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Nov 28

Review: ‘The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation’, by David Melding

‘O’Neill is deputy editor of Open Unionism and formerly the author of the blog ‘A Pint of Unionist Lite’.

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David Melding is a Conservative AM for South Wales Central and also the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Welsh National Assembly. Despite voting “No” in the 1997 Devolution Referendum, he has in recent years argued strongly for a federal British constitution. His most recent work entitled “The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation” delivers a Unionist, (liberal) Conservative and federalist viewpoint which at this present juncture in our nation’s history is both thought-provoking and distinctive.

He argues that a Scottish Yes vote would obviously have consequences for the rest of the United kingdom but also the whole concept of the multi-national state elsewhere in the world:

” If a multi-national state cannot endure in Britain, where can it prosper?”

Unionists should be showing they are actively thinking about possible future outcomes for the United Kingdom before, not after the referendum.  Polls have shown that there are a large proportion of voters in the middle-ground who want more autonomy for Scotland but not independence and the danger with the present Unionist inaction is that the middle-ground may wish to send a signal and by doing so, inadvertently Scottish secession may take place through an artificially increased Yes Vote.

Melding argues in this book from a pro-Union point of view,  federal reform is much safer than loose notions of devo-max and full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. He hopes (for the sake of the Union) that “”in a very British way, we may be ‘stumbling towards common ground that could accommodate the most constructive elements of unionist and nationalist thought””.

Melding breaks up the topic into six separate sections or discussion points: the passing of the “old” Union; Parliamentary sovereignty; the political fabric of a UK Federation; fiscal federalism and economic decentralisation; Unionism and nationalism and finally the necessity for a Constitutional Convention.

The first third of the book works best for me. There is no argument that the “old” pre-Blair Union is now finished. Devolution has not (as George Robertson hoped) killed separatism “stone dead”- Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and especially the SNP remain potent political forces within their own parts of the United Kingdom.

Although turnout at the ballot box for the devolved parliament and Assemblies can hardly be described as stellar, the electorate in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales seems comfortable enough with what powers their local representatives presently employ.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 not only brought an end to the conflict (if not the serious sectarian hatreds that to a large extent underlay it)  in Northern Ireland, it also undoubtedly altered its status within the larger national picture.

So, the old Union is dead, how do the pro-Union majority ensure that there is a new, stronger one to follow?

In his second chapter, Melding maintains that parliamentary sovereignty must now be “vested in the British parliaments rather than solely in Westminster”. Both the (present day) United States and the majority of Ireland was lost, he believes, because the British parliaments of the day didn’t recognise the fact that “Home Rule” (or federalist autonomy) need not necessarily lead to separation. The argument follows that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish electorate now focus much more on their own parliamentary institutions than Westminster – in fact it could be argued that they don’t want “less of the British parliamentary tradition but more”, and as such it would be very dangerous for the Union’s well-being to frustrate their aspirations for more self-control. Therefore the first step would be a new Act of the Union stating that Britain is a federation with each of its “parliaments indissoluble and sovereign over their apportioned jurisdiction”.

In describing “the political fabric of a UK Federation” is where I think Melding starts to veer too far into the aspirational and idealistic. He believes that within a Uk Federation, there will be a need for pro-Union parties to “meet more the fully nationalistic aspirations” of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and (presumably) Sinn Fein whilst continuing to defend the “integrity of the Union”. Shouldn’t we wait for the electorates to request that the “respective nationalist aspirations” be satisfied first rather than relying on the demands whose ultimate aim, after all, is the destruction of the Union?

Admitedly, the author also stresses the inherent danger of a federation which constantly reduces the powers of the central government and also the symbolic unfying function of the monarchy but the underlying message that the union would be strengthened if we, as Unionists, should attempt to accommodate as far as possible the naturally centrifugal forces of nationalism within a Union structure is one which needs further explaining because the recent constitutional history of the UK does not prove that assertion.

Similarly the premise expressed in the fifth chapter that Unionism and nationalism would find a meeting point in federalism is which would require a great deal more evidence. Yes, the SNP leadership does presently state that some form of social union (including, for example, a shared monarchy, currency) should follow Scotland’s splt from the United Kingdom but how far is that belief (which anyway would seem not to be shared by a large proportion of the SNP’s activist base not to mention virtually no one within the Irish or Welsh branches of Celtic nationalism) simply a pragmatic or opportunitist attempt to maximise the Yes vote in 2014?

In his final chapter, Melling explains the necessity of a “Constitutional Convention” which would set down the parameters for the future operation of the United Kingdom. He uses examples from elsewhere in the world such as Iceland and Canada to describe the different ways in which this could be approached.

