A New Union Mentality

Leighton Andrews makes an impassioned plea for a constitutional convention

Thank you for the invitation to be here…over the last 20 years there has been a process of incremental but major change in the matrix of relationships right across our islands.  That process of change continues and Wales is of course part of that wider picture – and I am encouraged that this is recognized by the British-Irish Association.
Let me start by saying that I am a Labour Minister in a Labour Government – and I am not yet on life support!
As you probably know, one of Wales’s most successful recent exports is Dr Who
So let’s use the Tardis to take us back in time twenty years.
It is 1995, and I am working in London at the heart of Britishness as the BBC’s Head of Public Affairs, looking after relations with the Westminster Parliament and the European Parliament.
That is the European Parliament recently expanded to represent fifteen nations rather than twelve.
That is a Westminster Parliament headed by a Prime Minister who has just called and won a party leadership election in which 89 of his colleagues voted against him.
There is no Scottish Parliament, no Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland and no National Assembly for Wales. Princess Diana has not yet given her Panorama interview to Martin Bashir.
The Joint Communique between the UK and Irish governments on the twin-track process on peace negotiations and decommissioning of weapons is a couple of months away.
Divorce has not yet been approved in Ireland though a referendum is coming up. Jack Charlton is still Ireland’s football manager.
Ireland’s Culture Minister Michael D.Higgins has recently published his Green Paper on Broadcasting –the only Government consultation document I have ever read which quotes the German philosopher and sociologist , Jurgen Habermas. I wonder what Mr Higgins is doing now!
Frank Bruno has just won the WBC World Heavywight Championship. David Trimble will be elected Ulster Unionist Leader in two days time – no doubt an equally pugilistic role.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention’s document, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right is two months from publication. The SNP has recently won the Perth by-election and the deep-fried Mars Bar has just been invented in Stonehaven.
In Wales, Tower Colliery has been re-opened as a workers’ cooperative. Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers has just disappeared and Neil Kinnock has just resigned from Parliament to become a European Commissioner. Wales were knocked out of the Rugby World Cup after only 3 games following a narrow defeat by Ireland.
Meanwhile Eric Cantona is still suspended after his Kung Fu attack on a Crystal Palace supporter  and Denis Bergkamp becomes the most expensive football transfer in British history. At £7.5 million.
Now, does that all feel like a different world to you?
It does to me. The following year, 1996, I got married in Cardiff, left the BBC and returned to Wales to live for the first time since I had left shortly after our referendum defeat in 1979.
I list these things simply to say that in the UK I think we need to take stock. Not to slam on the brakes, but to appreciate  how far we have come, and that just maybe, before we find we have set off in different and incompatible directions, having a map of where we want to get to might be helpful. We need a cultural change in Westminster and Whitehall – a move to a New Union mentality away from a centralist mentality which sees Westminster, Whitehall and English practice as the norm and all others as deviant…the UK itself should recognize the profundity of constitutional change  post-devolution, post the creation of the Supreme Court, indeed post our joining the European Union in the 1970s…I believe that the notion of traditional Westminster Parliamentary sovereignty is now redundant.
In Wales we wonder sometimes whether Whitehall and Westminster have realized that the constitutional world is different from 1995. The problem, I fear, starts at the top. Whitehall Ministers carry on with their jobs, often without the realization that post devolution there are three kinds of UK Minister
  • those with genuinely UK-wide responsibilities such as the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary
  • those with GB responsibilities such as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who have to work through devolved structures in Scotland and Wales if their goals are to be achieved, for example in skills and training
  • and finally, those Ministers such as Education and Health who are largely now Ministers for England. 
We have heard today  the case for Scotland…but how many of us honestly thought it likely, 20 years ago, that the Union would come within a whisker of ending?  The landscape in Scotland is, to use a phrase familiar to Irish colleagues in this 150th anniversary year of Yeats’ birth, “changed utterly”.  As my party knows better than most.
There is a seeming inability to address constitutional issues in the round. The Vow in the latter part of the Scottish referendum guaranteed the endurance of the Barnett formula, without reference to Wales, Northern Ireland or the English Regions, all of whom were affected. Constitutional issues are addressed on a bilateral basis between, say, Westminster and Scotland or Westminster and Wales, without wider consideration. Some issues are proposed for change without effective advance consideration of the constitutional implications – such as the proposals around reform of the Human Rights Act, which require agreement with both Wales and Scotland. Now my good friend Michael Gove has never been afraid of a fight, but even he I think will find this one a challenge.
