In the final part of his essay, Glyndwr Cennydd Jones summarises his analysis of the UK’s constitution and looks at where Brexit and Covid-19 leaves us now.
A sovereign Wales in an isle-wide confederation is an essay by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones, presented in five daily parts on the IWA website during the first week of February 2021. The full essay appears as an appendix in the book Whose Wales? by Gwynoro Jones and Alun Gibbard, to be published on 1st March 2021. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.
A federalist may ask, what is the difference between a League-Union of the Isles and a UK Federation?
It is the case that many of the central functions map across and, in both models, individuals participate democratically in electing representatives to established legislative parliaments at two levels of government.
However, a fundamental difference rests in the nature of decision-making processes underpinning the application of shared functions.
In a UK Federation, a top down model of representational authority remains within an overarching framework of clearly delineated responsibilities assigned to the territories and that of the core, which remains the centre of gravity. This is especially true in party political terms.
Like a spider sitting in the middle of a web, there is no mistaking which body both spins and holds the threads. The territories must remain within their bounds, discouraged from taking on a greater role in governing their peoples in time.
The umbrella political identity is a powerful construct, likely constraining genuine national development, progress and reform.
“There is a crucial need for us to explore some form of broad, strategic compromise, which embraces the concerns of both unionists and nationalists.”
In a League-Union of the Isles, on the other hand, the weight of influence and purpose rests with the nations.
The centre exists to serve in facilitating the delivery of the common social, political, economic, defence and cultural aims, as already outlined. Individuals elect representatives to take part in central policy decision-making processes mostly on behalf of their member nations’ interests.
A federal solution, such as the one proposed by the Constitutional Reform Group (CRG), acts only to entrench many of the structural difficulties extant in the present devolution arrangements, which largely mirror a federal order but without the formal sharing of sovereignty across national parliaments.
The UK constitutional debate has moved substantively beyond the context in which the CRG admirably started to advocate a federal solution in 2015.
Views in Wales about the nature and quality of Cardiff’s interactions with Westminster have changed a good deal, especially due to Brexit and, more recently, Covid-19—and the mood in Scotland is increasingly shifting towards independence.
“The UK is the legacy of a different era in world history, one which was embroiled by conflict, empires and two World Wars.”
However, the Scottish National Party’s present platform of pursuing an independent Scotland within the EU is problematic in today’s circumstances.
By definition, it necessarily confines and restricts the nation’s ability to facilitate a single market with its largest trading partner, England, fundamentally because of contrasting positions on Brexit.
Accepting that the federal horse has already bolted, particularly before the relentless wave of SNP electoral successes in recent times, never has there been so much at stake for the future of our nations’ relations.
We are approaching an uncertain moment in this island journey, if not too, in our collective affairs internationally, with the UK’s standing much reduced across the globe.
Separatist tendencies are increasingly prevalent, whether nationally in Scotland and Wales, or at a UK level, driven by Brexit.
There is a crucial need for us to explore some form of broad, strategic compromise, which embraces the concerns of both unionists and nationalists, in moving away from a narrow ‘winner takes all’ answer to the constitutional question posed.
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If successful, the long-lasting rewards could be enormous, with fresh political narratives promoting a new kind of partnership across these isles—one which draws on past and present experiences in forming an underlying bedrock of successful collaboration for the century ahead.
Interestingly, David Melding MS in his essay Unionism and Nationalism in Welsh Political Life (May 2019) emphasises that unionists and nationalists ‘will always have to strike some bargain to manage and utilise the forces created by the geography, culture, and economic needs of the British Isles.’
Modernising and reforming Britain
After the failed referendum vote on devolution in 1979, it was not until 1997 that a measure of acceptance change was required emerged.
The establishment in 1999 of a National Assembly for Wales was a step in the right direction, with four Wales Acts since bringing in two broad phases of executive and legislative devolution respectively, leading to the current status quo.
During this time, a greater body of understanding has been fostered in Wales with regards to its specific needs, distinct from those for the UK as a whole.