In assessing this book, I should point out at this juncture that I am not a federalist, indeed in the perfect world I would roll back Blair’s devolution experiment. Nevertheless, speaking objectively there are I think three weaknesses in “The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation”.

As far as I am aware, there are no other federal democracies in the world which contain such an integral part which has over 80 per cent of the whole’s population, so a UK federation which tries to operate with such an imbalance would be setting a precedent. The question of England and how it, the biggest part of our nation could be accommodated within the federal system isn’t really adequately examined

Secondly, I felt, due to its recent traumatic past,  Northern Ireland’s role needed a much closer consideration than Melding afforded it here. It’s true that Northern Ireland did act, to all intents and purposes, as fully autonomous state from 1922-1972 but it would be much more difficult in the present time for its political, financial and cultural ties to suffer the inevitable loosening that a federation would bring about.

I also think that too big an assumption is made with regard to the goodwill of nationalists towards the constitutional future of the land we share. There is not really too much of a common ground with unionists outside economic matters. Why should we be negotiating the future of our nation with political parties whose raison d’etre is its destruction?

However the book is elegantly written and outside the three points I have mentioned, both methodical and cohesive. More particularly, it opens up the debate for the future of the United Kingdom and that is important because the great weakness of the Unionist political elite (for want of a better word) has been a great reluctance to get involved in the discussion at the groundfloor; simply repeating the mantra “Better together” is not good enough. David Melding has, in contrast, thought deeply about the Union and gone to the time and trouble of setting down in print his future vision.

For anyone interested in the future of the Union or even just generally in British politics, I do thoroughly recommend ” “The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation”.

“The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation” can be purchased from iwa here; the Kindle version can be accessed here.

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18 comments

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  1. Scarecrow78

    As far as I am aware, there are no other federal democracies in the world which contain such an integral part which has over 80 per cent of the whole’s population, so a UK federation which tries to operate with such an imbalance would be setting a precedent. The question of England and how it, the biggest part of our nation could be accommodated within the federal system isn’t really adequately examined

    And there’s the rub. When you speak of the asymmetric nature inherent within a federal solution to the current constitutional set up you ignore the current asymmetry within the UK, of which England is the sole victim. You speak of England almost as if its very existence is a problem in need of “fixing”, but perhaps England isn’t the problem, but instead the Union is, which you all seem so desperate to preserve.

    I can see where all these discussions are going – the abolition of England for the sake of “Britain”. To cap it all I see the arrogance within the phrase “the biggest part of our nation” is breathtaking, which is indicative of the mindset of many unionists. England is not “your” nation Oneill, to be played with as you might see fit.

  2. oneill

    “….you ignore the current asymmetry within the UK, of which England is the sole victim”

    In this post, which is after all a book review, yes I do. However, previously on here and elsewhere I have criticized severely the devolution experiment. It has not produced good governance and it suffers from exactly the asymmetry that would probably arise in a federal state.

    ”. To cap it all I see the arrogance within the phrase “the biggest part of our nation” is breathtaking, which is indicative of the mindset of many unionists. England is not “your” nation Oneill, to be played with as you might see fit.”
    Whoah, hold on a minute.
    Are you telling me what my nation should be?
    I haven’t claimed England is my nation.
    On what basis am I not permitted to see myself as part of the British nation?

  3. Scarecrow78

    You are not English, so obviously England is not your nation, and since there is no “British Nation”, I fail to see how you can claim England as your nation, or as a part of your nation.

  4. oneill

    I was born in the United Kingdom.
    I vote in the United Kingdom elections.
    I am a British citizen.
    So, which is my nation?

    1. Scarecrow78

      Whichever nation you were born in. The United Kingdom is a state made up of three nations, and part of another, so whichever of those nations you were born in is your nation.

  5. oneill

    “Whichever nation you were born in.”

    The United Kingdom, of course, does not have a codified constitution but my passport informs me that I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
    I was born in the United Kingdom.
    Am I not entitled to call myself British or is there some other test which needs to be passed?

    “The United Kingdom is a state made up of three nations, and part of another, so whichever of those nations you were born in is your nation.”

    As I said above, the UK does not have a codified constitution; is there a law which specifies what constitutes what “nations” make up the United Kingdom?
    For example, if Cornwall, or the Shetland isles decide to declare themselves as nations, do they not have the same aspirational (as opposed to legal) rights as England, Scotland, Wales to do so?

