This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on the website of the Institute of Welsh Affairs on 29th March 2022.
With Nicola Sturgeon having recently addressed the Scottish Parliament about her plans for a second independence referendum, and the Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, established by the Welsh Government, currently considering options for fundamental reform of the UK’s constitutional structures, the four constituent nations of the UK are fast approaching a potential crossroads in their shared journey.
The fact that the four territories took different tacks in their responses to the Covid-19 challenges in recent years has reaffirmed the national borders extant within these isles. Further, the trend for significant divergence in policy stances across the various parliaments has compounded other clear political disagreements centred on constitutional change, with different parties holding power in each institution for over ten years. The customary argument that absolute parliamentary sovereignty should rest continually and solely with Westminster now stands challenged.
To protect the UK’s unity post-Brexit, the Welsh Government has suggested federalism as a possible way forward, mirroring unionist views in Scotland. Federalism, whilst admittedly delivering more powers to Wales, offers restricted opportunities for expanding Scottish autonomy beyond the present status quo and does little to tackle the UK’s future relationship with the European Union (EU) in a way that is satisfactory to the Scottish Government. Federalism would likely deliver reform of the Barnett formula, as desired by the Welsh Government, but would impact negatively on the Scottish block grant, strengthening the attraction of a second independence referendum.
Some politicians may even consider it intolerable to restructure the UK along federal principles, seeking instead to expand Westminster’s reach through Brexit. This would cast an ever longer shadow over the devolution settlements as the UK economy adapts to functioning separately from the EU. Repatriation to Westminster of EU competences in fields otherwise devolved could also hasten calls for Scottish secession. However, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP’s) present platform of pursuing an independent Scotland within the EU is problematic in today’s circumstances. By definition, it necessarily confines and restricts the nation’s ability to facilitate a single market with its largest trading partner, England.
As the traditional understanding of UK state sovereignty adjusts to the practicalities of an interconnected world, made more apparent since 31 January 2020, there is an opportunity for those advocating greater autonomy for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to progressively present a more sophisticated platform of debate for self-government, which wholeheartedly subscribes to outward facing international structures.
Interestingly, Westminster’s tacit acceptance of Scottish, and by some implication Welsh, independence as a legitimate option, further to the 2014 referendum in Scotland, suggests that sovereignty is ultimately determined by the populations of the nations separately and not by the people of the UK collectively.
The challenge to both Conservative and Labour parties is to become more formally representative of the nations within their organisational structures. The make-up of the Liberal Democrats is already federalised, and the strength of the nationalist movements in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is at a level uncommonly seen in other multinational states globally. Given that the traditional model of a federal UK is currently a politically difficult proposal, particularly before the relentless wave of SNP electoral successes in recent times, might not the more collaborative elements of the political spectrum from unionism to nationalism find some common ground, if not a strategic compromise, in a new partnership for the future?
After all, Britishness as a concept is much older than the UK and it is unrealistic to argue that the Scottish or Welsh people, in notional independent territories, would start considering the English as fellow Europeans instead of fellow British.
If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we not straightforwardly recognise the sovereignty of the different nations and peoples in these isles and seek to work within a robust social, economic and security partnership directed by a limited, but mature, political legislature?
Such a model is explored in my booklet A League or Union of the Isles.
Devolution involves a sovereign Westminster, in effect, delegating a measure of sovereign authority to the devolved institutions. A League-Union of the British Isles turns this constitutional approach on its head, advocating four sovereign nations of radically different population sizes delegating some sovereign authority to central bodies in agreed areas of common interest such as internal trade, currency, large-scale economic considerations, defence and foreign policy, with the British monarch continuing in role.
Today, we are confronted by unprecedented constitutional challenges and tests which require exploration of fresh solutions and governance models for the future, and this is what the booklet aims to present. The political realities across all four nations must be considered when exploring the nature of the Union going forward.
As the world now knows to its cost, climate change, pandemics, conflict, and economic repercussions respect no national boundaries. We should therefore approach our constitutional deliberations in the spirit of consensus-building and cooperation, and with a firm eye on the needs and aspirations of those future generations who will call these isles their home…
You can watch Glyndwr Cennydd Jones discuss these ideas with our Director Brendan Donnelly in this video:
or in the player below: