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