We must reform the UK’s dysfunctional constitution to avoid a populist break-up

Mick Antoniw. Picture by the Welsh Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Mick Antoniw, Labour AM for Pontypridd

Eleven years ago I wrote an article for Tribune magazine, commenting on the Constitutional implications of devolution. I said we had ten years to sort out the dysfunction of the UK constitution and the English question or the UK risked breaking up.

The dysfunction remains and has become chronic. We are now facing constitutional meltdown. Brexit and the removal of the EU Constitutional umbrella expose the inherent fracture lines that have been increasing ever since 1999.

Since the Kilbrandon report in 1974 and until recently, there has been little detailed and comprehensive thought given by Parliament to the importance of the UK’s largely unwritten constitution.

Over the years, as devolved and decentralised government has progressed, the glaring lacuna in the rules and conventions that govern the relationship between the nations of the UK have largely been overlooked or disregarded.

All Governments and political parties have failed to recognise this growing crisis and have been oblivious to the potential consequences for the UK. On the one hand as the powers of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have begrudgingly been increased on an almost ad hoc basis, at the same time the inability of Westminster to recognise its own need for reform has become more acute.

The cataclysmic effect of Brexit has exposed this dysfunctionality. It is clear to most observers now that King Constitution has no clothes, or not many…

The writing has been on the wall for some time. During the Scottish independence referendum there was an opportunity to redefine the purpose of the UK; but in the absence of any credible answer to the question, “What is the purpose of the UK?” many Scots opted to vote for independence.

In Wales, where “independence” has had little support, the debacle in Westminster has resulted in many beginning to question our relationship with the UK.

Change, one way or another, is underway. Precisely what that change is, remains to be determined.

Populist

There is a need for a progressive analysis and solution. And we know from history that if we on the left do not provide that answer, those on the far right, the Tory Party and Brexit fanatics, will.

As a socialist, I am opposed to the ideology of nationalism. Socialism and nationalism as we know from history do not make happy bedfellows.

The problem is that the use of the terms “nationalism” and “independence” have often been ill-defined and abused by those using them. They have usually been used alongside flag-waving, populist speeches, romantic and historical mythology.

In reality, their use has increasingly been synonymised with separatism per se, with little reference as to the economic and social implications, particularly for ordinary working people.

Labour’s ideological position has traditionally been one that is class-based; self-determination and decentralisation of power, and the empowerment of people and communities, as opposed to Plaid Cymru’s nation-based approach.

The independence march in Merthyr Tydfil on 7 September. Pictures by Lluniau Lleucu

Centralised

The immediate point I make is that there is a need for civilised and rational debate. There is a need for political parties on the centre and left to come together to work out a solution and a way forward.

Much work across all political parties and across UK parliaments has already taken place. There are a plethora of reports, documents from constitutional and legal committee analysis, nearly all of which says the current mechanism for inter-governmental relations within the UK is not fit for purpose.

The Joint Ministerial Committee does not work. It needs resources and mechanisms for dispute resolution. Brexit has broken the Sewell Convention. International trade agreements at UK level will drive a coach an horses through the devolution settlements and the proposed shared prosperity fund is likely to lead to a recalibration of centralised government in Westminster undermining the devolutions settlements.

Is it any wonder that people are questioning the future of the UK?

Principles

These are dangerous times indeed. A populist break-up of the UK raises many questions:

  • Will we retain the pound?
  • How independent can Wales be while tied to a London based fiscal system?
  • For all its faults, do we really want to see a break up of the UK Welfare State?
  • What about the Welsh financial deficit? Current arrangements may not be satisfactory but there is still a £13 billion deficit to account for.
  • Do we really want to leave the UK and the system of wealth redistribution that exists? Walking away from this would drastically impoverish many of those who are already the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
  • Is a decentralised or federalised UK constitutional structure the likely way forward?

It is clear to me that a UK wide constitutional convention is long overdue.

This means that everyone has to buy into radical constitutional reform of the UK, governmentally and financially, a redefining of the role and function of Westminster, clear constitutional rules with a common Supreme Court acting as a constitutional court to resolve disputes.

