An Isle of enduring nations

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones explores some of the challenges the four nations may face in establishing a Federation of the Isles.

The establishment of a federal UK with England, as one unit, alongside Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland presents opportunities and challenges in terms of a proposed constitutional settlement for these isles. For Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the real challenge of such a structure is that England’s population equates to over 84 per cent of the whole, approximately accounting for 55 million individuals of an overall 65 million. London’s economic prominence is also a significant consideration.

England, as a nation, is a better counterpart to Wales and Scotland for participation in a federal configuration than the English regions, due to its stronger political and social cohesion. However, a bicameral federal parliament—formed to deliver those responsibilities consigned to a central level as defined by a written constitution—with an upper chamber comprising representatives of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast would inescapably raise questions around the number of votes assigned to each constituent nation if influenced by population sizes. This approach is explored by David Melding in his book Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020 (Institute of Welsh Affairs 2009).  A constitutional court would indeed strive to guard the privileges of all governance levels, but any counter-balancing mechanisms introduced to support the sharing of authority centrally must be easily understood by the civil service, politicians and public to ensure coherence and harmony. An alternative would be a unicameral model.

A federal parliament, probably London-based, would typically maintain control over international diplomacy, defence and currency. It should also promote equality in sharing baseline investment, particularly in relation to a redistribution of a proportion of the joint prosperity generated through the federal capital to the constituent nations.

In April 2016, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University published its report on Government Expenditure and Revenue which identified total public sector revenue in Wales as £23.3 billion for 2014-15, approximately 3.6% of total UK revenues of £648.8 billion. The largest source of Welsh revenue was Value Added Tax followed by Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions. This composition contrasted significantly with the UK as a whole where direct taxes such as Income Tax and Corporation Tax constituted a larger proportion. The report also estimated managed expenditure in Wales for the same period as £38 billion, approximately 5.2% of total UK expenditure of £737.1 billion. Social protection accounted for most of Welsh expenditure, including social security payments and pensions etc, followed by health and education. The Assembly government in Cardiff and local authorities were responsible for 53% of this total spend with the remainder attributed to UK government departments.  Therefore, greater fiscal devolution presents risks and opportunities. In the medium to long term much depends on how a more influential Welsh government and an informed public respond to financial empowerment, whilst questions remain on how the deficit should be supported during transition whether through adjustment of the Welsh block grant and/or borrowing.

Naturally, the actions and choices of one constituent nation could have negative or positive consequences on others in the federal arrangement as highlighted in the report A Federal Future for the UK: The Options (Federal Trust 2010). Various scenarios would need to be deliberated earnestly when designating powers within a constitution, including appropriate instruments for resolving disagreements.  Governments must be discouraged from misusing any possible advantages they possess on specific issues. Areas of potential contention might include, for example, the economy of England, the oil of Scotland and the water of Wales.

An English government would, in principle, be supported by the authorities of Greater London and other city regions at the direct level of governance below—mitigating the risk of over-centralisation in relation to the sizeable population of England. The historical counties may also aspire to an aspect of autonomy. Despite the comparative scale of England contrasted with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the benefits of establishing a federation significantly outweigh the challenges faced. The impetus required to initiate progress is presently gathering apace, underpinned by the increasingly differentiated politics in the four nations and vigorous debates on English Votes for English Laws, a second independence referendum for Scotland, the Wales Bill 2016-17, Brexit and even the Trump phenomena which, to some degree, has implications beyond the USA.

These isles require a system of government in which central and constituent nation authorities are linked in an interdependent political relationship, in which powers and functions are distributed to achieve a substantial degree of autonomy and integrity in the national units. In theory, a federal system seeks to maintain a balance such that neither level of government becomes sufficiently dominant to dictate the decision of the other, unlike in a unitary system, in which the central authorities hold primacy to the extent even of redesigning or abolishing constituent nation and local units of government at will’. This is the definition of federalism offered by the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (HarperCollins 2000), with the word ‘regional’ replaced by the term ‘constituent nation’ as italicised for the contextual purpose of this article.

Some experienced heads on matters of Welsh devolution have articulated greater ambition. This month, Lord Elystan Morgan moved an amendment to the Wales Bill suggesting that self-governing ‘Dominion’ status is the best solution. Recently, Gwynoro Jones stated ‘With the Brexit result, I believe that the future lies, at the very least, in a self-governing Wales within a Federal UK. An argument can be made for going further…’

To paraphrase an old Chinese curse which doubles as an expression of the opportunity change presents ‘We live in interesting times’.

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones is the chief executive of a UK-wide charity, having previously held a senior position at an international examinations board for over eleven years. He is an advocate for greater cross-party consensus in Wales.

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