Shaping the UK’s Union State

Geraint Talfan Davies says there has been a tendency to see the UK as a unitary state and not a union of four nations.

On hearing of the pre-Christmas rapprochement between Washington and Havana, sentimental tourists amongst us will have wondered whether Cuba will soon lose one of its more endearing eccentricities – its old American cars kept alive well beyond their normal life by endless improvisation, and a bit of spot welding. A bit like the British constitution. Like Cuba, our constitution has some catching up to do. The penchant for a repair and maintenance approach, rather than renewal, seems increasingly perverse, not to mention dangerous to the occupants.  The Cubans, at least, have had the excuse of having no choice.

IWA Constitutional Convention

This article is part of the first phase of the IWA’s constitutional convention. This week we’re asking, ‘what is the UK for?’ and we’ll be discussing this piece and more on Register here to join the debate.

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?

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In the wake of the Scottish referendum – a near death experience for the union – the UK Government seems, on the surface, to be bent on a degree of expedition wholly unknown in British constitutional development. In Scotland the Smith Commission achieved within a matter of weeks cross-party agreement on ways to give effect to a ‘vow’ to Scotland that had been cobbled in panic at the eleventh hour. A draft Bill has now been published. William Hague’s committee for devolved powers has published options for England, on which there is no consensus at all. On the back of two years’ work by the Commission on Devolution for Wales (the Silk Commission), Stephen Crabb, the Secretary of State for Wales, aims to achieve a cross-party consensus on further powers for Wales by 1st March, with the aim of legislating early in the new Parliament.

Meanwhile the more pessimistic wonder whether unassailable complacency at the centre means it is all too late to save the union, regardless of the drop in oil prices.

Unhelpfully, this is all being done in the partisan atmosphere inevitable with a General Election only a few months away. Consensus, such as it is, cannot but be fragile. None of the above processes go beyond consideration of the devolution issue. What has gone missing is explicit consideration of the very Union that was at stake in the Scottish vote.

This is particularly evident and worrisome from the perspective of Wales, the constituent nation that has the least leverage: the threat of independence for Wales is not perceived as credible, as in Scotland, nor has our existence been contested historically, as in the case of Northern Ireland, both internally and by a neighbouring state. Principles and process are, therefore, rather more important for a part of the realm that cannot rely on the force of realpolitik. As a consequence Wales has a greater interest in the proper working of a union state than either of our ‘Celtic cousins’.

The same may also be true of parts of England – one reason that England’s devolutionists should pay more heed to the Welsh voice than is customary. The regions and city-regions of England have more to learn from the staging posts in Wales’s devolutionary journey than from the Scottish story: administration leading to executive powers (though with limited policy-making capacity), then power over secondary legislation, then qualified legislative powers before taking on primary legislation – the latter stages telescoped into less than 15 years. In contrast, Wales has always needed to heed what is happening next door (without being cowed by it) as it presents England with a long flank in contrast to Scotland’s short neck. The Welsh border is more porous than the Scottish border, the cross-border impacts are greater. We cohabit with an elephant.

It is for these reasons that over the last three years three Welsh organizations have been trying to bridge the rather fragmented debate on the constitution that has been taking place in the different nations of the UK*, sadly, for the most part as if they were entirely unrelated to one another. The project has sought to address the UK’s Changing Union.

It is to counter this fragmentation that Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, has been arguing for more than two years for a UK Constitutional Convention, as well as for a new focus on the union. Admittedly, constitutional conventions are not without their problems. A recent Constitution Unit seminar discussed convention models drawn from Iceland, Ireland and Scotland, and two from Canada. Issues around membership (getting beyond the political class), agenda and timetable have to be addressed. But it says something about the cavalier nature of the union that there has been no formal discussion, or evaluation, or response to a proposal put forward publicly by the head of one of Britain’s territorial governments.

The UK’s Changing Union project has suggested that, whatever form a convention might take, at the core of the debate must be the values and purposes of the union itself – and that needs at the outset a bedrock of principle. Rather than leave that as an abstraction we set out four possible principles as a starting point.

