How federalism can bind Britain in civic unity

David Melding argues that if the UK is to survive unionism needs to speak the language of bilingual nationalism

It is always salutary to recall that unlike Britain the UK is not an ancient entity, barely being three score years and ten older than the USA. There has always been something dynamic and incomplete about the Union. This has allowed the UK to adapt to some profound challenges such as the loss of Ireland and the end of the Empire. But there is also the latent danger that the Union may one day dissolve.

The Reformed Union

David Melding’s new book The Reformed Union: the UK as a Federation is published digitally and is available for download here.

Constitutional questions can generate a momentum of their own and what were once fanciful abstractions can be transformed into practical propositions with disarming speed. Independence is no longer a fringe obsession but the policy of the Scottish government – and who would have thought that possible in 1999? Of course the character of Celtic independence has changed significantly since the 1960s. Indeed, it would be more coherent to call it neo-independence today. To many Scots this neo-independence seems more cosmopolitan and less isolated than the separatism implicit in the Eurosceptic attitudes within much of unionism.

It is surely a pity that unionist ideology has not adapted itself with any such alacrity and finds itself stuck with a rather 19th Century vocabulary. One would have thought that if the UK is worth defending it would be easy to defend. But a new unionist idiom remains elusive. Unionists must work quickly and think less about defending the old, and more about creating the new Union.

Only a reformed unionist ideology can hope to respond to the momentous constitutional events of our times. Reliance on what one critic calls ‘banal unionism’ may have worked in a quieter age, but it will not do so now. The UK is not alone in facing such challenges – they affect nearly all multi-national states. Indeed, this is why the debate on the future of Britain has such global significance. If the UK dissolves, would any liberal multi-national state view the future with equanimity?

Throughout Britain right up until the 1980s, both the Conservatives and Labour had a political reach that facilitated the operation of a unitary state with a distinctly multi-national character. The Conservative Party was most strongly identified with traditional unionism, although the Labour and Liberal parties also espoused a clear belief in the Union.

Political parties are key to the operation and success of democratic systems and this is particularly so in potentially fissiparous states. It was the case that Labour had particular strength in Scotland and Wales (and periodically weakness in England) but this reflected a broad socio-economic pattern rather than deep national preferences. In the last quarter of the 20th Century this unifying pattern changed abruptly as the Conservative Party declined and then collapsed in Scotland, and struggled in Wales.

The Conservative Party is consequently less a party of the Union and more an English party favouring Union. The failure of indigenous Conservatism in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, continues to threaten the viability of that very same Union. We have reached a situation where such a statement is almost insipid in its un-exceptionalism. Yet it is surely astonishing that a Conservative Prime Minister dare not be seen as too conspicuous in the campaign to save the Union.

Broadly speaking, unionists have viewed devolution as an alternative to federalism rather than one of its variations. The great devolutionists of British politics – Gladstone and Blair – were both passionate anti-federalists. While the British state has always contained paradox, Blair left the constitution deeply convoluted and less integrated. Had Gladstone’s prescriptions reached the statute book, he would have done likewise. Both were surely right in believing that the Union as they found it could only be maintained if it became less centralised. While devolution has never been offered as a coherent system and therefore always lacks the character of a definite settlement (largely because England has been entirely excluded) it has had certain pragmatic attractions. However, there is a price to pay for this form of federalism without a rule book.

That devolution and federalism are close constitutional cousins was demonstrated in the Government of Scotland Act 1998, which itself had clear antecedence in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Scottish Parliament has legislative competence over all matters not explicitly reserved to Westminster. This is a strongly federal principle because it accepts the proposition that the Scottish Parliament has the authority to legislate unless positively excluded from doing so. By way of contrast, the Government of Wales Act 2006 follows the opposite principle and allows the Assembly to legislate over prescribed fields only.

Such confusion on the locus of sovereignty would hardly matter if devolution had done the trick and – from its progenitors’ point of view – contained nationalism. Nothing of the sort has happened, probably because few see devolution in practice as a clear and stable settlement. As Ron Davies famously observed “devolution is a process not an event”. Devolution has shown itself to be a particularly dynamic process and nationalists have used it to advance demands for greater autonomy. The Scottish government’s encroachment into defence policy – especially its rejection of nuclear deterrence – is a pungent and dangerous example of this tendency. Without a firm constitutional settlement, where the powers of the UK state are set out and enshrined, Unionism is destined to fail. The Union needs that rule book.

We often forget that the challenges facing the Union are not peculiar to the UK. There is a strong international trend in democratic states to decentralise administrative mechanisms and for multi-national states to embrace some degree of federalism. In existing federal states there has been a tendency for what one Canadian thinker has called the ‘small worlds’ dimension of political life to become more prominent. The crisis of federalism, which so preoccupied political scientists in the decades following the Second World War, has given way to demands for greater local control over political decision making.

There is a sense that while central government – massively strengthened in the age of welfare – is not exactly ill-intentioned, it cannot be entirely trusted. Faith in big government solutions can no longer be assumed, and this trend has been aggravated by the international financial crisis. ‘Small worlds’ on the other hand, offer the prospect of limiting political power, increasing accountability, and improving the quality of information in a very complex world.

Britain is not alone, either, in facing something of an identity crisis. States such as Spain, Belgium and Canada face similar existential challenges. Belgium has given voice to its rather divergent national identities but has struggled to maintain a sense of majesty in the Belgian state. In Spain and Canada the notion of a union of nations is still highly disputed, and any sense of multi-national identity is correspondingly weaker.

Most British citizens also affirm a national identity that is either English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish (the principal exception is the BME community). What is less clear is whether these identities are accompanied by a sense of dual nationality where a common British identity is also held as national and not merely civic. Unionism surely needs to speak the language of bilingual nationalism. The UK is unlikely to survive as an exclusively civic entity, especially if the national identities of the Home Nations continue to intensify.

Since the reawakening of Celtic nationalism in the late 1960s, some of the most poignant functions of the state have been elevated to the international sphere. Britain was often in the vanguard of this process, notably in the construction of the UN’s economic and monetary mechanisms, and in NATO. British influence was also prominent in the development of international law. All these developments required the concept of state sovereignty to be radically adapted. Eventually, Britain also joined the most significant supra-national experiment of the age, the Common Market – later the European Union. One unanticipated consequence was that intellectual antipathy towards nationalism weakened as it became possible to advance a form of neo-nationalism that subscribed to international political structures.

Yet it would be quite wrong to conclude that these profound historical forces have overwhelmed either the resources of the UK or the capacity of British political experience to generate reform. What is clear, and must be understood by all unionists, is that courage and imagination is now required to adapt the Westminster model of government. A British federation would synthesise the liberal demands of nationalism with those of the Union. The materials are at hand in British political experience, but if not used creatively the Union will surely fail. I have written The Reformed Union not as a blueprint for the new Union but to suggest some of the key federal mechanisms that could strengthen the UK. Parliamentary federalism – long practised in Canada and Australia – is one British export that should at last come home.

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

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