A Constitutional continuum

As the UK approaches a political crossroads of sorts, Glyndwr Cennydd Jones explores the governance options available to Wales.

The report titled A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways Forward for the United Kingdom (Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law: May 2015) highlights that the ‘border between England and Wales is crossed about 130,000 times each day’ and that ‘48% per cent of the Welsh population lives within 25 miles of the border.’ The report recommends that ‘the UK should remain a fully integrated single market with a single currency and common macro-economic framework in which citizens are free to live, work and trade without legal impediment.’ Such considerations are critical in an environment where the EU can no longer be relied upon as the mechanism for implementing shared policies and practices.

Another report titled The UK’s Changing Union: Towards a new Union (Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University: February 2015) counsels that the ‘parties to the Union acknowledge the dominant role of England within it…but that England also acknowledges that the asymmetry between it and the other nations is of such a scale as to require tempering…by the introduction of a range of institutional mechanisms.’

So what governance options are available to Wales within our island community? To continue on the present course is to accept constitutional uncertainty and political vulnerability as illustrated by the recent debates on the Wales Bill 2016-17 in Cardiff and London, as well as the process for triggering Article 50 in the UK Supreme Court. Devomax may rank as an attractive solution to some, but even this does not address the ambiguity and complexity introduced by the general primacy of Westminster and the inherent challenges presented by the unitary state model—accompanied by the now disconcerting shadow of a potentially hard ‘Brexit’ imposed on all four nations.

The answer may rest in 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, such a 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 based on the definition of federalism offered by the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (HarperCollins 2000), with the word ‘regional’ replaced by ‘constituent nation’ for the contextual purpose of this article.

A Federation of the Isles could indeed bond the principles of empowerment and responsibility with accountability and authority to provide constitutional clarity and stability across the constituent nations and the whole, especially with established mechanisms in place to progress joint interests and resolve disputes. It would also capitalise on the potential for realising economies of scale in a few key centrally held functions—such as currency, defence, foreign relations and the internal market—as well as a greater projection of political influence to attract investment internationally. Examples of federations include Germany and the USA.

An alternative solution may lie in a League or Union of the Isles. This model could be summarised as a form of confederation established by treaty—in contrast to a federal constitution—which addresses the shared interests of internal trade and currency as well as defence and foreign relations, if so desired. Under a confederation-type arrangement the central body is relatively weak, compared with a federal parliament, as decisions made by a ‘council’ of member nations would require implementation by the individual nations to take effect. The pronouncements are therefore not laws acting directly upon individual members, but instead have more the character of agreements between nations.

A League or Union of the Isles presents to each member nation the advantages and challenges of acting as an independent state within an isles-wide alliance. A treaty on issues of joint concern would aim to mitigate the risks associated with fragmenting previously delivered common functions. However, competitive considerations between member nations would have more prominence when negotiating within a confederation-type relationship, balanced against the consensus-built model offered by federalism. Additionally, the cost savings realised through operating officially shared mechanisms in key areas would not be secured. Interestingly, a League or Union of the Isles could invite the participation of the Republic of Ireland if it so desired and would address the wishes of Scotland should it vote for independence in the future. The Benelux and European Unions are examples of this kind of understanding.

Wales as a nation state within the EU is a model worth further exploration in time, but would not be realistically workable if England—Wales’s largest social and trading partner—was not also in the EU. A form of League or Union would need to be in place to facilitate the necessary economic and political relationships. The Welsh public also effectively voted against EU membership in June 2016. It goes without saying that an independent Wales acting on its own outside European or isles-wide agreements would do little to improve the population’s standard of living. This approach is likely to prove unsustainable, with uncertainty in collective aims and practices discouraging business investment, accompanied by a general drift of capital and employment prospects towards the larger partner in the east.

Therefore, to answer the question posed, there are constitutional alternatives to the present model. In November 2016, Lord David Owen wrote that a federal council, modelled on the German Bundesrat, could help ‘restore our very democracy which has been distorted by the false claim of post-modernism that the days of the nation-state were over. Far from being over‘ Lord Owen insists that ‘national identity, whether it be Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English, deserves to be treasured as a binding force, not a divisive one. It all depends on whether we can find the correct balance.’

Another report titled Federal Britain: The Case for Decentralisation (Institute of Economic Affairs: 2015) explores ‘a federal state…with Scotland…England, Wales and Northern Ireland separately, becoming nations within a federal union. The federal government should have a very limited number of powers including defence, foreign affairs and border control and a small parliament and executive.’ It affirms that ‘no other proposed solution to the English question can provide the same stability or beneficial economic outcomes.’

The progressively sustainable model rests somewhere between a Federation and, in time, a League or Union of the Isles. In the crudest of terms, the former option has aspects of a safety net deployed with shared mechanisms for core functions and policy portfolios to support the realisation of economies of scale in delivery, and greater projection of joint interests across constituent nations and the world. The latter option allows for consensus building and negotiation between fully empowered member nations, but with some risk of competitive considerations and disputes holding-up relationships. A League or Union-type model might be to the advantage of England more than Wales, due to its larger economy and size of population, but we should not underestimate our shared concerns, as an island community, in defence, social mobility and trade for which an incline towards Federation would provide constitutional clarity, comfort and confidence.

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.

12 thoughts on “A Constitutional continuum

  1. Choice #1 remains membership of the EU, as far as I can see, with Wales sharing its sovereignty with the other states in a dynamic union, adapting and evolving over time.

    Partnering with Ireland and Scotland within the EU seems to me preferable to the progressive centralisation of rumpUK in the City of London – issues of immigration at the Welsh/ English border being dealt with as they do every day around the city of Basel, for example, though a customs union would still be needed.

    Geography dictates that we are bound to England’s coat-tails, and until the English are confident enough to see themselves as a nation, then we will suffer the backwash of imperialism. The recurring question is how we in Wales deal with that.

    The Senedd is the seat of Welsh sovereignty whatever powers Westminster deigns to allow it. The current situation is untenable, and whatever the solution, its for the Senedd to decide how we make alliances with the Celtic League or whatever other grouping emerges, not Westminster (or the London HQs of the relevant parties) and for the people to decide that the approach is acceptable – that’s why we have elections.

  2. The situation is described and the description presented as the reason why a UK nation state in some form is the only “logical” condition.
    Just to address the first paragraph
    ‘border between England and Wales is crossed about 130,000 times each day’ and that ‘48% per cent of the Welsh population lives within 25 miles of the border.’

    So what! Each day at the Jura, 40 000, Basel 53 000 and Geneva 65 000 border people enter Switzerland. They also return to the country they are resident in therefore the total is 316 000 crossing every day. And those figures are for cross border workers alone. Link =
    The population density in Switzerland looks to be as concentrated close to the border just as it is here in Wales. link =
    The above do not make for a relevant argument for Switzerland to be ultimately governed from Paris or Berlin any more than the equivalent do for Wales to be governed from London.
    “A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways Forward for the United Kingdom” is yet another report that looks for a route, any route that keeps the UK going forward as a single nation state.

  3. And for the last paragraph
    “but we should not underestimate our shared concerns, as an island community, in defence, social mobility and trade for which an incline towards Federation would provide constitutional clarity, comfort and confidence.”
    That sounds like a sort of solution more applicable to the island community of Ireland. that community is at least geographically actually all on the same island.
    With a future independent Scotland within or as good as within the EU that just leaves Englandandwales.
    I’d like to hear what the lack of clarity, comfort and confidence would have to be to motivate the MPs of Englandandwales to embrace the idea of a federal type nation state and grant Wales a place in.

  4. Federalism is the worst of both worlds. We need a government but there is no need for two governments. That simply doubles the burden on the poor subject and blurs lines of responsibility when it comes to tackling the big problems. This is why we just voted to get rid of a superfluous level of government which had federalist ambitions. It is time to get rid of another. Let the people decide whether that should be Westminster or Cardiff Bay.

