Thursday, 4 February 2021

Left hands and right hands


Whilst some in ‘Welsh’ Labour are trying to start an internal party debate on a federalist future for the UK, their leader in England is allegedly trying to rebrand Labour as an English nationalist party. Even if the leak turns out to be an exaggeration, it’s time for the ‘federalists’ to recognise a lost cause when they see one.

Last week, I found myself in agreement with one small part of federalist Antoniw’s analysis, namely that it’s not for us in Wales to dictate what England should do. That is not, however, the same as saying that what England decides to do is not a relevant factor when Wales thinks about its own future. The problem is that, whilst I may not want to tell England how it should organise its affairs, I can only envision two potential solutions to the English problem which might make a federal solution start to look attractive to Wales. The first of those involves England accepting that a federal parliament/ government gives equal weight and voice to all four partners despite England accounting for 85% of the population, and the second involves England dismembering itself into a number of regions, each of which has a sovereign parliament equivalent to those in the current devolved administrations. One has only to state that clearly to understand why it’s not going to happen (and Matthew Parris has a good take on the problems with the ‘regionalisation’ option here). Unless the federalists have some other secret solution which they’ve thus far failed to articulate, it just ain’t going to happen. Neither the English Conservative and Unionist Party nor the English Labour and Unionist Party are ever going to accept either of the two potential options – and Keir Starmer embracing the union flag and ‘patriotism’ underlines that fact.

Turning the House of Lords into an elected Senate of the Regions and Nations with ‘some’ (i.e. limited) powers to block legislation from a largely unreformed House of Commons (which is what some of Labour’s federalists seem to have in mind - the idea of Commons reform seems to be a step too far for them) just doesn’t cut it. It seems to include an implicit assumption that the elected members of each region or nation will act and vote as a bloc in the Senate, allying themselves with other states in the UK as and when necessary. They won’t. They will be elected as members of one or other political party and will vote as a bloc according to the instructions of their leaders. And if we look at the last few elections, that would mean a Conservative majority for England in the Senate as well as a Conservative majority in the Commons: far from acting as a constraint on English power to dominate the other parts of the UK, it would actually strengthen that ability by putting both houses under the control of government whips.

If we assume that Scotland is going to become independent (although at the moment that’s still a bigger ‘if’ than many are assuming), and that Ireland becomes reunited (that seems more certain because of demographics, although again, the timescale is likely to be longer than some are assuming) then Wales faces a simple choice. We either go our own way or accept final and complete incorporation into England. A ‘federation’ between Wales and England is simply inconceivable. Instead of trying to find some fantastic way of breathing life into a moribund and unworkable proposal to reinvent the UK, which goes against the prevailing flow of English nationalism in both the Conservative and Labour parties, ‘Welsh’ Labour needs to start thinking very seriously about where it will stand in that debate. At the moment, they’re mostly looking clueless.


Jonathan said...

Its the "clueless" that is so frustrating. These things have been part of UK political history since Gladstone. OK - exactly as you say - noone apart from lawyers and academics wants a UK Constitutional Convention aka fancies Federalism on a UK level. So, yes, Wales has to think about how to go its own way. This is perfectly possible. By the Convention process. A Welsh one. To me (as a lawyer) the obvious solution for now is Dominion Status. We can label it as something less servile, but we sell the idea to UK Govt lawyers as Dominion Status because they will recognise so many successful precedents from AUS to NZ, via Ireland and Canada under that name. Massive massive leap forward for Wales. Simply (though not easy) step from Dominion Status to full Indy if you get international recognition. Conveniently, Dominion Status will keep 2 important constituencies happy. 1 - The Queen and 2- Labour in that there will still be a channel for their precious Welfare Union. No brainer in my view

CapM said...

As you point out it's 'Welsh' Labour.
I can't see 'Welsh' Labour ever becoming actively pro-independence.

There will need to be a break away group. Maybe even party loyalists will flip especially if they calculate that climbing a shorter greasy pole in Cardiff is a better career prospect than being doomed to be forever observers gazing up as their Tory rivals climb higher on a taller greasy pole in London.

John Dixon said...


I don't think I've ever disagreed with your view that dominion status is a theoretical possible stop en route (or even maybe the final destination for some). The question, though, is how it can come about. Yes, a Welsh convention can agree on it, recommend it, promote it, whatever; but it still requires the consent of Westminster, which in practice means that either Labour or the Tories need to support it. That, I'm afraid, I just don't see happening. Or at least, I don't see it being any more likely than either of them supporting independence, but if we're facing the same problem either way, why face it for a halfway house?

You say that dominion status will keep 2 important constituencies happy, namely the Queen and the Labour Party. The first is surely not very relevant, but what is the evidence for the second? Parts of 'Welsh' Labour, maybe: but English Labour? As the proposal to become more 'patriotic' demonstrated, they're actually moving in the other direction.

Jonathan said...

" a Welsh convention can agree on it, recommend it, promote it, whatever; but it still requires the consent of Westminster" Yes, correct. This is where the key point comes, historically. What if Westminster refuses consent? Wales has a decision (as might Scotland, soon). Can you fight the refusal? That is up to the Welsh people. They might accept the status quo. But here the lawyer can help - by pointing to historical precedents for colonies which do NOT take a refusal lying down. And to say - "this is how it can go. Whether you fancy this precedent or make a new one is entirely up to you the people of Wales." Here are 3 precedents
(1) NZ - gently moves over about 100 years, arriving at modern NZ whose "constitution" looks a lot like the Westminster one. Zero violence. Helps if you are 11426 miles away!
(2) Ireland - took about 50 years. Mixture of Conventions and violence but included conscious legal/diplomatic use of the Dominion Status route when they weren't fighting. Brilliant deal with London over £, National Debt, in 1926.
(3) North Carolina: Assembly called a meeting for date in New Berne NC, Indy on the Agenda. British appointed Governor said the Agenda item Indy would be ultra vires. So the Assembly met the day before. Passed the ultra vires Indy motion. So the British Governor was faced with a de facto vote which just happened not to be de jure. (Listening Wales?) Yes it then took civil/Revolutionary War ending in British defeat at Yorktown.
I am not advocating violence. But I would point out to the Welsh that some point you are going to have to challenge something as they did at New Berne. London will not give us any version of Indy on a plate. It takes guts - but also expertise (like the Irish) and guts. So, like you, I do worry.

John Dixon said...

"What if Westminster refuses consent? Wales has a decision (as might Scotland, soon). Can you fight the refusal? That is up to the Welsh people." There's nothing there with which I can disagree, BUT...

Who establishes the convention, sets it ToR, appoints its members? Any 'official' convention would have to be set up under the auspices of the Welsh government / Senedd to have any credibility. It's too easy to dismiss the conclusions of an 'unofficial' one. And (s)he who appoints the members determines the outcome. Any convention set up by a Senedd dominated by unionist parties will only ever recommend tinkering with what exists. In practice, that means that a convention recommending independence, or even dominion status, can only ever be set up by a Senedd which already contains a majority favouring such an outcome. The convention can sort out the details, put the flesh on the bones as it were, but the argument needs to be won before such a convention can start work, surely?