Monday, 13 July 2009

Protecting the Union

David Melding nailed his colours to the mast a couple of weeks ago by advocating a federal constitution for the UK. It's a bold and radical step for a Tory to take, given that he must surely understand how far out of step he is with the majority of his own party's members. Even bolder, in my view, was the pretty explicit recognition that 'sovereignty' belongs, ultimately to the people, not to the monarch. This is a much more radical step; but it goes a long way towards bridging the comprehension gap between 'unionists' and 'nationalists' in the Welsh context.

On my understanding of the (unwritten) UK constitution, 'sovereignty' flows from God to the monarch, whose distant ancestors graciously (or under force of arms, depending on viewpoint) delegated most of the monarch's power to Parliament to govern the monarch's 'subjects'. And Parliament then has an absolute right to choose to delegate (or devolve) that power, or not (subject always to Royal Assent, of course).

For me, 'sovereignty' belongs to all of us as citizens; it is for us to determine how much of it we allow any body to exercise. It follows that self-government for Wales is ours as of right, any time the majority of us choose it, and no parliament has the right to deny it if that is what we choose. Melding is not the first 'unionist' to recognise the validity of that viewpoint; but most others seem reluctant to follow that path.

The significance of that alternative approach to 'sovereignty' is both simple and fundamental. Accepting that it's for the people to choose means that the debate about the future of Wales can focus where it should be - on why people should make one choice or the other, rather than on axiomatic statements from both sides which presuppose that one unit is the 'right' one now and for all time.

I start from an acceptance that we are where we are as a result of history; and in recent centuries the peoples of these islands have enjoyed a great deal of common history. Families stretching across what are currently 'internal' borders is a very common situation. Nobody with a name like Dixon is going to claim to be pure-bred Welsh; like many, or even most, other people in Wales, I have family and other connections in many other parts of the UK.

Whatever future Wales chooses for itself, I would expect that the bonds of friendship and family across these islands would continue in a close working relationship. But are those bonds, in themselves, sufficient reason to maintain the 'union' between Wales and England, as some seem to suggest? Because, in whatever terms it is actually expressed, that seems to be one of the key arguments of some of those who wish to retain the current relationship.

I can understand how some take the view that those recent centuries of a degree of common history have turned us into a single 'British' nation, just as I can understand how others see the retention of some key differences as an argument that Wales remains a distinctive nation. But I don't think either interpretation is enough, in itself, to determine the basis on which we establish governmental arrangements.

If you strip out that axiomatic approach to determining future governance arrangements, then what remains? Arguments about financial means, certainly; arguments about democracy and localisation as well. These are largely pragmatic arguments about what's best and what will serve the people. I have no problem with the idea of sharing, or pooling sovereignty; if I did, I couldn't honestly argue for Wales being a full member of the EU.

Speaking personally, I wouldn't even rule out the idea that there might be some functions best performed jointly between the nations of these islands, if there was a sound basis for so doing, although I'd argue that the governing arrangements for such co-operation need to be designed around the objectives rather than seen as simply a continuation of the UK.

What I don't understand is the basis for the continuation of 'the union' in the eyes of those who place such stress on it. In many cases, it seems to be based primarily on an emotional attachment to a particular arrangement – precisely the criticism which has so often been thrown at those of us who take an alternative view.


Aled Wyn said...

I've always held the view that defense would be something that would be done on an inter-national level between the nation of these islands. Note that i use defense on the strictest of terms, this does not include aggressive campaigns that are nod justified by the population. Naturally the legislative body of Wales at that time would have over ruling say on what campaigns / agreements that Wales enters into.

Forgive me for the over simplified comment.

Gareth Orton said...

"What I don't understand is the basis for the continuation of 'the union' in the eyes of those who place such stress on it."

Simon Hart does, which is one of the reasons he's going to win in Carmarthen West.

John Dixon said...

Then perhaps he, or you, would like to explain the basis for maintenance of the union?

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

Great post.

Having recently joined Plaid, I am still trying battling with the idea of federalism. In that, I mean why is EU federalism a worthy place to be a federal part of, but UK federalism is not? I perhaps feel that is a need to rid Wales of Westminster, some of my colleagues in Plaid have rushed to support EU Federalism, without perhaps considering why that is the case?

That is a worthy question, much is yours re: defending the union?

Currently reading Patrick Hannan’s book, even he has found it hard. But then, isn’t that the same for any country? An identity is personal, it is environmental. I mean, how do you define a ‘welsh identity’?

John Dixon said...


"why is EU federalism a worthy place to be a federal part of, but UK federalism is not?"

I don't have a simple straightforward answer to that question. If the UK level is the 'right' level at which to take some decisions, then I (speaking personally) have no great objection to some sort of a federal system in the UK. But - how to decide what the 'right' level is?

There are a huge range of issues where there seems to be no real obstacle to devolving them to Wales (or even to local authorities within Wales; I'm not convinced that devolution is just about London and Cardiff). And there are some issues which can only be tackled multinationally (matters such as air pollution/ fisheries come to mind, where no one country can effectively take decisions on its own). For the latter category, European or even world-wide action is necessary; so sovereignty at national level is pretty meaningless.

But what exactly are the issues which cannot sensibly be decided at Welsh level, and yet don't need the united action of say the EU? Whatever they are, they are the issues which would justify the retention of the UK in whatever form - if the arguments are as purely utilitarian or pragmatic by nature as some seem to argue.

The point is that they are not; each of us has a predilection for a particular approach. As a Welsh nationalist, I admit my preference for maximum autonomy for Wales, whilst accepting the need for pooling some of our sovereignty at European or world level. I base that on my own prejudice in favour of more localised government, based on units to which people feel a sense of attachment (which you might call 'nationality').

I think that 'unionism' is based on a similar set of attachments to a particular view of what 'nationality' is; it's just that most unionists refuse to admit that. I hate the term 'Brit-nat'; I really don't think it's helpful to debate. But that doesn't mean that I don't think that many - maybe even most - defenders of the 'union' are British nationalists. I don't understand why they don't just admit it - I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of, and it's an honest position to hold.

Actually, there have been times in the past when Plaid leaders have advocated something similar to federalism; although confederalism is a more appropriate word. I seem to remember a pamphlet written by one Gwynfor Evans which talked about a Britannic Confederation...

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

Great stuff John cheers...

Would you mind if i added those comments to my blog post on the matter?

John Dixon said...


Feel free.

Spirit of BME said...

I can just about recal the Corination of Betty Battenburg,you are right that "sovereignty flows from God" BUT the God of the CoE -the Established Church. At the turn of the 20th Century two great consitional issues perplexd the body politic -Home rule for Ireland and Disestablishment of the CoE in Wales.If the CoE was not recognised in Wales then her Welsh subjects would not view her annointment by that body as legitimate as her subjects in England and Scotland.Its all fuedal mumbo jumbo of course but its the power source behind our occupation -Gawd help us.