However, the Senedd’s limited managerial, rather than strategically empowered, approach to governance still fails to deliver effective democratic representation of the aspirations, needs and values of the people of Wales within an increasingly complicated, developing isle-wide context.
At the time of writing, in Autumn 2020, the world is embroiled in the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If we were offered an opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’, would we choose the model of a centralised unitary state?”
The four constituent nations of the UK have taken different tacks in their responses to the social distancing challenges presented, including the application of lockdown conditions. This has reaffirmed the national borders extant within these isles.
The trend for significant divergence in policy stances, across the various parliaments, has compounded other clear political disagreements centred on constitutional change, with different parties holding power in each institution for over ten years.
These influences will become a substantial source of crisis as we move on from the EU. Furthermore, Wales’s economy is likely to be disproportionately affected in the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19, with the nation carrying many underlying structural dependencies and unresolved issues of industry and enterprise.
These considerable challenges require responses devised by those who better understand their impact on our cities, towns and rural communities—and are well positioned to build the required connections and relationships, at home and overseas, effectively to bring together both public and private expertise and resources in delivering change.
If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we consciously choose the model of a centralised unitary state that we have inherited?
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I suspect England would not have any real intent or interest in pursuing such a proposition as the nation has its own marked difficulties of internal inequality and tensions to overcome (as highlighted by the recent Covid-19 stand-offs between the Prime Minister and the metro-mayors of Northern England.)
The UK is the legacy of a different era in world history, one which was embroiled by conflict, empires and two World Wars.
Indeed, the main political groupings of our age remain those which rallied and formed around the issues of those times.
The constituent nations of Britain have long since travelled at differing economic rates. More recently, the EU has been part of the fabric that holds the UK together.
The pre-eminence of EU law, and its interpretation by the EU Court of Justice, has safeguarded legal and regulatory norms across copious fields, including the devolved areas.
The UK internal market has been sustained by the conventions of the EU internal market. Brexit risks these interrelated competences becoming increasingly unsound.
The need for a renewed isles-wide framework made fit for purpose for the 21st century is now paramount.
I am truly an admirer of the concept of Britain, if not of the UK unitary state, an oxymoron in all but name today.
“Would it not speak powerfully of our stature, confidence and foresight, if we acted together, but as individual nations, to enact the mother of all reforms too?”
In its defence, there has been no sustained, successful attempt to pretend that the ‘whole’ or the ‘sum of all parts’ does not in fact comprise a number of separate nations respected in their own right within European history.
Even before the age of devolution, the various identities of the UK’s constituent territories were deeply rooted despite occasional, sporadic attempts to standardise across the piece.
The fact that such efforts were unproductive places a spotlight on the synthetic nature of our unity, which is possibly at the heart of our current condition of constitutional soul searching.
If we had a second chance, would we not simply recognise the sovereignty of the different nations and peoples in these Isles and seek to work within a robust social, economic and security partnership directed by a limited, but mature, political legislature?
I am sure that England would no more want to take on the challenges of Wales, than Scotland would seek to control the future of England.
All nations together cannot solve the issue of Northern Ireland, but we can empower the territory to have the useful conversations required to seek resolution of a conflict that now thankfully belongs to a different time.
Globally, these isles are known, amongst many other things, as home to the mother of all parliaments.
Would it not speak powerfully of our stature, confidence and foresight, if we acted together, but as individual nations, to enact the mother of all reforms too?
What an example our Prydain, and our nations’ peoples would be showing the world.
Our collective shoulders would have to be broad in setting aside any differences, whether substantial or petty, real or imagined, firmly to embrace shared interests and responsibilities in continuing this remarkable island journey, hand in hand as sovereign nations, but within a League-Union of the Isles of Britain…
A sovereign Wales in an isle-wide confederation is an essay by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones, presented in five daily parts on the IWA website during the first week of February 2021. The full essay appears as an appendix in the book Whose Wales? by Gwynoro Jones and Alun Gibbard, to be published on 1st March 2021.You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.
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