Preparing the ground for constitutional reform

Martin Shipton reviews a series of newly published essays on proposals for constitutional change

The below article includes Martin’s Shipton’s preface to “Towards Federalism and Beyond”

There are those who would have us believe that the discussion of constitutional questions represents little more than a diversion for those who shy away from confronting the real concerns of ordinary people. Politicians in that camp will tell you that when they canvass voters, hardly anyone mentions the constitution. Instead, they want to talk about ‘bread and butter’ issues like jobs, the cost of living, the health service and their children’s education – as well as more parochial concerns like parking and street-cleaning.

To a degree this is correct, of course. It’s natural for people to be preoccupied by fundamental issues like having enough money for a decent life, and the expectation that public services will be of a certain standard. Yet it’s disingenuous to suggest that ordinary people are neither affected by nor interested in constitutional issues. Last year a higher proportion of voters participated in the UK’s EU referendum than in any General Election since 1992. What question could be more constitutionally focussed than whether the UK should be in or out of the European Union?

Throughout British history, constitutional questions have been closely linked to putting right material injustices. The Chartists, for example, had no doubt that improving the lot of ordinary people could not be split off from constitutional aims like extending the ballot. ‘Sovereignty’ may not in itself put food on the table, but the referendum Leave campaign was able to garner support by making the concept resonate with many who wouldn’t, if asked, define it as a constitutional concern.

It was a sense of injustice that drove people to campaign for devolution in Scotland and Wales. And now, concerns over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill focus on what would be another injustice: a power-grab by the UK Government at the point of Brexit. Despite the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, there is a sense felt by many that the UK is not functioning well. Current arrangements are showing the strain, and the voices for change are getting louder.

Action to deliver reform will not take place automatically, however. The propensity for inertia must not be underestimated. We like to think of ourselves as living in a well-developed democracy, yet one of the UK Parliament’s two Houses remains wholly unelected by the people and is composed entirely of individuals who are the beneficiaries of past or present patronage. This is hardly a good advertisement for British democracy, yet attempts to get rid of such a constitutional travesty have been a complete failure.

We can either bury our heads in the sand and pretend that things can carry on as they are – the approach largely adopted by the current UK Government. Or we can listen to those who put forward reasoned proposals for change. The suggestions to be found in a series of essays by a new, self-styled ‘Gang of Four’ are motivated by the desire to see greater fairness in the way we are governed. In this respect, they form part of a long and honourable tradition, and deserve to be taken seriously.

While the present UK Government will be reluctant to take any of the proposals forward, there are indications that a future Labour-led government would be open to examining the case for constitutional change.

These essays are helping to prepare the ground. Prepared during summer 2017 in the wake of the EU Referendum and General Election of the past year, this booklet has been released to coincide with 20th anniversary of the vote to establish the National Assembly of Wales.

The essays are:

Towards Federalism and Beyond:  A discussion with Lord David Owen, Gwynoro Jones, Lord Elystan Morgan and Glyndwr Cennydd Jones 

The extent of divergence within today’s UK is particularly highlighted by the differentiated politics across the four nations, vigorous debates regarding the EU leaving negotiations, discussions on a second Scottish independence referendum, broad unease with the Wales Act 2017, and questions about the post-Brexit situation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In facing these challenges, 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.

A Federal UK Council: by Lord David Owen

‘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.’

It’s time to move towards a real Senedd by Gwynoro Jones

‘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. It is time to move towards a real Senedd for Wales.’

Think big when representing the future of Wales by Lord Elystan Morgan

‘Despite the Devolution of the last two decades the UK today remains one of the most concentrated systems of parliamentary government in the democratic world. Today’s Wales Act is deeply flawed and is a blue print for failure, particularly because of the fact that there are about 200 reservations. Also, a good proportion of the reserved powers in the new 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?  My appeal is to think big when representing the future of Wales.’

A Federation or League of the Isles? by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

‘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. If we are indeed approaching a crossroads of sorts in our island journey, a thorough discussion of the appropriate alternative models of governance, from federalism to confederalism and possibilities in-between, is required through a Constitutional Convention.’


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Martin Shipton is Chief Reporter at Wales Online

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