Sunday, 8 January 2012

Saving the Union - Impossible without unity?

Carwyn's new relationship with the UK

Back in November, the First Minister gave the Welsh Politics Annual Lecture at Aberytwyth University on devolution (more on this at Borthlas, Welsh Ramblings and Click on Wales). In his speech he said that should the Scottish people vote for independence, then Wales's relationship with the rest of the UK would need to be reformed or reworked.

Carwyn Jones outlined three "tests" that he believes are key considerations to warrant the devolution of further powers:

1. That the new powers are potentially beneficial to the Welsh public

New powers are neither beneficial or unbeneficial to the Welsh public. It's how they are used that determines that - so a matter for individual party policy and subsequent application. The same can be said of a whole raft of constitutional arrangements including independence.

2. That the new powers can be accommodated in the existing Welsh Government structures

Carwyn has a point - but this could automatically rule out new powers that could be beneficial to the Welsh public - like policing - because there's no Welsh "Department of Justice" or legal jurisdiction (yet). It's a bit of a cop-out (excuse the pun).

3. The impact of new powers on the wider UK is limited

Existing devolved powers and policies that are "beneficial" to the Welsh public might not always be beneficial to the rest of the UK or vice versa – free prescriptions, single use bag charges or differing tuition fee policies for example. It also means that Carwyn could technically be ruling out powers over areas like energy, water resources and even the railways (contradicted in part by Network Rail's "devolution" to Wales in the last few months) because of cross-border impacts.

Saving the Union from itself

Nation states made of nations (as opposed to non-national federal units) vary wildly in their longevity - Austria-Hungary, the various pan-Scandanavian unions, Yugoslavia, the USSR, the United Arab Republic, Spain, Belgium....etc.

The constitutional flux the UK is currently in, could be part of a natural "untying" phase peculiar to these nations-of-nations that can lead to various places including : federalism, more formal centralisation (as in France or the UK historically) or independence.

What we now call the UK is radically different from what it was 20 years ago - let alone at the turn of the century. A UK existing at the end of the decade isn't guaranteed - neither is a break up - but in all likelihood, the UK is going to be as different in 2030 compared to the present as it was in 1990. Hardline Unionists are going to have to accept that.

I do believe Unionists are unnecessarily pessimistic and dour - both in terms of how they see the referendum in Scotland going, and the arguments they currently present for Scotland to remain in the Union.

A positive case for union, accompanied by significant changes to the relationship between the Home Nations (including a proper answer to the England Question) can win in Scotland. They can save the Union by transforming it into an ever evolving relationship between sovereign states – a mini-EU on steroids.

Things can't go on as they are. There's browbeating of the "Celtic Fringe" that sounds like the threats a fat, bald middle-age husband would make to a divorcing wife. There's a struggle to define civic "Britishness" due to identity politics - not only in the Celtic Fringe but in England too. Proper "British" institutions seem confined to Auntie Beeb, a distant and haughty Westminster, English benevolence towards sponging Scots and whinging Welsh, the Windsors and an increasingly deified military.

There's also those who want to "play the ostrich". It's "all a diversion from the important issues of the day". Stick your head in the sand if you want, cover your ears going "la la la I'm not listening" but having a well-oiled, properly functioning nation-state certainly helps provide solutions to all those bread and butter issues "ordinary people" concern themselves with. I might be giving them too much credit, but our politicians are smart enough to deal with day to day things alongside the big picture issues.

Throwing "British" into every sentence and Union Flags into every picture with a plodding, middle-of-the-road Elbow soundtrack does not a Union make. The cake, pride of place at the centre of the party - draped in red, white and blue icing - is a lie. It's been hollowed out. What's the point of icing without a delicious cake underneath it?

What a bangin' party! Turn off the Steps Greatest Hits CD, burst the balloons, chuck the sausage rolls in the bin. It's over.

You could blame the chubby, charismatic Scot in the corner with chocolate around his mouth.

You could blame the massive elephant in a St Georges Flag making everyone claustrophobic.

Or you can blame the cooks who took their position for granted, expecting cake to always be under the icing by the grace of God, well away from that cheeky scamp Alex. The cooks can stand around moping and shouting at everyone, steadfastly denying the cake's gone, or they can bake a new one. One the likes of Alex won't try to scoff quite so quickly.

"That'll do" won't do anymore

Wales's foremost federalist - David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) - has consistently said that sovereignty over Wales, within the Union, should rest with the people of Wales constitutionally. The Welsh should remain in Union with the Scottish, English and Northern Irish by popular consent, not because of due deference to the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty or because "it's the way it's always been".