The first is that the United Kingdom should be defined not as a unitary state but as a union state “consisting of four national entities – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – sharing sovereignty, expressing themselves democratically through Parliaments and Assemblies whose continued existence are henceforth guaranteed, and freely assenting to cooperate in a Union for their common good.”

A second principle deals with the distribution of functions between the tiers of government – across the full range from European to local – enshrining the principle of subsidiarity (if that is not too European a concept for British tastes) and applying it not simply at the level of the four nations, but also extending it to local government. Local government has certainly had a raw deal in recent decades in England, but the advent of devolution in Scotland and Wales has not improved matters significantly for local councils in either country.

A third principle should give expression to shared solidarity, without which the Union would be shallow and purely instrumental. That has to include collaboration specifically aimed at enhancing economic and social cohesion and fairness across the UK as a whole, a principle – like subsidiarity – that would be of huge potential benefit to parts of England. This could also be broadened to define the core UK-wide entitlements of UK citizens – free education and health services, state pensions, human rights etc.

Lastly, and perhaps most contentious, would be an acknowledgement of the asymmetry of the UK and the need to temper it. This would require “that the parties of the union acknowledge the dominant role of England within it and that England has its needs and rights, but that England also acknowledges that the asymmetry between it and the other nations is of such a scale as to require tempering, in the interests of fairness, by the introduction of a range of institutional mechanisms”.

These mechanisms would, ideally, involve recasting the role and composition  of the Lords as a Second Chamber to reflect the nations and regions of the UK – equivalent to the German Bundesrat. But short of that radical approach it would have to include not only the beefing up of the Joint Ministerial Committee processes, but also a system for resolving disputes and the fair distribution of financial resources that does not involve the UK Treasury (or England) being, in the words of a House of Lords Committee, “judge and jury in its own cause”. This could done by creating an equivalent of Australia’s Commonwealth Grants Commission. A less radical approach would be to ask the OBR to monitor or audit the application of the Barnett formula by which the territorial governments are funded, although this would not eliminate ministerial discretion.

Much attention has been paid to the generous payments to Scotland under this formula, but less well known in England are the significant exclusions from the Barnett baseline – such as the £2billion East London regeneration spend attached to the London Olympics, or the fact that there is still no agreement on whether the eye-watering costs of HS2 (latest estimate £188bn.) will attract Barnett consequentials. All this without taking into account the geographic distribution of non-devolved funding – in which parts of the north of England also have cause for concern – such as on defence research establishments or expenditure by Vince Cable’s Technology Strategy Board.

The Holtham Commission that, in 2010, reported on the finance and funding of the Welsh Government had much to say about the distribution of funding across the UK, but it received scant attention in England, despite the fact that the Treasury was unable to lay a glove on its analysis. The application of needs-based formulae cannot be inoculated from the impact of politics, but transparency would help in identifying premium payments, such as that to Scotland, so that at least they can be properly debated. It could also be of advantage to parts of England. The geographically unbalanced development of England has not been caused by anything done by Welsh or Scottish Governments.

The development of devolved governance within England – whatever form it takes – is a matter of vital interest for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for this reason: the same civil servants cannot operate two different mindsets simultaneously. You cannot enter into the spirit of devolved government in three countries if your instincts in the fourth country are deeply centralist. It is this dissonance that makes the Scots so sceptical of unionist promises.

One of the reasons why discussion of the union has been so poor, even during the Scottish referendum, is that most professed unionists, particularly at the centre of government, do not see the state as a union at all. They have been defending, instead, a unitary state that has agreed to make a variety of constitutional concessions to three of its constituent parts. The difference is crucial, not primarily for reasons of legal form, but because it has behavioural consequences. The next few years will determine whether or not we become and act like a truly union state, whether of four entities or, quite possibly, three.

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of the Institute of Welsh Affairs and a member of the steering group of the UK’s Changing Union project. He is writing in a personal capacity.

