Thursday, 11 February 2021

Constraining England


Yesterday’s post considered the question of why people might be looking for a federal or confederal structure for the UK. Today’s returns to a consistent theme of this blog, which is that any such solution cannot overcome some fundamental problems. Let me start by saying that I believe the UK in its current form to be doomed. Not, primarily, because of the Scottish question, but because of the Irish one. A combination of demographic change in Northern Ireland (the Irish-identifying population is going to exceed the British-identifying population by a clear margin in the foreseeable future) and the fact that whilst, in pre-EU times, the Republic looked like a very socially conservative place but, post-Brexit, it is the North which looks like the more socially conservative, a factor which will affect the younger generations particularly. That’s not to say that reunification is as imminent as some believe, merely that it will not be indefinitely delayed. That means that any federal system is inevitably concerned only with England, Wales, and Scotland. How can they effectively operate as a federation or confederation?

Yesterday’s post referred to the series of articles by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones on the IWA website. It is clear that Jones has given a lot of thought to the question of how such a confederation can work without England necessarily dominating. And his starting point – that sovereignty lies in the individual nations, not in the centre, and that those individual nations delegate authority over certain shared matters to the ‘Council of the Isles’ which exercises them jointly is a reasonable one in principle (although it’s notable that all proposals for any sort of federal or confederal approach always end up suggesting that Wales and Scotland should directly exercise less control over their own futures than the Republic of Ireland, Malta, or any other member state of the EU). I’m not sure that it solves the problem though, and I’ll illustrate that with three practical and relevant examples, two relating to defence and the third to currency, all of which would be delegated to the centre in the proposed model. I assume that, based on current polling trends, there is a Conservative government in England, a Labour government in Wales and an SNP government in Scotland.

1.    Replacement of Trident. Under the scenario set out above, the governments of England definitely, and Wales probably, would wish to proceed. Does Scotland have a veto? If no, does that mean that Scotland has both to contribute to the cost and host the facility?

2.    The US wants to invade a country in the Middle East and wants the UK to join in. England says yes, Wales probably says no (after a bit of prevarication) and Scotland says no. Are Wales and Scotland bound to contribute both money and young people’s lives to the pursuit of US imperialism?

3.    There is a large deficit as a result of paying for a pandemic, and a programme of austerity is suggested. The English government is wildly enthusiastic, and both Wales and Scotland are deeply opposed, but with a single currency and single central bank, only one side can win the argument.

In all three cases, the issue comes down to the same thing: does England, with 85% of the population and wealth, get to outvote the other two, or can the other two either singly or acting in consort block what England wants? The problem is, in essence, this:

·        If the English majority gets to decide all these issues, on what basis would such a structure ever be attractive to the likely governing party in Scotland? (Wales is different – I can see ‘Welsh’ Labour going along with this in the naïve belief that Labour might one day win a majority in England and the even more naïve belief that an English Labour government would be significantly different from an English Conservative government.) Whilst the range of powers delegated to the centre is more limited than at present, it still replicates precisely one problematic element of the current situation.

·        If, on the other hand, England’s actions can be constrained either by Scotland alone exercising some sort of veto, or else by some sort of weighted voting under which combined Scottish and Welsh votes outweigh England’s voice, why would that ever be attractive to either of the parties likely to be able to form a government in England, without whose agreement such a proposal is dead in the water?

The underlying issue with any sort of confederal system proposed for the UK is that it depends on the governments and/or electorates of all three countries being ready to accept it. Once the principle of sovereignty belonging to the parts not the whole is accepted, a simple overall majority of the UK electorate to ‘delegate’ powers to the central Council is no longer enough. Whilst the proposal put forward in the five articles is a valiant effort, I really don’t see how it addresses the inherent problems. It might, conceivably, have headed off the Scottish independence movement three decades ago, but it’s now far too late.


CapM said...

I won't comment in any detail on GCJ's five articles as you've dealt in some detail with the limitation of his pet project.

I find it puzzling how intelligent people like GCJ can maintain a level of denial/delusion. One of the parts eludes to the elephant taking up 85% of the room - ' a practical difficulty rests with Wales' biggest trading partner England and its uncertain relationship with Europe'
There is however zilch from him as to how the non-England bits of his federal confederation league would deal with the elephant's effluent or the consequences of "co-habitation" with a pachyderm.

I don't begrudge anyone wanting to fill their lockdown time positively but Glyndwr Cennydd Jones' time would have been better spent baking bread.

dafis said...

.... or even just using his loaf !

Anonymous said...

Why not ask the English want they want to do ... this is what will happen anyway, Wales and Scotland then have a choice, just as now!

John Dixon said...


Of course - all parties would have a choice as to what they do. Part of the problem with most 'federal' proposals is that they come from unionists in Wales and Scotland looking for a way to maintain the union without really thinking through why on earth their proposals would appeal to England. That's one of the points I was making. There is a condition to 'asking the English' though: the option to carry on with the current structure even if the Scots and /or Welsh reject it cannot be a valid one.