    Your belief that people born in Northern Ireland are automatically members of the Irish nation runs contrary to the constitution of the Republic of Ireland post the Belfast Agreement:

    “As amended they grant the right to be “part of the Irish Nation” to all of those born on the island of Ireland and express a desire for the peaceful political unification of the island subject to the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Before 1999, Articles 2 and 3 made the claim that the whole island formed one “national territory”.”

    Therefore according to the government in Dublin the right of people born in NI to be a member of the” Irish nation” is simply that, a right. It is not automatic or compulsory.

    1. Scarecrow78

      You are entitled to call yourself whatever you want, but if you are not English what gives you the right to pass comment on England? I do not presume to have the right to tell the Scots, Welsh or (Northern) Irish how they should govern themselves.

      In fact I agree about Cornwall, which is unique within England, and if the people of Cornwall petitioned for independence in the same fashion as some in Scotland and Wales have done then I don’t think any should stand in their way.

      Personally I feel the people of Northern Ireland have nothing to fear from the government in Dublin, and I daresay they would be treated better as part of a united Irish state than were the Catholics of the North under UK/Stormont rule, or indeed the Gaelic Highlanders of Scotland under the Kingdom of Great Britain. Ultimately it is up to the people in the North of Ireland to decide for themselves, but it would be interesting to see how Scottish independence would go down among some sections of the Protestants of the North, who feel a closer affinity to Scotland than England.

      1. OU Editors

        Our editor is English, not that it matters. Any Briton has as much right to pass comment on the affairs of any part of Britain as you have to pass comment on those regions and counties of England that aren’t your own.

  6. Terry

    … is there a law which specifies what constitutes what “nations” make up the United Kingdom?”

    There are a number, see…
    1536 Act of Union (Wales/England)
    1603 Union of Crowns (Scot/Eng)
    1707 Act of Union Wales/Eng & Scot
    1800 Added Ireland
    1922 Part of Ireland seceded

    These are the only nations recognised within the UK. Britain is not a nation, it is a State.

    1. OU Editors

      The categories of nation and state are not ironclad and exclusive. Although it is more challenging now, in the period when British identity was strong throughout this island Britain was definitely a nation as well as a state.

      Nations are not eternal, unchanging things – they are created, they evolve, and sometimes they fade away, just like all human endeavours.

  7. Philip

    “In fact I agree about Cornwall, which is unique within England, and if the people of Cornwall petitioned for independence in the same fashion as some in Scotland and Wales have done then I don’t think any should stand in their way”

    In fact we have petitioned, not for independence, but for a Cornish assembly. It’s just that Unionist Labour politicians decided they didn’t like democracy outside of their own strict terms and decided to chuck our petition in the bin. It’s often said that there is little or no interest within what is commonly considered England for ‘regional’ devolution. This is not quite true however. 50,000 people signed a petition calling for a Cornish Assembly in 2002. At that time a Cornwall Council opinion poll put support for a Cornish assembly at around 55%. The petition was collected over a couple of months by some motivated volunteers before the age of social media. This 10% of our population met with the criteria set by Prescott for the government to investigate a ‘regions’ desire for devolution. New Labour decided to renege on this promise and ignore Cornish calls for an assembly.

    The Cornish Constitutional Convention: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

    1. Scarecrow78

      The British Government that has ignored Cornish voters’ calls for an assembly is the same Westminster government that will deny all calls for an English Parliament, or any further discussion of the issue.

      This is the reality faced by the people of England, Cornwall included, as part of the present Union.

      1. OU Editors

        We’re still waiting on that Mebyon Kernow landslide, I think.

        1. Philip

          Like the Unionist landslide you’re waiting for in Scotland?

          1. OU Editors

            We’re not expecting a landslide, no, but the comparison is a slightly mystifying one. Political unionism is very strong in Scotland still, whereas political Cornish nationalism is not in such a position.

        2. Philip

          Who knows what the future holds – 46% of kids are Cornish in 2013 : http://thecornishrepublican.blogspot.fr/2013/11/46-of-kids-are-cornish-in-2013.html

          1. OU Editors

            The leap from that to ‘Cornish’ identification being a source of political tension with the rest of the UK is a long one.

  8. oneill

    “….but if you are not English what gives you the right to pass comment on England?”

    First of all, I am a citizen of the UK and England is part of the UK but more importantly, we live in a democracy and under the concept of “freedom of speech” I am (so far) permitted to pass comment on anything I so desire!

    “1922 Part of Ireland seceded”

    The Government of Ireland act did not define “Ireland” as a nation nor did it attempt to define which nations (post the split) comprise the UK

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