19 thoughts on “Shaping the UK’s Union State

  1. Excellent article Geraint but it is two decades too late. I recall talking with AMs and MPs back in 1999, when devolution was established, and I argued that fresh constitutional settlements were required to counter political and economic imbalance. Not one of them agreed. They all buried their heads in the sand and said “all will be well”. I cannot see how the UK can continue in the medium to long term. Scotland has abandoned the Union, in all but name, and even some Unionists in Northern Ireland are now realising that their part of the UK State is being peripheralised, as more and more emphasis is placed upon London and the South-East of England. I wish the IWA Constitutional Convention the very best, but ultimately, like the band playing on the Titanic, it will prove to be a futile gesture.

  2. You are right to broaden the discussion this way and your points merit much thought.

    When I came to live in Wales from England I had no thought or idea of moving to a foreign country, and although that now sounds naive we do know that 25 years ago the British Isles was very different. Since then I have felt as if I’ve living on a boat which is drifting further and further out to sea, outside my influence or control and heading who knows where, but away from home.

    It does look as if our destination is about to replicate all the difficulties (or most of them!) of the eu: of trying to manage a union politically and economically with ever diverging parts full of potential resentments and conflicting demands and expectations. The process seems unstoppable and no-one anywhere is really prepared to stop devolution, whether it’s wanted or useful or not.

    I am bound to wonder if we are all suffering from the relentless demand for more power from politicians who just love – power. And from nationalistic tendencies which must never be challenged or questioned. Whether the results will be beneficial or not.

  3. ” … the asymmetry of the UK and the need to temper it. This would require “that the parties of the union acknowledge the dominant role of England ……England also acknowledges that the asymmetry between it and the other nations is of such a scale as to require tempering,….”.

    This is the huge weakness that is inherent in any re-working of the constitution of the Union.
    All realistic constitutional outcomes rely on deference to and the largesse of the elephant Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales share a room with.

  4. One of the reasons people keep old cars is because they last a long time. They were built that way. More modern cars do not last so well because they were built on the assumption that they would be replaced every few years. The same is true of many other consumer products. The owners of well-made older products hang on to them because they are likely to last longer than the new.

    It is the great error of our consumption culture that something should be replaced simply because it is old. The same is true of the British constitution. It has lasted for 300 years because it works. By contrast, if Wales as a polity can be said to have a constitution, it is the Government of Wales Acts. Wales has gone through two in less than two decades, and no one – Unionist, devolutionist, or Nationalist – is happy with the current compromise, so we will see a third before long, probably in the next Parliament. This is not a role model for anything. At least the Scots grasped the nettle and had a national debate about the real question, in or out, which put a new energy into their democracy which is lacking in Wales.

    English devolutionists are a broken reed. There is no administrative need for an additional tier of regional government in England, and that will be exposed if and when the matter if put to referendum, as it was in the North-East in the Blair years.

  5. I agree that the UK has long acted as a union state and largely continues to do so. It would hugely advantage welsh interests if the UK had a federal structure and it would also be constitutionally much neater. Would it be fair and would it be realistic to create a second chamber of four equal nations when one nation contains 85% of the total population? Nothing approaching this imbalance exists in Germany but then the Bundesrat is composed of regions and not nations. In the USA senate California dwarfs Wyoming but even with 39 million people it only contains an eighth of the total. A federal structure here could only work if the English are persuaded to accept regional devolution.

  6. John WR, Two false assumptions I’m afraid: first, good modern cars last very well indeed (I have been driving mine for more than 10 years); second, modern cars are much more comfortable and less likely to kill you. Not like you to be sentimental.

