Our place in two Unions

Matthew Hexter considers a confederal future for the UK outside Europe

Matthew Hexter is the Convener of the Welsh Fabians writing in a personal capacity

The Union of Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland is dying. At the same time, we have as a union of four have elected to leave another Union with Europe. For the rights and wrongs of that decision, it was our decision to make, that no other party to that Union could prevent us from doing. As a friend of mine once said: “The UK is dying. Get over it. Better still, get ahead of it”. 


Unlike the EU, the UK does not provide a structure of Sovereignty that would allow for a unilateral withdrawal from its union. The important distinction here revolves around Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 and Article 50 of The Treaty of the European Union. Section 30 provides for The Scottish Parliament to get a temporary extension of power with which they can pass a referendum Act. This was the legal basis for the referendum in 2014 and would be the likely basis of any future “Indy Ref”. Compare this with Article 50, which provides that ‘Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’ The difference here is staggering.


It is a difference of relationships and of power dynamics. In one union you are treated as an equal, a valued constituent part of a greater whole, responsible enough to make your own decisions. In the other, you are treated as if a child, not capable of taking control of your own destiny, maybe only getting your way when the parent has grown tired of your arguments. 


Whilst it is the subject of some academic wrangling if indeed the EU is a true confederation and fair question can be raised of attempting to emulate a system which you voted to leave only a few years prior, if the UK is to have any hope of surviving it must embrace the confederal nature of the EU and make each constituent unit equal. It must ensure that power derives from the periphery to the centre and not the other way around. This should not only apply to the Nations, but to the regions of England as well.


If the Union is to survive then it must do so as a Confederal Federation.


A confederation is “a system of government or administration in which two or more distinct political units keep their separate identity but transfer specified powers to a higher authority for reasons of convenience, mutual security, or efficiency.” In this case the subnational units control the central government, which is given only specific powers. It is similar to an intergovernmental organisation, in that the member states retain their autonomy and can control the central government. 


The union must ensure each constituent element is in charge of making the majority of its decisions and yes, that includes the decision to secede from the union if that element chooses to do so, in accordance with their own constitutional requirements. The UK would not accept being told what to do by France or Germany so why should it expect the same of its own constituent elements? 


The union as we know it is rotting and the smell is rank. One reason we know this is Brexit. Desire for independence in Wales and Scotland grows, but it grows stronger still when the prospect of a no deal Brexit is raised. In the North of Ireland, the question of Irish Reunification is answered with the most positivity if the idea of a hard border appears. Whilst there is a still an evident split on this issue across community lines, there is certainly more support for re-unification than there would otherwise be, for example if there were to be no hard Brexit.


Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain, and Wales and England to leave. If we learnt lessons from the EU, which in many situations affords its member states a veto, each constituent element of the UK would have a veto on the decisions of the UK as an international entity. Exit from the EU could have been stopped for the UK by respecting the decision of the constituent entities in this case Scotland and Northern Ireland. Such a model was recommended by Nicola Sturgeon prior to the Brexit vote. This system could apply not only to the decision to leave the EU but to day to day governance. If one region or nation wants to govern itself in a particular way it should have the right to do so and not have to hope to catch the attention of Westminster when it is handing out scraps of attention. 


This confederal structure is not unique to the EU. Countries such as Belgium and Australia use variations of this practice in order to ensure that each constituent element has an equal say and if the Union is to survive then it will take a change such as this to make that happen.


You cannot expect compliance from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the desire of the English majority and expect that situation to be tolerable forever, nor can London and the South East expect compliance from the South West, North East or the Midlands of England. We must completely re-imagine this union if it is to survive. 


Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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