The UK is arguably facing its greatest existential challenge to its territorial integrity since the partition of Ireland over a hundred years ago.
Independence is very much a live issue in Scotland and has been growing as an issue in Wales. In Northern Ireland the debate around the position of six of Ulster’s counties in the world post Brexit has crystallised around the Northern Ireland Protocol and the potential to unravel the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Any sense of European identity that helped to bind us together has gone with the UK’s departure from the EU. As there has been a departure from one union so there is debate in different parts of the UK as to whether this should lead to departure from another.
Yet it is far from clear if there is a majority anywhere in the UK at this moment in time to end a political arrangement that has been in place for hundreds of years. There is however an active debate as to what that arrangement should look like in the future. The UK, despite devolution, is still a state where power is held centrally by the Westminster Parliament. It claims supremacy and the right to do as it wishes. This model is one which may have stood the test of time in the past but which faces significant challenges in the future. The UK has, in the main, been flexible in creating constitutional change in years gone by as the establishment of devolution followed by its extension has moved forward in different parts of the UK. Yet there are many parts of the UK which are still to obtain for themselves the voice that they deserve, in particular the regions of England.
For some the solution lies in independence, for others in turning back the clock and removing devolution from the UK’s constitution altogether. Neither of these views has majority support at the present but there is a duty on us to think about what the UK might look like in the future. If the UK remains too inflexible in its structure, then there is every chance it might crack in the future. The failure to be flexible and deliver Irish home rule in the pre First World War period led directly to the departure of most of that island from the UK as more radical voices began to be heard by people there after years of waiting.
There are many possible models for a future UK. A minimalist approach would be a simple extension of the current devolution process but that would leave ultimate power in the hands of one legislature. In the absence of a written constitution there is always a danger that a future UK parliament could reverse some or all of the devolution process although the political fallout would of course be profound. Proposals such as a UK federation or confederation all have their advocates and all have their strengths and weaknesses.
Glyndwr* has been an important part of the debate around constitutional futures and I welcome his latest contribution to the ideas that have been generated, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit. We will all have our thoughts as to what the future relationships between the nations of these islands should look like but it is important that there is an informed debate on what kind of future would get the greatest possible support from the public.
Constitutional change is unfinished business in the UK and will remain so until a lasting settlement can be agreed. Any state where a significant portion of its territory votes in large numbers for parties that wish to leave it has to ask questions of itself and find ways of alleviating the concerns of those voters. The difficult part is finding those answers.
This publication will help charter a course which enables us to secure a future UK where its advantages such as fiscal redistribution and the lack of trade barriers within its territory can be preserved while at the same time redistributing power away from the centre. That debate has acquired far greater urgency over the last decade and it is incumbent on us to find solutions.
- This is a review of the booklet, A League-Union of the Isles, by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones. Carwyn Jones was First Minister of Wales 2009-18