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.

10 thoughts on “An Isle of enduring nations

  1. If this idea was going to work it would have been implemented ages ago, instead of a messy unstable devo settlement. In the real world Scotland will soon be a fully independent nation, being one half (legally) of the Union. The Irish will find some fudge to reunify, if nothing else because there are apparently considerable financial advantages to a unified Ireland. Which sadly leaves Englandandwales. Since there seems to be no great appetite for Welsh independence, and no strong political leaders likely to push for it, the chances are that Wales will simply be absorbed back into England, a sort of ´Greater Cornwall´ 🙁

  2. It’s time for Plaid to decide whether they’re first and foremost Wales’ National Party, or first and foremost a socialist party. If it’s the former, then perhaps we too can ‘take our country back’ i.e. nothing less than federalism. If it’s the latter, adios Cymru, hello Wengland? Time is short.

  3. So-called ‘federal’ solutions are simply not workable because of the disproportionate size of one of the members of that putative ‘federation’.

    Even if one concedes the plausibility of a federation, there are only two scenarios in which it would have even the remotest possibility of working:

    1) A federation of four members. This would mean that England would forever dominate, and we would be back in the days of the Capel Celyn decision, where – despite all bar one of our Westminster MPs voting against Liverpool Corporation’s vandalism, our voice was (literally and later symbolically) drowned out by the votes of scarcely 10% of England’s MPs. The only remotely possible way of avoiding such a travesty would be by introducing a form of Qualified Majority Voting. But how would that work? What could the threshold possibly be when one consitutent member of the federation would permanently hold 84% of the votes? It would be a nightmarishly complex system both to establish and to administer, and would give the impression to the public that the political establishment were merely arranging things to suit themselves yet again (a perception which has already caused much damage, and is set to cause more in the near future).

    2) A federation where England is sub-divided into a number of regions: London, the South, the South West, East Anglia, The Midlands, the North West and Cumbria, Yorkshire (they won’t want to be lumped in with anyone else, you can be sure of that!) and the North East. Eight regions, say. But in 90%-plus of decisions, the English regions are certain to vote as a bloc, and we then have the same problems as in the other scenario.

    In other words, the federal ‘solution’ wouldn’t be any solution at all.

    The fact must be squarely faced that – as far as our own nation is concerned – there are only two practicable options: one is independence within the international order, like any other normal country; the second is our final and total incorporation into England. Given that – despite the oft-expressed conceit to the contrary – our politics is demonstrating less divergence from that of England (as the success of the KIPpers and the EU vote has shown all too clearly), then the latter is the more likely outcome unless we stop daydreaming that we can stay in the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ and keep our own identity and integrity at the same time.

  4. Nigel Stapely has it right in his final paragraph. Do people in Wales want independence? No, not even all Plaid supporters are in favour of independence. Do the majority of Welsh people want absorption into a greater England/Wales entity. No again but we do know from polls that about 1 in 5 would welcome that. What people in Wales appear to want is the status quo…no further devolution; although it is true that people can usually be pushed with the “dog whistle” taunts “Why should we have less power than Scotland?” and “What’s wrong with us making our own decisions?” to support further devolution.

    The real reason why Wales behaves in a very similar way to England as a whole is that a high proportion of Welsh people are of English origin and an even higher proportion have recent English ancestry. Equally it can be said that particular groups of Welsh people have a very similar history to groups in England…Cardiff voted in a similar way to London in the EU referendum, a multicultural urban response. Post industrial areas of both England and Wales similarly expressed their disillusionment with a “leave” majority.

    Regrettably, politicians being what they are, all parties in the Bay of Confusion are intent on demonstrating their “Uber-Welsh” credentials in a nonstop one-upmanship of demand for more of everything from the greater UK.

  5. For the reasons stated by other commentators, federalism cannot be a stable solution. It could only be a stepping stone to full independence, or as close to full independence as the modern world allows.

    While there is no reason in theory why Wales could not be an independent nation-state, the reality is that, in practical terms, we would be better off sticking with the UK, with all its flaws, than as a socialist backwater increasingly isolated from our relatively more prosperous big neighbour.

    Indeed, the great danger is that if Scotland left the federation, England might decide to throw us out at the same time.

  6. Nigel Stapley; they may be insufficient appetite for an England divided into regions but in theory it could work. I see little evidence that “90% pus would vote on block”. far more likely that the poorer old industrial areas would seek common cause.

  7. @jon owen jones.

    It can’t work because it will never happen. Can you imagine – if anyone in a position to do anything proposed it – what the screaming and stranking would be from the wretched English press? All the stuff about it creating yet another layer of politicians or bureaucracy? Or about it being a nasty plot by to pollute England’s precious bodily fluids? A non-starter.

    And even if by some miracle it came true, I don’t share your confidence that the poorer parts of England would ever vote as a bloc with S/W/NI more than once in a blue moon. Loyalty to nation/region will always tend to trump any supposed loyalty to ‘class’, especially now when that particular class identity could scarcely be said to exist anymore. The rise of the Kipper vote in places like Sunderland to similar levels to rural Lincolnshire and Somerset stand testimony to that tendency.

  8. Sorry, I garbled a tag in the first paragraph of the foregoing. It should have read:

    “Or about it being a nasty plot by (insert convenient bogeyman of the moment here) to pollute England’s precious bodily fluids?”

  9. Nigel we will have to differ about loyalty to nation and class. If a federal UK ever emerged the hottest topic would (as ever) be spending and taxation. London and the South East would want less of both. The North of England would differ as would Wales. The rise of UKIP as evidence of declining class loyalty? Well perhaps but you could see it as the working class looking for another home having lost confidence in their traditional champion. There are working class people in Lincolnshire and even in Somerset.

  10. Nigel, I share jon owen Jones’s view about the English regions. From several years of living and working in the North East of England, I would say that there was more antipathy to London government there than here in Wales.

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