David Melding: What is Britain for?

David Melding says it is time to think about what we want to do at the British level.

In this the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta it is a good time to ask “what is Britain for?” It was a question hardly asked in the Scottish independence campaign. Perhaps most Unionists regard Britain’s worth as self-evident and any effort at justification a waste of breath. I harbour no such delusions despite being a Unionist to my fingertips.

Constitutional Convention


Dafydd Elis-Thomas will share his opposing view tomorrow and you can follow the whole debate and share your ideas at IWAconvention.co.uk

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.

Actually Magna Carta is an appropriate icon for those who revere the majesty of the British state. It was not obviously British (although Wales and Scotland are mentioned); it was rushed, quickly repudiated and then reluctantly accepted again by the Crown; and it sought not a democratic revolution but a reform of power within an existing elite. This is all true, but of course not the whole truth. In setting rules for the exercise of power it set the polity that one day would be Britain on the march to constitutionalism or what is often termed the rule of law. As such, Magna Carta has directly influenced the political development of the English speaking world and extended the reach of democratic values globally.

In terms of responsible government under the rule of law, Britain stands to the modern world as Greece did to the ancient. Like the traditions of ancient Greece, Britain’s political heritage does not belong to us alone. This is why the sometimes insular nature of the Scottish referendum debate was disappointing. Did we not think that Scottish secession and the dissolution of Britain would not set a precedent internationally? If a democratic multi-national state collapsed in Britain, where could it survive? Of course we may be moving away from the age of multi-national states and in typical fashion Britain leads the way! But if so, we had better prepare for a world made up of hundreds and hundreds of nation-states – thousands even.

It seems to me preferable to apply robust federal mechanisms in multi-national states to make them more durable. Here Britain can take the lead and set a powerful and liberal precedent for the synthesis of constructive national and unionist political behaviour. And I would go further. As well as accommodating the liberal demands of its member nations, Britain should demonstrate how a traditional state can flourish in a wider continental Union such as the EU. The EU is in great flux and not a little turmoil at the moment. Britain has a duty to help shape a more dynamic European political space. It is also in our self-interest to do so.

A federal state would protect the essential authority of Britain while still allowing nation-building to flourish in the Home Nations. In many ways the age of devolution has only raised the question ‘What is the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for?” It is time to think about what we want to do at the British level. Currency, defence, foreign affairs and macro-economic stability at least must be British competences, it seems to me.

Of course our answer to the question “What do we want Britain to do?” might be “not very much”. Independence for Scotland, and perhaps even England, would then be inevitable. Yet Britain would endure, rather like Scotland and Wales did when predominantly cultural rather than political nations. British heritage would not evaporate. The Westminster model of government would not be defunct. And Magna Carta would still stand as one of history’s great milestones. These values are so strong that even the wilful dissolution of one of the world’s greatest and most successful states could not expunge them. People would still say Britain stands for quite a lot, thank you very much.

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

7 thoughts on “David Melding: What is Britain for?

  1. “As such, Magna Carta has directly influenced the political development of the English speaking world and extended the reach of democratic values globally.”

    Brought about by rampant imperialism of a distinctly undemocratic flavor for practically the entire period post Magna Carta.

    What is Britain for? Depends when you ask the question.
    On the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta the reason would be in order to hold the British Empire together. ie a fifth of the World’s land mass and a quarter of it’s population.

    On the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta the reason is to hold what’s left of the British Empire together. ie A largish island of the coast of western Europe, a part of the neighboring island and various rocks dotted amongst the world’s oceans.

    All other arguments stem from these

  2. Unusually for David Melding, this article seems to wander somewhat, sweeping majestically from Magna Carta to leading the way in being a model state in a continental setting.

    I would offer another interpretation of Britishness which does not trace its roots back so far. The modern concept of Britishness that we have lived with is the one born after the 2nd World War, the one designed to rebuild an economy that could no longer look to an empire to supply its wealth. Economically the aims of this project came to fruition in the 60s with the advent of a popular prosperity, people owning their own cars, white goods for the household, holidays abroad etc.

    I don’t believe that it’s any coincidence that the rise of the Celtic fringe seems to coincide with the British project having achieved its aim. For a while, Britain seemed to coast along on the hull of the social democratic consensus that held it together. That was to change forever when in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected with the express aim of shattering that consensus forever, and in so doing post-war Britain was lost with it. And no-one has been able to come up with a model of a post-Thatcher Britain which is even halfway convincing. We have yet to see at which point the SNP surge will reach its zenith but its hard to see how that particular genie will be returned to its bottle. The only hope for those seeking to reinvent Britain is that the people of Scotland will be willing to settle for something short of independence upon which the new union can be built.

    The difficulty is that whatever the nature of that particular arrangement, it will be a union in name only, marriage of convenience being the more appropriate term. The bigger union available to Scotland is that of the EU, which has a great deal more to offer than Westminster and whose vision of a social Europe accords very strongly with their own.

    Where I would agree with David is that the enduring legacy that will be with us for some time to come is that of the rule of law. England has a long and distinguished history in this regard and modern Wales has developed under it. As Wales moves forward in developing its own legislature, it will do so because of the centuries of the rule of law provided from over the Dyke.

  3. Diolch David. Your perspective is always balanced and helpful, and it is good to have more of a diachronic view of things than is sometimes offered in these debates. Don’t you think though that ‘Britain’, which can be made to stand for ‘the rule of law’, can equally easily stand for, say, colonialism/ plutocracy/ anti-progressivism etc – and therefore that the symbol loses much of its positive value? ‘Wales’ at present has very little ‘negative’ that can be stuck to it: a thought about the valency of the two symbols when placed side by side, or in opposition.

  4. There are two competing strands in political theory. One emphasises the power of the collective: it is the philosophy of statism, of Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. The other strand emphasises the freedom of the individual human conscience: it is the philosophy of liberalism in the true sense, of Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights, Protestantism, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith, von Hayek, and Margaret Thatcher. Despite many aberrations – such as the illiberal Blair administration – and failures to live up to its own high standards, Britain has, for a thousand years, been the pioneer and standard bearer of the latter. That is what the United Kingdom is for.

  5. I suspect Adam Smith would have been somewhat disgruntled to be cited as a precursor to Hayek and Thatcher. Just because he identified (or ‘reimagined’ from far earlier Arab scholars) the notion of the efficiency of competitive markets, it does not follow that his notion of society was as limited and feral as those two.

  6. A little more reading and a little less prejudice might result in a higher level of debate than hurling insults at a man who spoke out bravely against tyranny and a woman who dedicated her life to the service of her country.

  7. I lived under the government of the late,but very great Mrs. Margaret Thatcher and to call her ‘feral’ is a ‘slight’ upon a great human being.It was during her time that S4C was created,and if anything contradicted her total belief in ‘markets’ it was that decision which has been a disastrous one for all taxpayers in the United Kingdom,of which we in Wales are still an integral part,but for how long I wonder??.In all the very big issues she faced,i.e a)Trade Union corruption/industrial power,b)South Africa and Apartheid,c) European Union and its ruinous impact on our freedoms and economic structure. I suppose someone will write a book what would have happened if Scargill had won,and I doubt if this ‘vehicle’ would be around as freedom under the law was not a priority for communists!!

Comments are closed.

Also within Uncategorised