Thursday, 28 May 2015

Britannic Confederations

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of a confederal Britain as floated by Leanne Wood last week.  I remember Gwynfor talking about the possibility in the 1970s, and I think that he wrote a pamphlet on a “Britannic Confederation” sometime in the 1960s, although I can’t lay my hand on the copy which I’m sure I have somewhere.  Whether it’s as good an idea now as it was pre-EU and pre-devolution is another question – even the best ideas only work in context.  The idea didn't disappear for a few decades by accident.
It’s unclear to me from the reporting of the speech containing the proposal whether it replaces the ‘aspiration’ for independence for Wales or is merely an attempt to define a staging post and a process for moving forward.  I’m assuming the latter, although I’m well aware that a confederation would have been enough for many in Plaid over the decades – and been several steps too far for some.
The idea of requiring no more than a majority vote in the Assembly to move all the way to a full confederal system is certainly a bold and radical one.  It’s only a matter of months since Plaid – very sensibly – moved away from its previous position that we needed another referendum just to get the power to make a minor variation in income tax.  It looks a bit like going from one extreme to the other; but the end result is a better position to be in than part of the Labour-Tory consensus that even small changes need another referendum.
Of course, using the argument that the people will have voted for it by electing a government committed to that position means that it becomes essential that the proposition is central to any manifesto; claiming a mandate for such a change if it’s only mentioned as a vague aspiration – as independence has been recently – is simply not credible.  The proposal makes sense only as an attempt to put the question back at the centre of the party’s proposition, rather than just another way of attempting to park the question.  So, how serious a proposal it is will become very obvious when the party publishes its manifesto for the next Assembly election, I guess.
As an idea, a confederation has its merits.  For anyone who believes that Wales’ progress is likely to be gradual rather than revolutionary, it does at least set out a credible path to the acquisition of many more powers within the current UK state, whilst leaving open the option of the more radical step later.  But my fear is that what looks like a gradualist, step at a time, change in Wales will inevitably look very different from an English perspective.
Whilst it’s not clear to me at what point on the journey from where we are to a confederation the English step change would have to happen, the fact that there would have to be one is surely inevitable.  A combined UK/English government and parliament can be made to work, after a fashion, in the current context, but there would have to be a clear separation between the two in any confederal system.  That won’t look like slow and gradual change to 85% of the population of the UK.
Could the UK parties and the English electorate be persuaded that it’s a price worth paying?  Maybe, if it maintained the precious union.  Or rather, maybe that would have been possible in the past.  If a clearly thought-through proposal along these lines had been put forward in 1997 instead of the devolution proposals which were enacted, I genuinely believe that it might have been possible for the unionists to win the argument – for a lengthy period at least.  But I think it’s now too late for that.
So, that leaves us with the question – why would the English parliament and government agree to a step change in their governing arrangements of the nature required to make this proposal work when the SNP definitely, and Plaid rather more hesitantly and apologetically, are saying that they only see it as an interim solution anyway?  What’s in it for them, if they think that they will be required to undo the changes in a few years time anyway?  It’s a proposal which will only ever make sense to England if they can be persuaded that it’s going to be a long term stable solution.  And it could only be credibly presented by the SNP as the very opposite of that.  In the place where it makes most sense – Wales – we’re dependent on the Scottish and English views.
As a short term process, it looks eminently sensible from a Welsh nationalist viewpoint, but as a long term solution, it would condemn us to a foreign and defence policy which continued to be based on possession of weapons of mass destruction, and it would prevent us becoming a member of the EU in our own right.  So whilst at first sight it looks like an attractive road forward to an increasingly powerful Assembly, I wonder whether its practicability in relation to the current context has really been thought through.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, once again.

Anonymous said...

Great work John. I hope that somebody, anybody at Tŷ Gwynfor has read this piece.

Bill Chapman said...

There is a flaw here. You ask "why would the English parliament and government agree to a step change...? There is no English parliament and government, and there is no clamour for either.

John Dixon said...

Not sure that 'flaw' is quite the right word, but it might have been better if I'd said "England's parliament and government". Although I'd accept that 'UK' might be a more technically accurate term in this context, the point is that it's the governing arrangements for England that would have to change. Your point about there being 'no clamour for either' is true; but the very fact that there is no clamour - nor even much of a murmur - is why I feel it unrealistic to expect that 'England' will accept a step change in its governing arrangements in order to facilitate a gradualist approach in Wales and Scotland.