A new constitutional partnership for these isles

By: Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

The ongoing Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales should recognise the political and constitutional realities across all four nations of the UK when exploring the nature of the Union going forward.

The fact that the four constituent nations of the UK 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.

Accepting that the federal horse has already bolted, particularly before the relentless wave of SNP electoral successes in recent times, never has there been so much at stake for the future of the relationships between our nations. We are approaching an uncertain moment in our island journey, if not too, in our collective affairs internationally, with the United Kingdom’s standing reduced across the globe.

Secessionist tendencies are increasingly prevalent, whether nationally in Scotland and Wales, or at a UK level driven by Brexit. There is a crucial need for us to explore some form of broad, strategic compromise, which embraces the concerns of both unionists and nationalists, in moving away from a narrow ‘winner takes all’ answer to the constitutional question posed. If successful, the long-lasting rewards could be enormous, with fresh political narratives promoting a new kind of partnership across these isles – one which draws on past and present experiences in forming an underlying bedrock of effective collaboration for the century ahead.

The UK is the legacy of a different era in world history, one which was usually embroiled in conflict, empires and two World Wars. Indeed, the main political groupings of our age remain those which rallied and formed around the issues of those times. The constituent nations of Britain have long since travelled at differing economic rates. More recently, the EU has been part of the fabric that holds the UK together. The pre-eminence of EU law, and its interpretation by the EU Court of Justice, safeguarded legal and regulatory norms across copious fields, including the devolved areas. The UK internal market was sustained by the conventions of the EU internal market. Brexit risks these interrelated competences becoming increasingly unsound. The need for a renewed isles-wide framework made fit for purpose for the twenty-first century is now paramount.

However, a federal solution likely acts only to entrench many of the structural difficulties extant in the present devolution arrangements.

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 Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to progressively present a more sophisticated platform of debate for self-government, or even ‘modern independence’, 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. To argue that it is the British people who are first amongst equals is wilfully to ignore the long established, respected status of the home nations in European history. However, 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 Brits.

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-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 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.

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…

I leave the final word to Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales (2009-2018) who in his preface to my booklet writes:

‘Glyndwr has been an important part of the debate around constitutional futures and I welcome his latest contribution to the ideas that have been generated, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit. We will all have our thoughts as to what the future relationships between the nations of these islands should look like but it is important that there is an informed debate on what kind of future would get the greatest possible support from the public.’

A League-Union of the Isles is available here as an e-book and here as an easily printable PDF version.

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones is an advocate for greater cross-party consensus in Wales and for a UK-wide constitutional convention. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.