Lord David Owen, Gwynoro Jones, Lord Elystan Morgan and Glyndwr Cennydd Jones share thoughts on the UK Union and the need for a Constitutional Convention following Carwyn Jones, Gordon Brown and Keiza Dugdale’s meeting at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff yesterday
The extent of disunity within today’s United Kingdom is particularly highlighted by the differentiated politics across the four nations, vigorous debates regarding the EU leaving negotiations, recent calls for a second Scottish independence referendum and questions about the post-Brexit situation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Glyndwr Cennydd Jones suggests: ‘For Wales to continue on the present course is to accept constitutional uncertainty and political vulnerability as illustrated by the recent debates on the Wales Bill 2017 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.’
Lord Elystan Morgan elaborates: ‘Despite the Devolution of the last two decades the United Kingdom today remains one of the most concentrated systems of parliamentary government in the democratic world.’
‘Today’s Wales Act is deeply flawed and a blueprint for failure particularly because of the fact that there are about two hundred reservations—the very nature of which makes the matter a nonsense. Also, a good proportion of the reserved powers in the new Wales Act have resided in Brussels, not Westminster, for many years. When these powers are repatriated as part of the Brexit negotiations, to where should they be returned? A joint body between Westminster and the devolved governments should be established to explore exactly how one can bring about a settlement that is fair, just and lasting.’
‘For well over a century the debate as to whether a federal structure be created has ebbed and flowed. All creative efforts however have floundered on the grim rock of fundamental disproportion. The fact that England has the vastly dominant share of the kingdom’s wealth and 82% of its population creates an imbalance which makes any federal structure a daunting task. Indeed, only recently I proposed an amendment to the Wales Bill obliging the Secretary of State for Wales to establish a working party on the issue of the possibilities of Dominion Status for Wales as a land and nation, and to report to Parliament within 3 years. The Statute of Westminster 1931 did not create a rigid model of Dominion Status but rather enunciated a principle of immense flexibility and subtleness.’
Gwynoro Jones asserts that ‘The Welsh Assembly has been hamstrung from the beginning and has been devoid of the freedom to act with effective powers. I do not blame Nicola Sturgeon for re-opening the conversation on support for independence in Scotland, nor Gordon Brown for suggesting a federal solution for Scotland in the UK. With the Brexit result I believe that the future lies, at the very least, in a self-governing Wales within a federal UK. We should use the repatriation of powers from the EU to establish a new federal state of equals.’
‘However, I am becoming more convinced that an argument can be made for going further. Surely the last thing the people of Wales should settle for in years after Brexit, where maybe new constitutional arrangements are in place for Scotland, is for Wales to be just an annexe of England. Demographics and economic data should not any longer be the defining considerations. There are several nations in Europe with populations similar to Wales and many dozens more independent countries across the world.’
‘We face new challenges in the coming decade where the old arguments and political stances as to the role and place of Wales as a land and nation will need to be rethought.’
Lord David Owen expands: ‘Those of us who supported Brexit were doing so as part of a much wider agenda of restoring our very democracy which had been distorted by the false claim of post-modernism that the days of the nation-state were over. Far from being over, 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. A Federal UK Council, modelled on the German Bundesrat, may achieve that balance.’
‘I suggest a Federal UK Council of 68 members that should involve not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but also London and the new city regions with devolved powers. Provision would also be made separately for those who live in areas covered by county councils and unitary authorities. No doubt some of these may wish to develop a regional identity which could lead to separate representation.’
‘In light of the Brexit vote, Theresa May has convened talks involving the leaders of the devolved administrations. The Prime Minister could call together this same forum to start an initial dialogue on a Federal UK Council, involving defining terms of reference, participants, and the timing for reporting back from a convention. There are complex questions about what constitutes federal legislation and the nature of the mediation procedures between a Federal UK Council and the House of Commons, all much better agreed under a government-led convention.’
Lord Elystan Morgan explains: ‘A second chamber or a Senate can carry a federal structure amongst units of disparate strengths and size given certain imaginative checks and balances. To this end I would personally advocate a Senate of 70 members for the four nations of the United Kingdom. I do not think that this is in anyway an impediment to the natural patriotism of any one of the four countries of the UK.’
Glyndwr Cennydd Jones underlines the point: ‘There is 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..’
On balance, the progressively sustainable model rests somewhere between a Federation and 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. 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.
‘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.’
This Gang of Four calls for a Constitutional Convention to discuss future arrangements for the UK, particularly in the current context of repatriating powers from the EU to the Isles.