Paul Gillespie sees resonances for whole British Isles in the Welsh First Minister’s call for a federal UK
The European issue has deeply penetrated British politics by becoming the symbolic other for a growing Little England nationalism and by reinforcing Scottish and Welsh demands for greater autonomy from centralised London rule.
In November First Minister Carwyn Jones warned at a British-Irish Council meeting in Cardiff that a UK withdrawal from the European Union would have disastrous consequences for foreign investment, social policies and agriculture in Wales. He called for a constitutional convention on the future of the UK, supporting a federalising agenda for its changing polity.
This is largely in anticipation of Scotland’s vote on independence in November 2014. Jones fears Wales will be marginalised whether Scots vote yes or no. While he opposes Scottish independence and insists Wales does not want it either, he believes the traditional pragmatic muddling through will not protect Welsh interests in a refashioned UK.
Such Welsh concerns give an insight on the UK but they have little or no influence on the predominant London-centred political system or its media discourse on how these changes are happening. Welsh observers say Jones’s Labour Party colleagues in England are ignorant or indifferent, reflecting a growing trend towards loosening UK ties and loyalties.
Scottish Labour veterans also fear the unionist campaign against independence there will concentrate too much on negative feelings against the Scottish National Party and not enough on answering that party’s case that the existing structure of the UK concentrates power irretrievably in London and the southeast region that benefits most from it. Hence the need for independence.
The SNP is well positioned to exploit these tensions over the next two years. Even if the referendum is defeated, the question will not go away. Current and future bargaining over the ambiguous line between ‘independence-lite’ and ‘devo-max’ will deepen Scottish and most probably Welsh legislative powers.
The European issue does not determine these internal decisions about the future shape of the UK, but it is more and more the framework in which the issues of identity and power involved are discussed. Political identities are defined in relation to others.
The growing English nationalism on the right wing of the Conservative Party, and in the buoyant United Kingdom Independence Party now competing with it, is defined against Europe – reinforcing developing Welsh and Scottish political identities increasingly defined in contrast to them.
These dynamics also pit multiple and complementary identities against singular ones – Scotland/Wales-Britain-Europe against England.
Historically the British state was constructed by the medieval conquest of Wales, the union treaty with Scotland in 1707 and their joint construction of empire. But the systematic elision of England with Britain, enabled by British imperial history and encoded in the 1880s by A.V. Dicey in its constitutional law of undivided sovereignty resting with the crown in parliament as part of his campaign against Irish home rule, is no longer sustainable.
Harold Macmillan’s answer to the loss of empire was to seek a role in the post-war integrating Europe, having initially failed to head it off with a wider British-sponsored free trade area. Rebuffed by de Gaulle for 10 years, Britain belatedly joined the EEC with Ireland and Denmark in 1973, underestimating its political inspiration. As this is now once again manifest in the Euro zone, disengagement looms instead.
The Welsh Labour case for UK federalism makes rational political sense in these circumstances, and could provide a wider link to a more federal EU; but it runs slap up against the ideological discourse in London politics and media that sees EU federalism only as centralising power in Brussels and is blind to the reality of its own centralism.
It is equally blind to the decisive breach of Dicey’s sovereignty represented first by EEC accession and now by UK devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Leveson report last week highlights the media role in that power complex, which, through Murdoch and others, has also framed English perceptions of the EU. Their Eurosceptic vision foresees an alternative role for Britain in a global marketplace – another mythical destination according to recent Labour speeches by Ed Miliband, Tony Blair and Carwyn Jones.
Their belated efforts to shift British attention to the links between the external and internal forces changing Britain are worth attention in Ireland. If they fail, the consequences for us of a disengaged and fragmenting neighbour could be much more severe.