There are proposals for a form of English votes for English laws within a single Parliamentary institution, with the Speaker as the final arbiter of what is an England-only bill. I have great confidence in Mr Speaker Bercow, whom I employed for five years from 1988-93, but this means that in Westminster, it is the institution’s Presiding Officer who decides the competence of an England-only Bill, whereas ultimately for Wales it is the Supreme Court which may decide whether a Welsh Bill is within competence. Could the Speaker come into conflict with the Supreme Court? We shall see.
There are proposals for devolution to major cities in England without the requirement for referenda that the people of Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland had to face.  So why does Wales have to jump through hoops of referenda and repeated legislation while English regions gain substantial powers at the say-so of the Chancellor of the Exchequer without any meaningful public or parliamentary consultation?
The second chamber, wholly unrepresentative, the largest second chamber in the world outside China, has been expanded yet again. As usual, this only took account of winner-takes-all politics and had no regard for geographical or devolved interests and the long-term shape of the Union. Why should there be an expectation of entitlement to continue in an unelected legislative role just because someone, like Othello, has ‘done the state some service’?
A referendum on our relationship with the European Union is pending – which, as everyone knows, has potential to reek havoc on the UK’s own constitutional balance.
The  Wales Bill will be published in draft this autumn. There is agreement in general on a reserved powers model – but there’s a suggestion that  Whitehall wants an enormous catalogue of  reserved powers – which actually undermines the whole purpose of the model.
The Supreme Court’s judgements in certain areas, notably the Agricultural Wages (Wales) Act and the Bylaws (Wales) Act have already widened the scope of understanding of the post-2011 Welsh devolution settlement.
It would be intolerable and illegitimate – and contrary to the expressed wishes of Welsh voters – if the UK Government were now to try and trim back on powers already held by the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government.
The development of the UK Constitution is a bit like watching a drunk getting dressed in the dark. Nothing seems to fit. And we don’t know where they’ll stumble next.
That is why the First Minister of Wales called, three years ago, for a UK constitutional convention. I believe that such a convention is now the only way to preserve the United Kingdom. I appreciate that is not everyone’s goal, but for those of us who wish to see it preserved, modernized and developed, albeit in something of a looser arrangement, this hell-for-leather slalom needs to stop before some parts fall off.
I see little evidence from the political classes in London that anyone is giving much serious thought to the future shape of the Union.  At best, we have an ad hoc jumbled response.  Successive UK Governments claim they’d like to see a definitive end to constitutional tinkering.  So would I.  The only way to achieve that is through a cohesive and comprehensive process looking at all aspects of future UK constitutional practice.  The longer we avoid that, the longer we’ll keep tinkering.
Some time after the devolution defeat in the 1979 referendum, the great Welsh historian Gwyn Alf Williams, fulminated that
‘We Welsh look like being the last of the British. There is some logic in this. We were, after all, the first.’ Maybe our nostalgia for the union is based on something deeper than the union of the Crowns and  Parliaments. After all, there was a time when a form of Welsh was spoken throughout this island. No doubt it will be surprising to some here to learn that the oldest poem written in what we now call Welsh – Y Gododdin – was actually written in Edinburgh – Caer Edin -about a battle in Yorkshire.  So, the oldest poem in Welsh is  arguably also Scotland’s oldest poem.
When we look back in twenty years time, will the Scots still be with us? Will the English have tired of all of us? Where will Northern Ireland be? Will it be simply the Welsh who believe in a union bigger than themselves?
Who will join us in making the case for a modern, creative, mutually supportive union of nations?
The UK urgently needs a UK Constitutional Convention – every year lost cedes further ground to nationalists and separatists.  It should be open and it should seek to engage people beyond existing legislative institutions.
We are moving towards a system based on popular sovereignty – and the people sometimes show their sovereignty by spectacular indifference to and resentment of elected politicians. The National Assembly was created by a free vote of the Welsh people – narrowly in 1997 but more emphatically in 2011 – and should only be capable of dissolution on the same basis.  The Union is a union of 4 nations – let’s be grown up about that and develop a constitution which properly reflects that reality.
Last year Scotland accepted that the United Kingdom was ‘Better Together”. I prefer the slogan of the Football Association of Wales, on the eve of our home game against Israel – ‘Together, Stronger’. But do others still believe that, or care enough to ensure it – or will insular Westminster party games and metropolitan provincialism kill the union?
I think we have a choice. But time is running out.

