A call for a Constitutional Convention

At a time when the UK is at a political crossroads, Glyndwr Cennydd Jones explores why a Constitutional Convention is required.

Summarising the nature and functions of today’s United Kingdom (UK), the introduction to the report titled Devolution and the Future of the Union (Constitution Unit, University College London: April 2015) explains that the ‘economic union provides the UK with a single market, with a single currency and strong central fiscal regime. The social union provides the social solidarity which binds the UK together, by redistributing revenue, and pooling and sharing risk through welfare benefits and pensions. In the political union, every part of the UK is represented in the Westminster Parliament, which manages the economic and social unions, and as the sovereign parliament can itself reshape the political union.’ However, the report goes on to highlight that ‘Whitehall lacks capacity to think about the Union because it has relegated it to issues of devolution on the fringes’ and that ‘devolution policy making has become rushed to the point of recklessness.’

This observation is mirrored in the Constitutional Convention report (Institute of Welsh Affairs: April 2015) of the same month which asserts that ‘policies around the UK and the union have been dealt with in an ad-hoc and reactive manner and there has been little cohesive thought to address the role of the union as a whole.’ Interestingly, respondents to the convention felt that ‘UK Government policies were often detrimental to Wales and not in keeping with the grain of public opinion’ and that there was a lack of ‘vision about what the union should provide for each person in the UK regardless of whether they live in Belfast or Bangor’.

These challenges have been brought sharply into focus over recent years through the increasingly differentiated politics across the four nations as well as the vigorous debates about English Votes for English Laws, a second independence referendum for Scotland and the Wales Bill 2016-17. For example, a consultation on the design options for an English Parliament is presently in progress at the Constitution Unit, University College London. The outcome of the European Union (EU) referendum in June 2016 has compounded events even further, particularly in relation to determining the correct constitutional process for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

The UK Supreme Court, in early December, heard cases for and against whether Parliament not Government should have the authority to activate the process for exiting the EU. Speaking on behalf of the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, public law barrister Richard Gordon QC stressed in his written submission that the UK is now ‘a voluntary association of nations which share and redistribute resources and risks between us to our mutual benefit and to advance our common interests.’ He elaborated by explaining that the Assembly exercises a plethora of powers through EU law and that ‘devolution is about how the UK is collectively governed by four administrations which are not in a hierarchical relationship to one to another.’ The tone of this assertion is enlightening as the language alludes to a more quasi-federal framework of relationships between the four nations rather than the devolved and reserved powers model in place within an overarching unitary state.

Pausing for a moment, we should not underestimate the extent to which the UK’s entry to the EU during the 1970s tempered a measure of perceptible disenchantment across the isles at a time when constitutional matters had just been explored in some detail by the Crowther/Kilbrandon Royal Commission, resulting in the devolution referenda of March 1979 in Scotland and Wales. It could be suggested that EU membership was instrumental in promoting respect for the rich cultural diversity of peoples within the UK and the range of languages spoken.

It was Ron Davies, former Secretary of State for Wales, who said before the dawn of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 that ‘devolution is a process not an event’. Though wholly appropriate at the time, it was a statement most likely born of an acknowledgement that the arrangements for Wales would limit the likelihood of progress from the beginning, particularly when compared with the robust powers offered to Scotland. The journey ever since has been one of uncertainty, lacking in strategic direction. Lord Elystan Morgan recently summed up this viewpoint by explaining: ‘when you deal with a long period of transferring small powers, day in day out… you create a situation that almost guarantees some constitutional neurosis on the part of Welsh lawyers’. He further asserts that ‘the Wales Bill 2016-17 is deeply flawed and a blue print for failure and disaster’ particularly because of the ‘fact that there are about two hundred reservations—the very nature of which makes the matter a nonsense.’

Does a dependency governance structure predictably result in a dependency culture, to which despite eloquent arguments to the contrary, the economic profile of the UK’s constituent parts might uncomfortably attest? Does a unitary state system with devolution included as an adjunct compare awkwardly to the relationship between a parent/guardian and a young person in terms of developing accountability and responsibility? Is it only by seeking greater independence that individuals are empowered to make informed decisions and accept the consequences of their actions in time—and to take account of the legitimate concerns and opinions of others for the wider benefit? In national terms, there is indeed a clear distinction between the existentialist and utilitarian views of self-government. The former demands more autonomy simply because of a belief that it is the natural right for nations, and the latter considering it as a path to a better society—to achieve the most effective political unit to secure the economic growth and social justice that people deserve.

With consideration that we are all intrinsically linked culturally and historically in modern times through shared industrial, political and international experiences, this question prompts a range of responses depending on where one places an emphasis on the economic to social measuring scale. An alternative way of posing the problem might be to ask how we could better set about empowering the people of these isles from Lands End to John o’ Groats and Londonderry to Newcastle in improving standards of living and personal fulfilment through a political system and ensuing policies which promote economic success regionally, nationally and globally whilst maintaining internal and external security.

If we are indeed approaching a crossroads of sorts in our island journey, a thorough discussion of the appropriate alternative models of governance is required through a Constitutional Convention.

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.

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