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Saturday, August 29, 2009

On a federal Britain

One of the other books I managed to finish on holiday was David Melding's 'Will Britain survive beyond 2020?' It was a fascinating experience demonstrating the very impressive range and depth of David's knowledge of Welsh history, politics and culture. This is not intended as a review, more as some random thoughts on the book itself.

David is particularly exercised by the concept of dual national identity. Indeed in the introduction he seeks to define how that operates, stating that 'although British national identity has been associated mostly with political institutions and symbols, it has had a cultural dimension too.' He goes on: 'For Britishness to remain coherent it must now accomodate the explicit political character of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, perhaps sooner than we think, England.' David talks about the accomodation he himself made during the time of the 1997 referendum: 'I still considered the spheres of Welshness and Britishness distinct and not overlapping. My Welshness was in essence cultural, my Britishness political.'

I was fascinated by one passage where David talks about the demise of the unitary state, but not the union, which he says can be seen as an adventurous journey rather than a fixed destination. The union as a process, not an event!

For me the significant weakness of the book is the attempt to claim federalism as an important strand of Tory thought. There is no doubt that David himself is a federalist and that it is possible to find some quite prominent Tories who have referred to it as an option at some stage or another in their writings and speeches but I always get the impression that it was rather mentioned in passing or as a least worse option to the break-up of the union. Tories are above all else pragmatic and often will adopt ad hoc responses to unwelcome events to try and maintain the status quo. That does not amount to a coherent Conservative philosophy however.

Fundamentally, it seems to me the history of the Conservative Party has been one of fighting a rearguard action in an attempt to maintain a unitary state. It is to David's credit that he seeks to use conservative thought to fit the current circumstances of asymetric devolution and put forward proposals as to how the union can adapt to survive but he faces an uphill struggle to convince his colleagues of the legitimacy of his views.

The book particularly focussed my thoughts on present Liberal Democrat policy which has been for some time the sort of federal state that David now advocates that the Tories should support. Our policy has been based on the regionalisation of England, which of course is a valid option but does not seem to have any support amongst voters and would be difficult to implement. David makes an excellent case for an English Parliament and argues that checks and balances could be written into the constitution to ensure that England would not overly dominate a Federal Union. This would include the House of Lords becoming an elected Federal second chamber.

It is clear that it would make sense to revisit Liberal Democrat policy along these lines by updating our commitment to federalism so as to make it fit into where we are now starting from. It also appears that it would be far easier to get general acceptance for an English Parliament within a reformed UK constitution than we would for regional parliaments.
Its an interesting post you make, and certainly one for thought.

One think I do recall from the history books though is that Austin Chamberlain after he defected to the Tory Party proposed Federalism as an alternative to Home Rule. I'm not sure if the Conservatives ever wrote it into a manifesto; but it was certainly kicking around the party in the early 1900's Maybe that is where David Melding feels the Tory tradition comes from.

Though I suspect most in his party will disagree. I suspect the Conservative line post 2010 will be that the country needs a rest before theres more constitutional overhaul. They'd be wrong, the system as it is is uneven, unfair and I don't think will do well under the strain of a strong Westminster Government 'fighting' regional governments over opposing policies. Maybe they'll prove me wrong though.
I haven't read the book but while there may not be much support for regional government, there isn't much support out there for an English Parliament.

It is a terribly neat idea and I can see the attraction from a Welsh-centric idea but for those of us who would have to put up with the damned thing we would have just as little say over our daily affairs as we do at present, yet have to pay for yet another distant, centralised tier of government as before.

I'm also not convinced by this idea of the Lords turning into a federal chamber. How are these checks and balances designed to stop England dominating everything (heaven forbid that the 50 million English should have an opinion that counts for anything like as much as the all-important Celtic fringe) going to work? Equal representation in the Lords for the four nations? Again, I can see the attraction for the Welsh, but...

Over the years the Lords has evolved into a revising and constitutional chamber. It hasn't been a voice of the nations and regions - that has tended to be done by the Commons.

The English regions didn't work because they were artificial, but lots of countries operate with "regions" the size of English counties. And let's not kill off the rich tapestry of local and regional identities that exists in England out of a desire to seek parity with the other nations. Leave the flagwaving nationalistic nonsense to the fringes.
I'm afraid Mr Melding has probably now passed the point of no return. He is well out of step with Conservative thought and will probably find it uncomfortable to remain in a Welsh party dominated after the general election, not by assembly members, but by MPs. I am sure he is thinking of defecting. Whether your party or Plaid will offer him a haven remains to be seen.
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