A reformed state or failing constitution?

David Melding says his 2009 book ‘Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?’ is closer to the mark than most thought.

The British state has undergone profound and rapid change since the advent of devolution in 1999.

Until 2007 the transition from a unitary to a quasi-federal state seemed to be smooth.  These were times of economic stability, generous public spending, and Labour control in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The political weather was calm.

Since 2007 the UK has suffered the shock of financial upheaval, austerity politics, an SNP government in Edinburgh, and a UK government embroiled in and split by the European question.

The Scottish independence referendum was a watershed. It recognised the legality of secession (a remarkable principle, not accepted by many states) and produced a result which implied that Scotland’s place in the UK was contingent on, among other things, membership of the EU.

The Brexit vote will test the coherence of the partly reformed British constitution. One probably has to go back to the Watergate crisis of the early 1970s to find a similar example of a constitution in crisis in an exemplar democracy. Americans then, just like many Britons now, had lost faith in the integrity of government. It was not until Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House that most Americans regained faith in the worth of the Presidency. Britain faces a similar test of endurance as it implements Brexit and attempts to manage the immediate aftermath.

The Celtic nations are awkwardly split. Scotland voted firmly for Remain and has a clear, if difficult, alternative to continued membership of the UK – independence. Many Leave campaigners were dismissive of the transitionary economic costs of Brexit and maintained a spirit of sunny optimism for a prosperous future freed from the shackles of Brussels. They added to this a most effective call ‘to take back control’. If we could blind taste political campaigns, these core arguments would be indistinguishable from those of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014. This is a big cultural and psychological moment that will impress deeply on national identity: Scotland wants a profoundly different political association rooted in the EU to that chosen by England and Wales. The chances of Scottish independence in the next 10 years are significantly higher than they were in the run up to the 2014 referendum. A second referendum is certain if the Scots want it.

Northern Ireland also voted Remain and has for the first time since partition made a first-order decision that accords more with the preferences of the Irish Republic than the British state. The peace process utilised EU mechanisms and the European Convention on Human Rights extensively, and these twin pillars are now compromised. The likelihood of Northern Ireland leaving the UK is still remote, of course, but it is now a little more likely.

Wales stands apart from its Celtic cousins. It remains most closely bound to England by the huge forces of economic deprivation and voter preference. Despite being a net beneficiary of EU funding, Wales displayed little fondness for the European ideal. Similar sentiments were on display in Labour’s English heartlands. The major source of political instability in Wales is the future of the Labour Party.  Author of devolution and the dominant party in Wales since World War I it can now take little for granted in the once ultra-loyal valleys. Constitutionally, Wales remains something of an epi-phenomenon with its fate being determined by the consequences of Scottish and perhaps now Northern Irish preferences.
One preference offered by the unionist parties in Scotland is super-federalism. Some even believe this could stretch to allowing Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, while England and Wales leave. This seems fanciful. It would certainly be a complete re-interpretation of federalism, the most radical since that espoused in Philadelphia in 1787.

A more likely scenario is some form of associate EU relationship allowing substantial access to the Single Market. If this compromise is not acceptable to the Brexit majority in England and Wales, then Scotland’s place in the UK will be one based on sufferance – there until it can leave with relatively little economic disruption. Although even this might not cause much pause, given the economic gamble taken by Brexiters.

There have been understandable but rather desperate calls for a second referendum from some Remainers.  Buyers remorse could add strength to these calls should any recession caused by transition be more severe than anticipated. Yet democrats should surely feel queasy about a second referendum. The people were asked to make this momentous decision because we faced a basic choice between greater political self-sufficiency or the continued pooling of sovereignty where common cause is most apparent. While the noises off were loud, they always are in political campaigns, the basic question was well understood. I bitterly regret the result but I do not question its legitimacy. That said, it is anyone’s guess quite what happens if there is a strong and settled popular demand for a second referendum before formal exit. Here, like in the trade negotiations that now commence, politicians have limited control and would do well to remember the warning of Harold MacMillan who started our European odyssey, ‘events dear boy, events!’

In 2009 the IWA published my book ‘Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?’  Most thought me crackers or at least over anxious, but 2020 may yet prove close to the mark.

David Melding AM is the Conservative AM for South Wales Central. This is an extract from a speech delivered to the Study of Parliament Group on 15th July 2016.

6 thoughts on “A reformed state or failing constitution?

  1. Why should we feel queasy about a second referendum? Denmark and Ireland have both been cited as countries who held two referenda, though we should also remember that Norway voted twice to stay out of the EU. So it’s not really about diminishing or disregarding the vox populi. An informed decision can only be made when people know and are told without distortions what the deal on the table is. We knew broadly what the status quo is or was (though the level of ignorance about the EU was alarming) but we had no idea what a Brexit deal might look like. That is not a real choice and in no sense democratic, other than in a cynical way. So a second referendum would allow voters to make an informed decision for or against their original vote.

  2. The beginning of the end of the UK was 1997. Far from ‘killing nationalism stone dead’ – honestly, a ‘New Labour’ minister really did say that – the devolution referenda established alternative nodes of power that were bound to pull away from the centre. Federalism can only be a stepping stone, not a final destination.

    The EU referendum showed that the voters of Wales are quite prepared to wipe out a whole level of government. Sooner or later we will have to choose if that is Westminster or Cardiff Bay.

  3. If federalism can only be a stepping stone perhaps the unionist nationalists can explain why the US, Germany, India and a host of other countries still exist. Voters in England were prepared to wipe out a whole level of government too, I don’t hear cries from England (or Wales) for independence. Federalism is seen as the great evil by unionist nationalists, but our choice is to go backwards and live in a 1960s/1970s bubble where nothing will ever change and we and our children have no future and will have to migrate if we want a better life, or move towards a federal union with England and allow the Welsh Parliament more powers to continue the progress that’s been made in Wales since devolution

  4. No thanks i dont need to swap one lot of dictators for a mor local lot. The uk needs reform and is stronger united as four distinct quality nations who have worked together for over 400 years successfully. Still does.
    There is nothing wrong with the people or system its the political parties that need to go along with several tiers of corrupt government. I ran a community association for twenty years i met lots of politicians all praised what we were doing and pledged support then they convientently disappeared. Michael Melding being one of them. People have disengaged with theparties not government and this will continue till the parties are gone.

  5. It might not be too long before unionists start considering federalism as a stepping stone back to a union.

  6. I am surprised at the reaction to the notion of federalism as the basis of a re-defined Britain. Here I sit in Canada – a “confederation” of long standing, next door to the United States – a federal system that some political scientists might define as the classic case. I suppose the basic difference between our confederation and the federal US is that our parliamentary system is based on the Westminster model with the powers of the federal and provincial governments defined in a written constitution, based on the British North America Act., 1867.

    It may not be an ideal situation, but it seems to have worked – with many bumps along the way since 1867, and especially since the repatriation of the constitution in 1982, and royal assent of the Constitution Act in that year. The possibility of Quebec separation from the federation became a “cause celebre” politically, legally in the constitutional sense, and economically. It was not fair sailing weather.

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