The concept of Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty affirms a legislative authority that is legally unlimited, maintaining that it is not restricted by any norms which are lawfully enforceable through the courts or any other human agency. The formulation of the doctrine is relatively modern, relying on developing agreement and clarity in legal terminology, as well as the differentiation between matters of law and morality. However, the authority that the concept describes is much older, and has survived many historical changes in legal language, political thought and division of power, affirming that the monarch and the two Houses, when acting in concert, possess unlimited legislative authority.
With many now asserting a multicultural Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or English character before claiming a form of dual nationality which also embraces a British personality, it is legitimate to reconsider the nature of Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty such that it more appropriately encompasses authority only over select key isle-wide functions held in mutual interest and regard by the nations. These could include large-scale economic policy, defence, foreign affairs, and aspects of welfare. The consequential and pressing strategic issue going forward relates to whether sovereignty, as currently understood, should be shared across these five territorially defined identities (including that of Britain) in a traditional federal arrangement or instead assigned individually to the four nations—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England—which in turn would lease parts of their sovereign authority to common central institutions of a fundamentally British civic character. Such a constitutional arrangement could be established through a form of confederal-federalism as explored in my essay A Federation or League of the Isles which appeared in the booklet Towards Federalism and Beyond (2017) and article Confederal Federalism: A League-Union of the Isles (2018).
People have an appreciable human interest in experiencing the treatment of their territorial grouping as valued. This is conducive to promoting a context for living in which individual autonomy can be applied in a meaningful way and where people are prepared to make sacrifices for others through a sense of shared distributive justice. The application of a more deliberative democracy, exercised at the national level rather than that of central institutions, is predicated on the assumption that genuine decision-making demands active participation by the public in society’s debates and developments, over and above that of simply casting votes at elections.
During the last century, nation-building at the UK level, with the purpose of promoting a type of standardised British society, has come at some cost, particularly in terms of advocating equality and fairness across all peoples in these isles. The make-up of individuals’ identities is complex and partly comprises their beliefs, social affiliations, and relationships within national groupings. If people sense that these are not treated by central political bodies with equal dignity and respect, then they are likely to experience the circumstances of government as unjust. All unitary states would be wise to pay attention to the emotional and practical attachments their populations feel towards the constituent nations, if they aspire to be the object of similar loyalty. Indeed, the safeguarding of individual liberty within the nations could serve as a useful counterweight to the inevitable instinct of the institutional centre to aggregate power deep within its core, especially at the expense of territories more geographically distant.
Since the inhabitants of the UK in modern times are intrinsically linked, culturally, geographically and historically, through shared industrial, political and international experiences, any future constitutional settlement must take account of the economic and social interrelationships between the four nations. One model for this could be a League or Union of the Isles involving a confederation of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England with aspects of federal-type control built into key policy areas underpinning the principles of equality and solidarity amid member nations. In such an arrangement, a Council of the Isles could be responsible for enacting legislative power on matters involving defence, foreign affairs, finance, home affairs and mutual cooperation, with a Congress of Member Nations, convening regularly to discuss other relevant considerations which may demand a degree of cooperation and harmonisation of laws. The Head of the Confederation could continue to be Her Majesty and successors, holding frequent audiences with the nations’ First Ministers, possibly accompanied by a reoriented privy council containing Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English divisions.
The National Parliament of each member nation would sit as the legislative and representative body of its people, having every power and right not by treaty or constitution delegated to the joint institutions. The national legislatures should be mirrored by robust legal structures, supporting the continued rule of law as administered by an independent judiciary. Scotland possessed its own judiciary before 1999 whilst the development of a genuine devolved legislature in Wales has led to a compelling case for introducing a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. The ultimate authority on all questions regarding the legitimacy of any law or treaty would sit with a Supreme Court of the Isles.
In 1999, England was omitted from the devolution reforms as it was not allocated an institutional political entity of its own through the foundation of a parliament in common with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England now comprises over 53 million people, more than five times the total number living in the other UK nations combined. This demographic disparity is widening and it is one of the many reasons why support for increased autonomy across the nations is coalescing. However, England’s continued unity is not without question as the territory contains significant regional variations. In terms of wealth, status, power and population, England is orientated heavily towards the South. Producing almost 22% of the UK’s total output, London acts as a strong centripetal force, undermining the position of Northern England and the sense of a pervasive, sustainable English identity more broadly. It could be said that England suffers from the absence of a discrete parliament through which its internal disparities and inequities may be analysed and addressed.
The following sources have inspired ‘These Isles’.
- David Torrance: ‘A process, not an event’: Devolution in Wales, 1998-2018 (House of Commons, 2018)
- Lord David Owen, Gwynoro Jones, Lord Elystan Morgan and Glyndwr Cennydd Jones: Brexit, Devolution and the Changing Union (2018) and Towards Federalism and Beyond (2017)
- Tom M Devine: Independence or Union (Penguin Press, 2016)
- A Draft Constitution for a Confederal United Kingdom (Scottish Constitutional Commission, 2015)
- Linda Colley: Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, 2014)
- David Melding AM: The Reformed Union: The UK as a Federation (Institute of Welsh Affairs, 2013)
- Barry Cunliffe: Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- James Mitchell: ‘From National Identity to Nationalism’ in the book The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence (Tuckwell Press, 2000).
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?
We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.
We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.
To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.
Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.