  7. The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that Wales exists. What if in reality it doesn’t except on the rugby field? A hundred years ago an American academic with no axe to grind argued that Wales could be divided into 3 areas he described as Welsh Wales, English Wales and industrial south wales which he described as America Wales. Is it any different today? Gwyn Alf Williams ‘s question of ‘ When was Wales?’ still probably hasn’t been answered. Nationalists might talk of ‘Four Nations’ but all the social surveys suggest that attitudes to most questions are in reality the same in most parts of the UK. Jon Owen Jones is absolutely right when he argues that a federal system would require regional devolution in England and there really is no evidence that there is any appetite for that. Everyone concentrates on Manchester but they don’t mention the failure of local authorities to cooperate in the Midlands or the veto this week by Sunderland of the North East regional budget. Without devolution in England the second Chamber of the UK Parliament will resemble not the Bundserat but the Reichsrat of the German Empire which was dominated by Prussia. On finance the assumption is also made that the only fly in the ointment is Scotland having too much from the Barnett formula. This often ignores the fact that many English politicians in all parties often believe that Wales and Northern Ireland also have too much. Look at the arguments from all Labour candidates for the London Mayor that London should retain more of the taxes raised in the capital city. Hardly surprising when a recent IFS paper shows that because of higher housing costs the poor in London have been hit harder than in any region of the UK including Wales.

  8. Geraint Talfan Davies is to be congratulated for a first-class and original presentation. I share the scepticism however of some of these comments: Scotland seems to be heading for independence as a glance at the age distribution of the Yes and No votes will confirm. The current ‘engagement’ by the Westminster elite reflects their panic at continued support for self-rule in Scotland – hence David Cameron’s opportunist move to embrace English nationalism. The ‘Union’ has never been more than a gesture to appease Scotland; and it was never felt necessary to recognise Wales – hence the absence of Wales from the Union Jack that is now to adorn our driving licenses, like it or not. By all means hold a constitutional convention, but be aware that what will determine the outcome eventually will be the size of the nationalist vote in Wales, just as it has in Scotland.

  9. Jeff Jones asks whether Wales exists. It is a question that answers itself. It must exist in some sense otherwise you couldn’t ask the question. The real question is do we want it to go on existing? Some of your correspondents, such as Mr John Walker, clearly don’t. Others do but think that it will just happen. But as Gwyn Alf Williams said, there is nothing inevitable about it. If we want Wales to survive admass culture and globalization, we have to work at it. I do not believe that requires independence but I am sure it requires political institutions.

  10. GTD, however hard one tries to guard against it, one cannot be Welsh without a sentimental streak.

    Congratulations on the car. It would be interesting to know the make.

  11. Jeff, If calculated on a needs basis I gather the three areas that receive more than their due are Scotland, Northern Ireland, and central London!

  12. @JWR
    “… however hard one tries to guard against it, one cannot be Welsh without a sentimental streak”
    some sing –
    Gwlad Gwlad Pleidiol wyf i’m Gwlad
    some sing –
    Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
    God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet
    some sing both
    Sentimentality, there’s a lot of it about.

  13. Is Wales as the 19th century Anglican Bishop argued quoting Metternich still ‘ a geographical expression?’.

  14. Jeff, that CoE bishop spoke too soon! David Lloyd George was waiting in the wings with his Welsh Church Act – arguably the piece of legislation which made Wales a constituent part of the union, rather than a geographical expression.

  15. CapM, you sum up the whole problem very neatly. Speaking as one who is happy to sing both, it is difficult to see how we are going to reconcile those in the two other groups who want to sing one but not the other.

  16. Elgar’s tune is fine, better even than mae hen wlad fy nhadau. But he hated the jingoistic words which were put to it and they are even more inappropriate now than in the 1920s. Pleidiol wyf i’m Gwlad is innocuous, making no claims to wider bounds or mightiness. English/British anthems badly need a rewrite to make them consistent with a modern sensibility. At the moment they either express cringing servility to a unelected head of state or jingoistic craving for a bigger empire.

  17. @JWR
    “Speaking as one who is happy to sing both,..”
    The lyrics of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and Land of Hope and Glory express attitudes to what nationhood is that are pretty much incompatible.
    It would be surprising if sentimentality wasn’t one of the streaks running through happy singers.

  18. The sentiments of those two great songs are by no means dissimilar. Remember that there is a definite imperialist streak in Welsh history. Yet these days everything comes down to sentimentality and actual words matter little.

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