Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Saving the precious union


It was reported yesterday that the UK government is setting up a dedicated ‘union unit’, headed by Michael Gove, to battle Scottish independence and promote the union. Leaving aside the obvious point that if the answer is Michael Gove then someone is asking the wrong question, it seems that the main functions of this new unit will be to ‘explain the advantages’ of the union and brand everything with the union flag. The first will be a struggle, given that the only advantage that they can usually come up with is that the union has made Scotland so poor that they can’t imagine how it could possibly afford to be independent, and the second is likely to be counterproductive.

The idea that the union could be saved is not an entirely lost cause however; Wales’ First Minister has today talked about the sort of changes that could save the union. Whilst I’m not convinced that saving the union is a worthwhile objective in any event, I can see how turning the existing union into what Drakeford describes as “… authentically a voluntary association of nations where sovereignty is held by each nation and then pooled for common purposes” could work if it could be brought into existence. I just don’t see how, in practical terms, it could come about. It implies that the central Westminster government formally acknowledges, once and for all, the sovereignty of the people of Wales and Scotland, and renounces any right to legislate in any area where those countries have not formally agreed to share sovereignty. Technically, I don’t see how that can be achieved without a formal written constitution because any other arrangement falls foul of the absolute principle underpinning Westminster government that nothing any parliament does can ever bind its successors. But more important than the technical issue, I don’t see any possibility that a Conservative government would ever renounce Westminster’s sovereignty in such a fashion, and nor do I see any likelihood that Drakeford will be able to persuade either the current or any other foreseeable leader of his own party to renounce Westminster’s sovereignty either. The most practical route to implement Drakeford’s suggestion is for Wales and Scotland to become independent one day and then immediately agree to share and pool in specified areas, and Drakeford looks unlikely to follow through the logic of his position to that point.

The bigger question with which I struggle is why the union is so precious in the first place. Why are politicians so attached to a structure which was created over 300 years ago to meet the perceived exigencies of the day, as though what was felt to be ‘right’ at that point in time is necessarily and forever ‘right’ in all succeeding circumstances? For those in Wales who have fallen for the myth of ‘too small, too poor, too stupid’, I can understand why they might fear any alternative, but what’s in it for England? After all, if it’s true that Wales and Scotland are a huge financial burden on England, why go to so much effort to frustrate the independence movements? Let’s not forget that ‘sending £350 million a week to Brussels’ (even if it wasn’t true) was one of the motivations for Brexit; it ought to be a surprise that politicians who plugged that line are arguing that they should continue to ‘send £millions a week to Cardiff and Edinburgh’ (even though that isn’t true either) rather than supporting the national movements.

It’s hardly about votes either. We know that English voters are largely ambivalent at best about maintaining the union, and that amongst Brexiteer supporters of the current government there’s a clear majority in favour of getting rid of Wales and Scotland if it makes their purist Brexit easier. I’ve heard unionists waxing lyrical about ‘shared history’ (to say nothing of ‘the war’) and ‘cross-border families’ as though the first means that the past must necessarily determine the future and as though the second will somehow disappear just because a decision is taken to govern these islands in a different way. I’ve also heard (loud and clear!) the nonsense about ‘you can’t survive without us’, but I’ve never heard a cogent, reasoned argument as to why the union is or should be so precious.

It could just be that innate form of conservatism shared by both the Tories and the Labour Party, that inability to conceive of doing some things differently. It could be a fear that the UK (or, rather, England in this context) would be diminished in the world, although it’s hard to believe that architects of Brexit could seriously be worried about that. Maybe it just threatens their own sense of identity in some way. One thing about which we can be certain is that it isn’t about altruism or concern for the people of Wales and Scotland. One has only to glance very briefly at people like Gove and Johnson to know that.


dafis said...

At first pass I didn't get past the bit "UK government is setting up a dedicated ‘union unit’, headed by Michael Gove," and I thought that's a sign that Boris has already given up. Putting that prick in charge of anything is a recipe for disaster, a welcome easy target for SNP and other indy minded people to go for.

However I've been reading over recent weeks about the rot that's setting into the SNP and they need to be very careful that schisms of that kind don't overtake the main agenda. Otherwise they will fall back into the rut that's been dug here in Wales.

Gav said...

Might be worth reminding ourselves and others that the UK as presently set up is rather less than 100 years old - the actual birthday is debatable but 1922 has a lot going for it. Knowing how keen Mr Gove is to get things done, I trust that he will have already started organising appropriately* lavish centenary birthday celebrations.

* assuming Covid-19 will still be with us

John Dixon said...


Boris has already started planning the 'celebration' of the establishment of Northern Ireland, but claims that it will be done in a 'sensitive' manner. Even if I thought that there was the remotest possibility that a sentence with 'Boris' and 'sensitive' in it could ever make sense, a celebration introduced with the words “As we mark 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, it is important that we celebrate its people, culture and traditions, along with its vital contribution to the United Kingdom,” strikes me as doomed to inflame the feelings of around 50% of the population of the province, for reasons that he can't even begin to understand.

dafis said...

John Let the Fat Boy get on with it. If it gets the 50% inflamed so be it. There is likely to be another %age on top who are getting increasingly fed up with London rule anyway. Much of the Protestant community would add serious value to the modern republic which is miles away from the old narrow Catholic driven backwater of 50+ years ago. Boris will only have the Orange Order and they don't like anybody much.

Spirit of BME said...

Excellent post.
As Wales is not a member of the Union, I think it makes things a lot simpler. Wales was annexed and the current regime is acting against international treaties in its very presence .In Scotland and what is left of Ireland there is a binding contract, with no exit clause (where have I heard of that before) and far more difficult to unpick, even the Blessed Cromwell was offered the title of Monarch, as the legitimacy of the crown was so complex and ‘mystical’ as its source is embedded in Anglican Voodoo.