Leighton Andrews AM is Welsh Government Minister for Public Services. This is the text from a speech he made to the British-Irish Association Conference in Cambridge in September. An edited version of the speech has been published in the IWA's magazine, the Welsh agenda. To get your copy, join the IWA: http://www.iwa.org.uk/en/individual-member

15 thoughts on “A New Union Mentality

  1. A month (since this was written) is an eternity in politics. We don’t need a ‘grown up’ constitutional convention, whatever that is, we need change. Can I believe that the esteemed minister is really ‘impashioned’ by a convention?
    Why is Dr.Who considered to be our most successful export? It’s not ‘rubbish’ but is that all we aspire to? A barely comprehensible (by me I admit) frenetic and ludicrous TV series? I prefer Game of Thrones which is an Irish export with dragons!

  2. “The National Assembly was created by a free vote of the Welsh people – narrowly in 1997 but more emphatically in 2011 – and should only be capable of dissolution on the same basis.”

    Leighton Andrews is of course being deliberately devious and slippery with that statement. Trying to align what was voted for in 2011 with what was voted for in 1997 is manipulation of statistics to the highest degree. We can all remember Leighton Andrews stating prior to the 2011 referendum that we were about to vote on was “a simple tidying up exercise”. Indeed I seem to recall he was one of those who said the question being asked was not worthy of a referendum… too trivial and simply procedural we were told. As for Leighton Andrews’ boss… anybody can google the BBC Wales news articles and interviews where our dear Carwyn is quoted as saying ‘If tax raising powers were on the table as part of this [2011] referendum then I would be campaigning for the NO side’ !! lol!

    Yet here we are 4 years later with tax raising powers in the process of being devolved and Leighton Andrews citing the 2011 result as vindication for the embarrassing and questionable result in 1997. Never let it be said that Welsh Labour politicians are not consistent! Lol!

  3. Disingenuousness ? Leighton Andrews seems to be want his cake and eat it? He seems to envisage some sort of Utopian middle ground where Wales will have the best of both worlds? Can he not see that without full powers and full control of the economic levers, we will never make Wales a vibrant, viable nation? How does it work being part of some mythical Union with a partner around 12 times or size? We would surely still be classed as a second class nation and still be open to th lame subsidised duck insult that the English love to throw at us. Idependence in a European Union of independent nations can be the only logical way to Bing about a revival of our political fortunes, fincancial success, identity and culture. The problem for Mr Andrews, I believe, is he is only concerned with the political fortunes part!

  4. Can we please have a speech that doesn’t mention rugby or Doctor Who? Doctor Who is not a Welsh export, it’s very much an English production tokenistically awarded to BBC Wales at the expense of home-grown Welsh programmes such as Belonging and other decent productions axed. Made in Wales is not as good as made about Wales. I’d rather have it move to Bristol or London as it does not represent us as a nation.

  5. ‘Together, Stronger’.

    Those of us who have ever done any glass cutting, or tile cutting, will know that you can scribe quite deep lines into a solid object and it will not break. However, when the object is put under stress it then breaks along the lines that have been drawn, even if that was not our intention.

    This is exactly what is happening to the UK with regional so-called devolution, regional legislatures, and the proposed federal UK. For a while the UK will remain solid until the stresses overcome the natural strength of the whole when it will fracture along the lines inscribed on it.

    Then what? Can the pieces be glued back together with the ugly cracks showing, or does it descend into a war of words or civil war? The Former UK is looking like a done deal now but there can only be one winner and that is England. The rest of the UK should be very careful what it wishes for!