In his recent Wales Home article, David Melding says there needs to be a "mega-political big deal". I'd agree that any New Union will need to be "uniquely British" due to the political system and practices. However, I also think it will have to be rigid to a certain extent – perhaps not allowing organic development down certain avenues - or we'll just return to this conversation again at some point in the future. It might irk conservatives, but some of those cherished traditions might need to go out the window to ensure a New Union happens – in particular Westminster's primacy.

There's a stubborn reluctance to properly address England's sheer size and economic clout in the Union, England's constitutional position as well as the status of Cornwall, Greater London and the Crown Dependencies. All we're hinted at getting is a typical Westminster fudge that patches over problems until said patches wear out (English votes for English laws).

Despite all the hard graft David Melding has put into creating a new purpose, vision and underlying justification for a New Union, what he's saying appears to be falling on deaf ears where it matters. I might not agree that the Union - at heart - is really worth saving, but I think he's earned the respect of everyone who ponders these grander constitutional issues by putting in the effort in the first place.

He's one of the cooks who notices a new cake recipe is needed, but sadly, is David Melding the Cassandra of British Unionism?

The reason? MPs and Lords (maybe some devolved politicians too) won't like some of the possible answers to, or fallout from, the following question.

What power should Westminster retain?

There's nothing particularly exciting about constitutional change. With a hollowed out Britishness – and a potential big transfer of sovereignty down to the Home Nations - only a bland, mundane, constitutional, administrative and institutional United Kingdom can really survive. Before Unionists get too depressed, or say it can't work, or that it would dilute "Britishness", I'd say it works brilliantly in Switzerland.

David says that Conservatives and Labour need to unite to provide an "exciting alternative to Celtic nationalism". That makes the job of unionists, and the creation of a New Union, much harder than it need be. Just look at the difference between Carwyn Jones and David Melding on the issue – a box ticking exercise vs a brand new form of federalism. That's just two people. Ask all 60 AMs the same question and you'll probably get 180 different answers from Dafydd Elis-Thomas alone.

Just declaring something a federation doesn't make that so either. The changes will need to be
tangible. The UK might even have to become a confederation rather than a federation (yes, there is a difference) to properly stem nationalism – a seismic change to the UK's constitution and the relationship between the Home Nations. Unfortunately, I don't think that outcome is something many unionists would have the stomach for. Can you picture a scenario whereby Carwyn Jones effectively wields more power than David Cameron within the UK?

That brings us right back to the main question. How does the constitution evolve to keep a strong "core Britain" at Westminster while devolving as much sovereignty as possible to the federal/confederal units to stave off nationalism and secessionism?

How do you get the balance right?

Where do you draw the lines?

David Melding believes that the welfare state led to the centralisation of the UK and "it's multi-national identity subdued". Logic doesn't necessarily follow that welfare be devolved - partially or wholly - within this New Union. However, without considering devolution of the "big time" powers like welfare, wouldn't a unitary state just continue wrapped in name-only federalism? That's just a re-branding exercise (or from a "nat" perspective detoxification) not a grand New Union.

In a 2007 poll by University College London on attitudes to devolution, 59% of respondents said that the Welsh Assembly should make decisions on benefits. The annual St David's Day BBC polls over the last four years suggest that around 60% want the Assembly to have "the most influence over Wales" compared to 25% believing Westminster should. Obviously you can't properly judge public opinion by a small set of polls but the view that Wales should have more sovereignty – but not independence - has some consistency.

Those on the left might oppose devolution of some aspects of welfare – I'd picture Welsh Labour opposing such a move with every fibre of their being. Meanwhile, those on the right might resist certain economic or criminal justice powers being devolved. The Lib Dems have long been supporters of federalism, but the likes of Peter Black have argued - not without reason - that even something as basic as teachers' pay and conditions shouldn't be devolved. Nationalists will always find some powers that "need to be devolved" and are unlikely to stop pressing for secession even in a New Union, although "post-nationalists" might be satisfied with a federation or confederation.

That's just the politicians. Just wait how hard it'll get when the public are asked.

A British Constitutional Convention – bound to be a requirement - could rumble on for years. It would almost certainly open up the whole EU in-or-out debate at some point. Meanwhile Alex Salmond is checking his watch and looking towards the door.

We nationalists often tie ourselves in knots umming and ahhing over the finer points of independence, including trying to decide what the word actually means. Well now it's the Unionists turn. These discussions are an awful lot easier within one party or one movement broadly united around social democractic principles. Where do unionists, from across the political spectrum and not speaking in one voice (ironically), start with this beauty?

Answering the Question

Firstly, I haven't gone all "Dafydd-El" and I still believe that independence is the optimum constitutional settlement for Wales. However if I were to have my own preconditions for a New Union it could be simplified to the outline below.

1. Each of the Home Nations should have the same powers (symmetrical devolution, federalism or confederalism) clearly laid out in a written constitution.