Clear principles must underpin the purpose of the UK and its function. Foreign affairs, defence, economic wellbeing, equality and redistribution of wealth.

And finally, a referendum for the whole of the UK on a nation by nation basis to either buy into a new revigorated UK or to go their own way.

The alternative, after years of Brexit chaos, is many more years chaos and confusion as the UK, year by year, disintegrates into yet deeper chaos and decline.

Its time to have this serious and open conversation. We cannot afford not to.

Mick is the Labour Assembly Member for Pontypridd, a lawyer and Chair of the Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee

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John Young
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John Young

‘What about the Welsh financial deficit? Current arrangements may not be satisfactory but there is still a £13 billion deficit to account for’. When an ordinary bloke on the street refers to the £13 billion deficit quoted by the likes of the Daily Mail I can, to an extent, understand him believing the figures. If it’s quoted in the press it must be right mustn’t it ! But when AM’s, people with access to ALL the data not just two numbers for God’s sake, quote the same thing it really astounds me. I had a face to face conversation with… Read more »

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

Without going into too much detail, it’s important to remember that these days money is just an accounting system, not real wealth. On the contrary, given that 98% of UK pounds is created as interest-bearing debt, it’s accurate to say that the modern debt-based money system represents negative wealth – it is making us poorer, not better off. Its purpose is to facilitate a massive and daily transfer of money from real wealth producers (workers) to wealth extractors (financial sector). The first nation to eliminate (or at least control) this growing financial parasite will rapidly become the most free and… Read more »

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

Populist = popular = voice of the majority. Isn’t it odd how the political class across the entire spectrum uses the term “populist” in a scathing derogatory manner? Associating common sentiments and concerns with “right-wing extremism” is a desperate measure and smacks of extremism in it own right.

The truth is that modern technology has rendered political parties obsolete. The era of direct democracy is beckoning us. Expect a big fight and FUD from political party dinosaurs before they give way to an emerging Gweriniaeth – a nation run by the people, for the people.

Margaret H
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Margaret H

The problem with direct democracy is that people need to be fully informed of all the issues before they are able to vote in a responsible way. To take a trivial example, my father, a keen dancer all his life and even into old age was always infuriated by the modern version of Strictly Come Dancing. This was because the people who progressed from week to week were not always the best dancers, they were the most popular personalities. The ones who were amusing were voted up, the ones who actually performed better often went home. This may be fine… Read more »

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

The idea that we need a small group of “experts” to administer and regulate our lives “for our own good” is a reoccurring theme among those who like to hold power over others. Yet over-centralisation of power and top-down decision making is largely the reason why we are in such a mess. It is the people on the ground, people who have to deal with the complexities of daily life who are the real experts. Collectively, our intelligence and ability to make sound and informed decisions far outweigh the abilities of any number of cloistered “experts”.

Rhosddu
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Rhosddu

It would help to make those you refer to as being in “ignorance” better-informed if we had a media in Wales that dealt with the issues that matter rather than with ephemeral trivia.

Penderyn
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Penderyn

“ historic labour traditions of self-determination, decentralisation of power, and the empowerment of people and communities“

I dont think huge swathes of Labour have actually believed or acted on that in Britain. They are happy with a highly centralised state in London.

Growing up , the Welsh around me only were against self rule for unfounded economic worries not for any love or loyalty to the establishment

Jonathan Edwards
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Jonathan Edwards

Completely agree that the UK needs a Constitutional Convention. But so does Wales – a separate one. I wonder if Mick Antoniw would accept that Wales should have Dominion Status ie large amount of self-rule but in a federal system in the UK? But for this to happen Welsh voters need to want self-rule, and say so in a Wales Constitutional Convention. After all, at the UK Convention they’ll have to deal with England and Scotland and N.Ireland, all very messy.A strong and clear Wales input would make it all much easier. Yes, Constitutional Conventions all over the UK. Its… Read more »

Sian Caiach
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Sian Caiach

Populism is not necessarily right wing, and never fascist. Fascists don’t like democracy, generally and try to avoid further elections and are usually led by exceptionally dominant and charismatic men, clearly in short supply these days in the UK, who believe the people cannot rule themselves well enough, and need self selected leaders and a mass movement of devoted and unquestioning followers. Populists are into improving democracy, consultation and better representation of the people and challenging corrupt and distant elites. Their politics vary but all respect “popular will” and their greatest support is amongst those who feel their voice is… Read more »