  6. Richard Jenkins, small nations do not have “full control of the economic levers” in a globalised world and certainly not if they are in the EU. Wales could do a great deal with the powers that it has if our politicians were more self-confident and showed leadership and the people were ready to take more responsibility for their situation. If we can’t make progress with the powers we have, how would we fare with the limited extra powers independence would bring but without the £12 billion a year subsidy our budget currently gets from the UK? Wales has to stop moaning, start doing and get more prosperous. Time enough then to talk about independence.

  7. PS DRM: couldn’t agree more about bl***y Dr Who. As my old grandaddy used to say: “For God’s sake, give it milk”.

  8. lol! Dafydd Rhys Morgan would rather documentaries about Owain Glyndwr and Tryweryn on loop 24/7 I presume. The world has moved on thank goodness.

  9. Leighton advocates a New Union, at the very time when forward thinkers of all political strands are envisaging a loose structure, based on federal principles, or indeed separate political identities and governance – i.e. independent nation-states – but with a Council of the Isles, or similar body, dealing with specific common interests. One thing is for sure, whether we like it or not , 1980’S centralised UK is a lost world.

  10. The UK has been, and will continue to be (as long as it survives) about England, English Nationalism, English Imperialism and English superiority.

    The EU debate is not about the merits of the EU but about the English Establishments’ belief that they should run Europe NOT co-operated on a basis of equality.

    All organisations must always assess their structures and functions to make them as effective as possible. Those that don’t die, sooner or later. The UK systems are a shambles of out-dated 19th Century Private schoolboy clubs. We’re just arguing over the date of the funeral. Get it done with and co-operate as equals where it benefits us.

    I’d prefer to be on the side of Justice, Freedom and Fraternity than the Unionist values of Injustice, Exploitation and Prejudice. What hypocrisy to call people who want freedom for their countries “Nationalist and Separatist” as if Unionists aren’t just the same. The only difference being that the latter want to re-establish the “unity” of the Empire by invading and killing those who oppose them. Nationalists like Sarkozy, Holland and Merkel – to name just three.

    The problem we have is not the EU but the UK. We should be independent of England and co-operate with all our neibours.

    The UK is broke in every sense. The only reason the economy survived the “Crash” was that China, Saudi Arabia and Russia own so much of England. What good is a Nuclear Deterrant when your potential enemies can buy up the state at a knock-down price?

  11. Leighton is correct. Devolution has been a disaster for our people and communities. Only a return to centralised rule from London can take Wales forward. This is what progressive people like Stephen Crabb and Nigel Farage recognise.

  12. Only centralised rule from London can take Wales forward???

    Oh come on, get serious.

    London had centuries ruling over Wales, the result Wales is one of the poorest regions of the UK. A bit of a delayed news flash, but the UKIP realised that their policy of abolishing the assembly and going back to disastrous rule from London was stopping them getting elected in Wales.

  13. Ken Thompson. Let’s be run by people to whom we are a marginal consideration at best rather than take responsibility for our own affairs? What rot. And Stephen Crabb is a patriot and in favour of devolution like all “progressive people”.

    Gwyn, let me know when you get back to planet Earth. we can’t “co-operate as equals” while we get a subsidy of £12 billion a year from the neighbours. We have to earn more autonomy by getting off our collective backside and building our economy.

    Why is this blog dominated by extremists from both directions?

  14. Spot on. Our future together is potentialy greater than our past, and a bigger more effective union is The Commonwealth in which Wales through a strong UK could play a major part. All these cultures working for apositive constructive future rather than a devisive destruction and stagnation under one party rule in each of the four great nations that make up the British Isles and Ireland.

  15. Our future together is potentialy greater than our past

    Our past has been as a remote forgotten corner of the UK, our future as a remote forgotten corner of the UK will continue to be bleak. Our cultures have never worked together. The English have effectively stamped our the native culture of Cornwall, Ireland and Scotland and have put Welsh culture in intensive care. Fortunately that’s no stopped and other cultures are being tolerated, mostly under duress by Westminster. But lets put the past behind us and move forward and accept that England has changed and work together in a new federal UK

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