What might such a governance model look like in the context of today’s UK?
A League or Union of the Isles could be established as a confederation of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales with aspects of federal-type control built into key policy portfolios to reflect the principles of equality and solidarity amid member nations. The Head of the Confederation would continue to be Her Majesty and successors. Each nation would hold every power and right which were not by treaty, or constitution, delegated to joint institutions, operating distinct legal jurisdictions as appropriate.
A Council of the Isles could be introduced with mechanisms created to address the asymmetry between population sizes of member nations, particularly through the composition and distribution of seats. Members of the Council would be elected for a four-year period, convening annually for a fixed time, urgent business excepted. The Council would assume its own standing orders, confirming a Presiding Officer and Executive whose Prime Minister and Ministers would be responsible for enacting legislative power on matters involving defence, foreign affairs, finance, home affairs and mutual cooperation.
Each Bill considered by the Council could be usefully circulated to the National Parliaments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in advance of final reading, with member nations empowered to make objections or suggest amendments before voting. On passing, the Head of State would confirm the Bill as an Act of the Council of the Isles. The ultimate authority on all questions regarding the legitimacy of any law and treaty would remain with the Supreme Court.
A Congress of Member Nations, comprising the Council’s Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, as well as the First Minister of each member nation, could convene regularly to discuss more general considerations which demand a degree of cooperation and harmonisation of laws, over and above those key centrally-held functions enacted in Council. As explored by the Constitutional Commission in Scotland’s article A Confederal UK? (2015) these might include postal, telephonic and internet communications; railways, roads and associated licensing; airports, ports and traffic controls; coastguard and navigational services; energy, water and related infrastructure; income and corporation taxes; rates of sales, weights and measures; copyrights, patents and trademarks; scientific and technological research; broadcasting; meteorological forecasting; environmental protection; civil defence and emergencies; prevention of terrorism and serious crime. Such collaborations would be critical in a political climate where the EU could no longer be relied upon to promote the necessary understandings.
The Congress, with support of the Council, could further hold controls for confirming contractual-type arrangements for the supply of requested services to member nations. To cover the common functions and agreements in place, the Council would levy charges upon each member nation according to a defined proportion of their GDP annually relative to that of the confederation as a whole. These monies would be paid into a consolidated fund from which the interest on the UK public debt would continue as a standing charge. The League or Union would aim to promote equality across the isles by sharing a measure of the baseline investment for infrastructure projects, operating appropriate instruments for resolving disagreements. National Parliaments should be discouraged from misusing any advantages they possess in areas of potential contention including, for example, the economy of England, the oil of Scotland and the water of Wales. Some central responsibility could also be assigned for pensions alongside federal-type mechanisms for collecting what is presently termed National Insurance Contributions appropriately renamed, mitigating elements of financial risk and promoting ongoing solidarity.
The National Parliament of each member nation could sit as the legislative and representative body of its people, enacting powers and laws on every issue not identified as the Council’s sole competence. A Government would be appointed from the nation’s parliamentary members, comprising a First Minister and other ministerial positions to oversee the various offices. The superior judges in each member nation would be nominated on the advice of an independent authority with established institutions in place to scrutinise public appointments. Nations could further sub-divide their lands through Acts of National Parliament, defining the composition and responsibilities of local or regional authorities.
The ongoing Brexit process involves a strong steer towards centralisation in favour of Westminster, due to the parliament’s twin role in expediting the UK government and that for England. The report UK governance post-Brexit (National Assembly of Wales: 2018) recommends that: ‘the Llywydd seeks to establish, with other Speakers and Presiding Officers of UK legislatures, a Speakers’ Conference with aim of determining how best to develop UK inter-parliamentary working, particularly as a means of scrutinising the impact of withdrawal from the European Union on the constitutional framework of the UK… assessing the state of inter-governmental relations, with view to building consensus on reform.’
In time, new arrangements and bodies will be required, leading to a radical redistribution of legislative and governmental powers, and demanding a reshaping of the UK territorial constitution made fit for purpose to the changed context. Since we are all intrinsically linked culturally and historically in modern times through shared industrial, political and international experiences, any constitutional settlement must take account of the economic and social interrelationships between the four nations. A confederal type response to the question could well be to the advantage of England and Scotland more than Northern Ireland and Wales, whose less affluent regions would benefit from the greater support made available through a federal model. The potential for the Republic of Ireland to be involved in a confederation could provide some comfort to Scotland and Wales in partially counter-balancing the comparative size of England. However, an arrangement along the continuum, as referenced in Professor Kincaid’s article Confederal Federalism, may unlock a valuable door to a lasting solution based on our geographical proximity and mutual values.
Whatever the approach, we must move forward with renewed confidence and vision, striving to form a common consensus in acting faithfully with the wisdom of past lessons learnt to create a secure, successful and sustainable future for all who live within our isles.
The first part of this article is available here.
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