Dafydd Elis-Thomas: What is the United Kingdom for?

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas discusses the role that identity plays in the way the UK works.

We must begin at the location once described by that parliamentary authority Erskine May as ‘the political centre of the British Empire,’ the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. In each direction you look you will view one of the four entrances and exits for the public and the members to both houses and committee rooms, adorned with mosaics of four patron saints of four constituent nations of an imagined multi-national state. I did not write ‘imaginary’ as Benedict Anderson did in his ‘Imaginary Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism’ as that has a hint of something made-up, as a work of fiction not bearing much sense of reality. I do think it is helpful to bear in mind that all social constructs are indeed that, made-up things, and therefore continually made and re-made.

Constitutional Convention

The IWA constitutional convention is underway at IWAconvention.co.uk . Please join the debate and share your thoughts on Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ piece here.

The IWA constitutional convention is a crowd sourced project on the future of Wales, and the UK – an eight-week experiment in deliberative democracy to run in parallel with discussions at Westminster. There are two critical elements to our plans; we are asking questions, and not pre-judging the outcomes, and we are putting people at the centre of our conversation. Everyone can take part, and anyone can shape the conversation.


We are running this innovative project in 5 phases over 8 weeks:

  • 26th Jan-1st Feb: What is the UK for?
  • 2nd-15th Feb: How do we create a more prosperous Wales? (The economy)
  • 16th Feb-1st Mar: How do we make Wales a fairer country? (The Welfare State)
  • 2nd-15th Mar: What is the future of the UK? Includes reaction to the Secretary of State’s announcements around Welsh devolution near St David’s day.
  • 16th-20th Mar: What is Wales for?

Over the course of this project we hope to engage people, start dialogues and ignite debate around questions that are key to both Wales’ future and what kind of a future that will be.

Go to IWAconvention.co.uk to have your say.

Such made-up things as societies are not one thing at all, for they are all perceived differently, viewed from outside and inside. From the perspective of histories; countries, nations and what for convenience we call polities, change more than they remain the same, as do their boundaries and common relations. My brilliantly colourful mentor and much-loved party colleague Gwyn Alf Williams used to describe the state to which we currently belong as ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and about a half of northern Ireland’. Britain as an island, a state and a geographical and historical term first describes Brythonic peoples of Britain. The modern usage developed after John Dee who was descended from a Radnorshire family, popularised the term ‘British Empire. Great Britain originally of course had nothing to do with alleged political ‘greatness’ and was only used to distinguish it by size from Bretagne (Brittany) a region of the French state. So there is hardly any clarity about something called being British or more complicated a thing described as ‘Britishness’. This does not prevent people from asserting that this is something they choose to identify themselves with or indeed describing it as their’ identity’.

Such people who wish to assert that such and such is their identity and that it is singular rather than plural, should not seek to assert that other people who have many co-existing identities in their lives are somehow abnormal. Just as we may all have a series of affiliations in our social and family life and may play many parts and roles, so too with our affiliations as citizens.

Just as we live and work in different places and follow different international sporting activities across the globe so too our sources of powers and decisions that affect us in different parts of our lives vary widely. We are not governed from one place but from many, and despite the attempts of ‘nationalists’ of all shades and opinion to assert that the nation (however construed) is the primary category of powers and therefore should command our chief affiliations, this is patently and increasingly no longer the case.

We are in fact governed to as greater or lesser extent in different policy areas by international agencies of the UN which increasingly take on a role in achieving binding agreements for the fragile world environment, and by EU law and administration seeking more unity of purpose in key areas such as a fiscal and an energy union. All new Welsh law has by our constitution as set out in a series of government of Wales acts to be compliant with EU as well as UK legislation and international conventions. So we need a different spatial metaphors such as mention of ‘levels’ of governance to understand how we can function most effectively as citizens of an ever-widening circle of cities, or people of simultaneously more than one polity, paying equal or variable allegiance to all, as a matter of active choice.

Rather than fretting about what will happen to one level of governance such as the UK which realistically only represents a period of short duration as a state structure in the common history of interaction between peoples on these west European Islands, why can’t we ask the simple question what functions can best be carried out at which ‘level’ of competence, and work accordingly? In the common life of polities as everything else, ‘form’ should follow ‘function’. An essential part of this approach is that it is up to the people of a given polity to decide for themselves according to the international principle of the self-determination of peoples what form their desired competences should take. Replicating traditional or pre-existing forms in another polity should not be regarded as necessary or logical. A decision to operate with different competences should not be seen as the institutionalisation of some perceived ‘inferiority’. Neither should there be a be any presumption about appropriate levels of operation in constitutional forms, which should be guided mainly by a willingness to agree common arrangements rather than seek to enforce presumed central models.

Nowhere should this be clearer than in the operation of law and regulation itself. As Lord Chief Justice Thomas keeps telling all who want to listen, we are already living simultaneously in three jurisdictions. Comparative federalism in legislative, fiscal and administrative policy is the only practical future. We should not move grudgingly in this direction but embrace these principles and approaches in a relaxed but determined way. Along with a different philosophical approach in public lives and politics will come a further change of cultures and identities? Gwyn Alf Williams wrote ‘We Welsh look like being the last of the British. There is some logic in this. We were, after all, the first’!

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas was the first presiding officer of the National Assembly for Wales and is currently the AM for Dwyfor and Meirionnydd.

5 thoughts on “Dafydd Elis-Thomas: What is the United Kingdom for?

  1. A rewriting of nationalism and nationalist theory, as we have come to expect from the dissident Lord Thomas. He also scarcely mentions Wales, thus showing his allegiance to ‘greater powers’.

  2. “why can’t we ask the simple question what functions can best be carried out ac which ‘level’ of competence, and work accordingly?”

    Agreed but I would argue that we can’t do this without also optimising the number of levels of competence. At the moment the EU level and the WG level appear to be superfluous to requirements if the Counties are to be retained. The EU increasingly just hands down edicts from UN standardisation bodies but removes the UK from its seat of influence on these international committees. Having worked in the old Welsh Office for a while I never understood what it was for – it seemed to get in the way of efficient governance more than it added to it. It was always clear to me that anything more invasive would be more disastrous and so the Welsh, Scottish, and N. Ireland governments have shown themselves to be.

    If form follows function, I can see no evidence that efficient pseudo-democratic governance and compliance checking needs more than 3 levels of competence – UN standardisation committees with direct UK representation on them, Westminster, and the County/Metro level of devolution.

  3. It is the UK level of competence that is becoming relatively less relevant to the needs of Wales. Scotland came close to voting to be independent five months ago – and given the strong support for the Yes campaign among the younger age groups it is highly likely to proceed to independence within the next decade or so. That is entirely consistent with the thesis Dafydd Elis Thomas sets out above: Scotland’s links and relationships with the other countries of Britain and Ireland will continue post-independence. It is true that the EU level of competence faces considerable challenge – though not as much as the UK.

  4. “….why can’t we ask the simple question what functions can best be carried out at which ‘level’ of competence, and work accordingly?”

    However there are two ways of approaching that question.
    Which functions that Westminster currently has competence for should, in Wales’ best interest, be passed across to the Senedd?
    or if we were to start from scratch with four stand alone components of a proposed United Kingdom.
    Which functions that the Senedd had competence for would, in Wales’ best interest, be passed across to Westminster.

    I imagine that the list of functions wouldn’t be the same either in their contents or length.
    As well as looking at the competences our nation state could devolve to its constituent parts we should look at examples of what competences nation states have transferred to unions (or other) of states they wish to be members of and which competences they have maintained.

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