A new constitutional framework promoting multicultural Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English identities within an overarching British civic partnership could well flourish with the monarch as a continued Head of State, and the parliamentary model of government, inspired by Westminster, underpinning the developing political institutions in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. The tacit acceptance by Westminster of Scottish, and by some implication Welsh, independence as a legitimate option suggests that sovereignty is ultimately determined by the populations of the nations separately and not by the people of the UK collectively. To argue that it is the British people who are first amongst equals is to wilfully ignore the long established, respected status of the home nations in European history. Further, could Westminster unilaterally dissolve the devolved parliaments in the various capitals even if it so wished? Nevertheless, Britishness as a concept is much older than the UK and it is unrealistic to argue that the Welsh or Scottish people, in notional independent territories, would start considering the English as fellow Europeans instead of fellow British.
British ideals and values are partly forged by geographic, historic and cultural influences which usefully bridge the demands of world interdependence and the desire for increased autonomy in the nations. The challenge is to capture these principles in a new constitutional framework which strengthens arrangements for self-government—through emphasising common respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law—within an isle-wide civic societal structure typified by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and solidarity. A League or Union of the Isles could even make some use of an approach based on multicultural national identities, rather than sovereignty principles, in drafting a constitution, hence avoiding inevitable disagreements in the context of that most theoretical of constructs, when addressing the legal and moral claims of member nations. Interestingly, the practice of mutually exclusive spheres of sovereign powers coexisting at both national and central levels of governance, as in the model of dual federalism, has declined, being replaced by a form of cooperative federalism where two tiers of government increasingly collaborate within the scope of their shared powers. Such principles protect national interests in a world where policy areas have become more and more intertwined and where sovereignty is a dynamic and not a fixed concept.
It is now widely conceded that the devolution measures of the 1990s were insufficiently thought out. If England does join Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in establishing a parliament, then the UK will require new provisions for governance. In today’s world, nearly two hundred states are underpinned by written constitutions. Surprisingly, the UK is not, but ironically it has involved itself in drafting constitutions for countless others during the last century, particularly the British colonies. As globalisation and migration intensify, states around the world are becoming increasingly diverse culturally, ethnically, legally, politically and religiously. A widely accepted approach to successfully embracing and managing such variations is to revise and improve the nature and quality of governance. This is as true for the UK as it is for other states. The fact that written constitutions make the machinery of government more accessible and transparent is one of the most persuasive arguments for their application.
Beyond the unitary state, models of federation and confederation may appear structurally similar, at first glance, with individuals participating democratically in electing representatives to established legislative parliaments at two levels of government in both. However, each model has subtly different implications for the way in which individuals relate to their respective national parliaments and that of the centre. In a federation, an individual is a citizen of the central overarching structure and the constituent nation within which they reside. In a confederation, national parliaments, not individuals, are formally represented in central institutions with people relating to their member nation, initially, and to the confederation next. The extent to which federalism would support greater clarity, comfort, and confidence should not be underestimated. However, a tilt along the constitutional continuum towards confederalism could also provide a lasting solution which supports a real partnership of equals going forward, underpinned by close geographical proximity, common values and a few shared institutions addressing key functions.
The most effective modern constitutions articulate the essential framework of governance and are open to appropriate modifications in time, such as the pooling of sovereignty in international treaties and bodies. They also balance the basic principles with current and developing demands which may necessitate an authority or responsibility of government to be reassigned from one level to another. Creating such a written framework for these isles could prove invaluable across the political spectrum, with some finding reassurance in attempting to articulate the more distinctive elements of the UK’s practices in a codified constitution, and with others seeking to cement the sovereignty position of the four nations individually in relation to a common British civic structure. Who knows, this approach could well provide some fresh constitutive stories for a new kind of partnership across these isles—one which draws on past and present experiences and narratives in forming an underlying bedrock for the future?
In the book The Challenge to Westminster (Tuckwell Press 2000), James Mitchell observes that:
‘opposition to change has often been understated. The inter-play of context and political activity, among both proponents and opponents of change, were important factors in the establishment of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and they will continue to contribute to the future constitutional development of both nations. The base of a strong sense of Scottish and Welsh identities has been reinforced as a consequence of establishing the parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff but, as we have seen, national identity is not nationalism. Devolution is now understood as unfinished business—the real business of the United Kingdom has only just started.’
The dynamics of the Union itself, now over 300 years old, and the nature of Britishness are both at stake. In the early 21st Century, might not the more constructive elements of the political spectrum from nationalism to unionism, which advocate contrasting isle-wide constitutional solutions, from apparent territorial separatism to unitary centralism, find some common ground, if not a strategic compromise, in the broad principles of confederal-federalism?
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).
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