2. Residual reserved powers and budgets directly related to existing devolved areas should be devolved.

For example in health – Abortion, Xenotransplantation, Euthanasia, regulation of health professions.

Peculiar to Wales - the devolution of Network Rail funding in line with Scotland.

3. Reserved powers would be defined as those powers that have to be applied consistently across the whole of the United Kingdom with no scope for variation, using other federal/confederal system around the World as a template.

For example – regulatory bodies, financial regulations, employment law, "federal" voting system, the Supreme Court, weights and measures.

4. The UK should retain powers that have to be applied consistently for the United Kingdom to meet common definitions of a nation state and ensure international obligations are met.

For example – defence, intelligence, immigration & identity, foreign affairs, currency, the constitution, human & civil rights, VAT.

Again what could be included or removed depends entirely on how you would interpret these preconditions. What I've listed isn't set in stone and is just back of a fag packet stuff. It could raise as many questions by itself.

Should Cornwall and the Crown Dependencies be considered separate devolved nations? If not, why not? How would they fit into the constitution? What would be the constitutional status of Greater London? (Conflicts with Precondition 1)

Would devolving "residual powers" in existing devolved areas leave the Federal/Confederal Parliament too weak to hold the union together? (Conflicts with Precondition 2)

Should there be a return to a pan-UK NHS – how would the theoretical "repatriation" of powers from the Home Nations to the UK be handled without fuelling nationalism? (Conflicts with Precondition 3)

Would devolving drug laws (for example) make it hard for the UK to meet international obligations on things like smuggling? (Conflicts with Precondition 4)

Creating a New Union sounds easy enough - but it most certainly isn't.


  1. Excellent thought provoking posts.



  2. A few thoughts:

    I would avoid the use of the word confederation, the New Labour/Guardian Reader types are so obsessed with America and US politics that they will probably accuse you of supporting slavery! (Tongue only half in cheek)

    The devil is always going to be in the detail, if currency/economic powers are retained by Westminster then surely they will still continue to be run in the interests of London and SE England to the detriment of everyone else.

    Likewise if foreign affairs/defence are reserved then the (English dominated) federal government will continue to wage wars of aggression funded by Welsh and Scottish taxpayers, and with Welsh citizens continuing to be disproportionately represented in the lower ranks of the armed forces.

    I can see a situation where welfare (in which there is a net flow of money to Wales) becomes our responsibility to fund, whilst we still contribute to a 'defence' budget that is spent mostly in England.

  3. I agree with almost all of this. One point I would raise however is that the prospect of a pan-UK NHS is practically unattainable, as within 5 years there will be just vestiges of the NHS remaining in England.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Welsh Agenda - You sum up in a nutshell why I'd still support independence over a New Union. Some of those retained powers could be run in joint agreement or a rotating "chair" between the nations - similar to the Swiss Federal Council. That might be enough to prevent England dominating through no real fault of their own or British Nationalists using the whole "global power" gambit.

    As for Welfare they could just "Barnettise" the funding. The policy would be down to the respective nation/unit/whatever.

    Sionnyn - The concept of a publically funded NHS is a "British" ideal. However, for arguments sake, if England voted in a party that explicitly wanted to privatise parts of or wholly privatise the NHS, why shouldn't they? English politicians should be able to do whatever they see fit to English public services with a mandate from English voters alone.

    You could consider, at the most fundamental level, healthcare a basic pan-UK "need". That doesn't mean it'll always be devolved. Problems could arise if, as I said, England theoretically privatised it's NHS by using it's "sovereignty" in a federal/confederal UK while the Celtic nations retained a publically funded NHS.

    It's almost certain Wales, Scotland, NI and potentially others might have to follow suit by sheer force of English will. It's not as if the English would put up with public healthcare in Wales or Scotland, despite a "fairer" federal/confederal arrangement, while needing private health insurance to use their local hospital.

    An issue like that could be the unionists "West Lothian Question".

  5. "As for Welfare they could just "Barnettise" the funding. The policy would be down to the respective nation/unit/whatever."

    This is one of the quasi-federalist arguments I have most sympathy with.

    It's often implict in debates about Wales' ability to finance itself that we have all the nations and regions starting from a level playing field.

    It's not true. Our social needs are vast because of decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The legacy of Barnett underfunding is billions of pounds. The underdevelopment in Wales is shocking and it simply isn't our fault. Just look at the HS2 announcement.

    It's almost like the embargo on Cuba really.

  6. Good point Ramblings.

    Wales is stuck very firmly between a rock and a hard place. Hold out the begging bowl - however justified - and it's moaning. Don't ask for any new money or any extra powers - we're stuck in a cycle of timid decision making and official acceptance that we "deserve" to be worse off than our neighbours.

    "Keep the dole cheques coming, guys. Don't worry about dragging our economy out of the 1930's - we'll manage!"