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