-United Kingdom? In whose interests has Corporation Tax worked? I’ll tell you, it’s in the interests of those who have the power to set it – that power does not exist here – and we’re the neighbours being beggared. We musn’t change it lest the wealthy lose their wealth. What a ridiculous argument.

  11. “Basically your contention is that things are as they are and, ‘tough luck’”

    There is scope for the Welsh economy to do better, if, as I said in my first post, we can get the policy mix right around education, infrastructure and planning.

    However, we have to be realistic. London is one of the world’s major financial centres and the most populous city in Europe. The biggest cities tend to have higher productivity, draw in people with the highest earning power and therefore have higher GDP per capita. The effect is also felt across their wider hinterlands, hence the prosperity of the south east.

    We will never match London levels of GDP per capita but that isn’t necessarily a problem, because higher money wages in the capital are offset by the cost of living. The average house price in London is £406k, in the south east it’s £268k, but in Wales it’s only £155k – your money goes a lot further.

    “In whose interests has Corporation Tax worked?”

    UK Governments have usually set the level of Corporation Tax with a view to its international competitiveness – you may have noticed that it was cut in the recent budget with just this rationale. In the late 90s the UK actually had the tenth lowest main rate among the EU27 countries. The main point about Corporation Tax though is that it exists to raise revenue for the Government. If a state wishes to lower its rate then it must either make up the difference by raising other taxes, or reduce public spending accordingly.

    Adair Turner wrote that the flipside of the low Irish rate of Corporation Tax in the 80s was very high personal taxation – which exacerbated emigration – and poor public infrastructure. For example, I believe that Ireland only started to build its motorway network as late as the 90s. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

    “We’re the neighbours being beggared. We musn’t change it lest the wealthy lose their wealth. What a ridiculous argument.”

    You’ve completely misunderstood my argument. If an independent or fiscally autonomous Wales reduced its rate of Corporation Tax to attract businesses across Offa’s Dyke, the likelihood is that adjoining regions of England would also demand a lower Corporation Tax. This would be a game of ‘beggar thy neighbour’, a race to the bottom that I doubt that Wales could win given the weakness of its tax base. I am certain that both Wales and England would *lose*, in terms of tax revenue foregone!

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