Might a ‘Celtic union’ be one route to shifting the balance of power within the UK?
Ifan Morgan Jones
One of the criticisms aimed at the Welsh national movement from the left is that, while it correctly identifies that Wales is economically and politically neglected by Westminster, it fails to recognise that much of the rest of the UK is in the same boat.
And this criticism is fair enough – the UK’s economic periphery includes large parts of England as well, not just Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Even the UK Government, with its campaign to ‘level up’ large parts of the UK, recognises this is so. In a speech this time last year the Prime Minister said that the UK “has a more unbalanced economy than almost all our immediate biggest competitors in Europe”.
Ironically, it could be that by making ‘levelling up’ a slogan but completely failing to deliver it the UK Government have only succeeded in moving the issue of regional inequality to the centre of the political debate in a way it wasn’t before.
That in turn could boost calls for devolution and independence, rather than bring the Union closer together as was the original intention.
However, while much of the UK outside the South East of England has been ‘left behind’, this hasn’t led to any kind of joined-up opposition to Westminster’s political and economic centralisation.
The reason for this is simple enough – the economic periphery of the UK has no institutions in common. There is no Parliament of The Nations and Regions Neglected by Westminster.
While criticism of Westminster from the North of England has ramped up since cities such as Manchester and Liverpool got their own devolution deals, the region as a whole has no unified political institutions to give it a single voice.
This is why any movement for more independence or further autonomy has naturally fractured along national and regional lines – within Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and their respective parliaments.
However, while there is no non-Westminster institution bringing together Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, their own individual domestic politics are moving in such similar directions that there may be more scope for them to work together.
Since the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May, all three have for the first time as their largest party a left-wing, pro-autonomy party that is critical of Westminster’s lack of economic investment and wants closer economic ties with the EU.
Wales is the odd one out in that the largest party doesn’t want to break away from the United Kingdom altogether. But Welsh Labour in a cooperation agreement with a party that does, and has set up a commission that will explore independence as an option.
And while Mark Drakeford’s Labour v Conservative fight aligns along exactly the same geographical boundaries as Plaid Cymru’s Wales v Westminster one, it’s hard to differentiate between the two left-wing parties.
The SNP and Sinn Fein meanwhile have little motivation to make the UK work, but they may find leaving a harder task than they may have hoped.
Despite everything, a sustained majority for independence remains elusive in Scotland, and there is no clear legal route to another independence referendum without Westminster’s say-so.
Northern Ireland meanwhile faces two challenges – not just to leave one country but to join another, which may not necessarily want the economic and political aggravation that would come with incorporating the six additional counties.
They may, in the near turn, have to learn how best to live within the UK for the time being while wielding as much autonomy as possible over their own affairs.
If that is the case, a short-term fix for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland might be a greater degree of cooperation with each other, as a union within a union.
Apart they make up a fraction of the UK but together they have over 10m people – 15% of the UK population. After boundary changes, they will have between them 107 seats at Westminster.
If they could find a way of working together in their mutual interest, that’s a fair degree of combined influence, particularly if the next General Election produces a hung parliament.
And even if Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do opt to leave the UK, some kind of collective bargaining could be beneficial for all.
As the UK is realising after Brexit, sovereignty alone doesn’t make you the master of your own destiny. We live in a globalised economy and so a nation’s neighbours, especially if they’re part of a larger bloc, continue to be able to exert a great deal of influence.
Being able to jointly negotiate such a relationship would lead to a better deal for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland than fighting their corner against the UK and EU individually.
And taking that step towards greater autonomy or independence together as an union, either formally or as allies, might feel like less of a step into the unknown.
And if parts of present-day England – the north, or perhaps Cornwall – want to disentangle themselves from Westminster’s influence, there would be nothing stopping them from joining the club either.
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