  5. Just like their Scottish counterparts, certain politicians, ‘think’-tanks and ‘experts’ of a profoundly Unionist/colonialist bent keep pushing the ‘federal’ argument under a variety of labels as a desperate ploy (as CapM says in his first comment) to try to keep the Anglo-British state going in any way possible.

    Federalism is totally unfeasible – as I have commented before – because of the disproporionate size of one putative element of it relative to all the others either individually or even combined. It would be merely the continuation of Westminster by oher means. Any fudge intended to ameliorate that would be cumbersome and bureaucratic, e.g., any form of ‘qualified majority voting’ or dividing England into ‘bite-sized’ chunks (which would go over really well with the Daily Mail readers who seem now not merely to have the ear of Westminster government, but to actually be the Westminster government).

    As for, “realising economies of scale in a few key centrally held functions—such as currency, defence, foreign relations and the internal market”, apart from making social and democratic equity subservient yet again to the spreadsheet mentality which has dominated and ruined social cohesiveness and solidarity in large parts of the world over the last thirty years or so, can’t we predict with some degree of confidence whose preferences would win out in such functions, especially with an England which seems to think that America is either, a) their bestest buddy in all the world, b) the place where good English people go when they die, c) a country run by child-like naïfs who can be flattered or patronised into compliance, or d) any combination of the above?

    (There’s a delicious irony in the KIPper position here, isn’t there? All that yap about ‘sovereignty’ and the necessity of clawing it back from all those nasty Euro-types and not a word about how the UK’s military, international and even economic policies are influenced oe directed by an alien power over which ‘we’ have no influence at all).

    There are only two remotely practicable long-term options for this nation: either its final and total incorporation into England (which at least will provide an ‘economy of scale’, in that a lot of ink and pixels would be saved by not having to add andwales to the end of everything), or indpendence within the general international order as with any normal country. Any other suggested alternatives would constitute mere tinkering and would be of little help to anyone other than those who believe that the Union Flag is something akin to a religious icon.

  6. John, federalism, the worst of both worlds to you is perhaps the most successful form of government in the World today, followed by most of the World’s rich democracies. We in Wales are not uniquely unable to deal with a devolved tier of government, and like others in Scotland, Germany, US, Canada, Australia are perfectly able to differentiate between state/devolved government and central government.

    As for your suggestion of another referendum in Wales on the constitution, I would suggest there is no call or need for one, as I and most others have trust in the choices and decisions made by the people of Wales, via 2 referendums in the last 19 years. It appears that you make great store by referendums, and the people’s decisions, except those that go against your wishes.

  7. Llyn, while there is a case for federation in a geographically huge country like Canada or Australia, that case cannot be applied to a small nation like the UK. The only reason Germany has a federal structure is political/historical rather than administrative. The federal structure of the USA has been the cause of countless problems, including the worst war in American history, since when it has been nominal in most respects.

    While the result of a referendum should indeed be respected, that does not mean it can never be reversed and a generation is time enough for us to be able to assess whether an experiment has worked or not.

  8. John, less than 6 years (after the people spoke in the 2011 referendum vote for more powers for the Welsh Assembly) can hardly be called a generation.

  9. The only thing proved in 2011 was that the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the Welsh people towards the Assembly lies somewhere between ignorance and apathy.

  10. @ John Winterson Richards
    “The only thing proved in 2011 was that the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the Welsh people towards the Assembly lies somewhere between ignorance and apathy.”

    Would I be right in thinking that this was a referendum outcome that you didn’t want?

  11. No John the 2011 proved that the people of Wales wanted more powers for the Welsh Assembly, and that those who demand that the result of referendums must be followed through, can sometimes be very selective with this “principle” when the people speak in a way that they find inconvenient.

  12. Llyn, on the contrary, no one suggested in 2011 that the result should not be implemented and it was.

    CapM, there was no desirable outcome on offer in 2011, only a choice between the continuation of a pointless organisation as it was and giving that pointless organisation more power. The people of Wales were hardly thrilled with either option.

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