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.

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