Petroc Ap Seisyllt
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Petroc Ap Seisyllt

Mick is right, we need reform, and we need fair play. Wales is still short changed by the Barnett formula. The poorest region gets less than the richest (London) of total public spending . The heads of the valleys road is an embarassment. linking 1 million people of Western europes poorest industrial communities, still not finished . Not even dualled for the full length or plugged into the motorway network. Forget the Newport M4 bypass, finish this road! And give Wales all her powers back from the EU power transfer, no quibbles, all powers and funding. However the misuse of… Read more »

Dafydd ap Gwilym
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Dafydd ap Gwilym

Duw he loves wales, but obviously hates Cymru, but hey he’s a unionist. I am a socialist, I have never thought myself or called myself a nationalist, I am a patriot, I love Cymru and I do not want to see what is left of our land here (or in Kernow) swallowed up by Anglo-British career politicians, handed to Westminster and ermine chasing Labour social climbing arrogant people like Antoniw. Our ancestors were here living relatively peacefully until the Roman came and screwed it all up bringing capitalism with them and leaving residue like this holier than though piece of… Read more »

Siobhan McGurk
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Siobhan McGurk

I’d say what “has no clothes” is Welsh Labour thinking they’re socialist. It sounds an awful lot like you are using socialism’s traditional hostility towards nationalism to avoid answering – in detail- why you oppose independence for Scotland and Wales. Because, if we break it down, Welsh Labour are not – in reality- socialist. You’re centre-left at this point. And it’s hard not to be suspicious of people who remained part of the Labour party under Blair, when centre-left was a generous description. The idea socialism eschews nationalism has never been coherent anyway. How can we have nationally-based parties who… Read more »

TET
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TET

” I said we had ten years to sort out the dysfunction of the UK constitution and the English question or the UK risked breaking up” – they didn’t listen to you then are they going to listen now – unlikely. Independence has answers to give, and it’s forming them at the grassroots, there is disagreement but it’s a conversation that is happening. What is clear to me and many others is not only is the reform of the UK highly unlikely, its come to the point where its become a bigger lie than Brexit. Ultimately even within the EU… Read more »

JR Humphrys
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JR Humphrys

A wee sideline; N Ireland current poll. For United Ireland 51%, Against 49%. UK break-up inevitable anyway.

Keith Darlington
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Keith Darlington

I must say it is quite a shock to hear a Labour politician calling for a written constitution. It’s a pity Corbyn has nothing to say about this or, for party political reasons, wants to avoid doing so. Labour has consistently resisted constitutional reform under Corbyn and virtually all his predecessors. They resisted electoral reform – preferring the disastrously outdated First Past the Post system electoral system which has helped inculcate the winner takes all view of politics. They largely imposed this system on the Welsh Assembly in 1998 meaning that we have permanent Labour power in the Assembly on… Read more »

Keith Darlington
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Keith Darlington

I must say it is quite a shock to hear a Labour politician calling for a written constitution. It’s a pity Corbyn has nothing to say about this or, for party political reasons, wants to avoid doing so. Labour has consistently resisted constitutional reform under Corbyn and virtually all his predecessors. They resisted electoral reform – preferring the disastrously outdated First Past the Post electoral system which has helped inculcate the winner takes all view of politics. They largely imposed this system on the Welsh Assembly in 1998 meaning that we have permanent Labour power in the Assembly on a… Read more »

Jonathan Gammond
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Jonathan Gammond

Rather than rushing into any decisions, we could probably do with a series of a royal commissions to do some serious research and nation-wide consultation into the many issues involved around the current state of the UK constitutionally, options for future relations between the constituent nations and regions, subsidiarity, de-centralization and co-operation, and a future constitutional settlement. If the debate is going to be restricted to the political parties, with their tribalism and short-termism, then even a constitutional convention will struggle. We have had too many poorly thought through ad-hoc bodge jobs over the past twenty plus years and look… Read more »