Opinion

Westminster’s insistence on over-centralising power is once again pulling the UK apart

12 May 2020 4 minutes Read
Boris Johnson. Picture by Cancillería Argentina (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

In his book From National Movement to the Fully-Formed Nation Miroslav Hroch notes that the success or failure of national movements have as much to do with the actions of the central nation-state as they do with those leading the marches on the streets.

In the end, what really tears nation-states apart is when the central government loses its ability to compromise – it simply doesn’t understand what is driving the national movement and letting go is easier than understanding and doing what is necessary to appease them.

The central problem at the heart of UK politics is the reluctance of Westminster to let go of power. This has been at the root of all of the UK’s constitutional problems over the past few decades.

And we have seen it again over the weekend with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to steamroll Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into backing his plan to relax the lockdown.

Tensions have been needlessly exacerbated by Johnson’s refusal to properly consult with the devolved administrations and either a) agree a compromise approach and message before announcing the changes, or b) make it clear that different parts of the UK would be doing their own thing.

As a result of this attempt to strong-arm the devolved adimistrations, they have refused to budge. Now public opinion is largely on their side, and as a result the thread holding the UK together has started to fray just that little bit more.

 

Earthquake

This inability to compromise and deliberate is baffling because there is really no good reason why the UK should adopt a centralised, one-size-fits-all approach to tackling the coronavirus.

In Germany, for instance, every county has individual rules on tackling the virus depending on how severe the outbreaks are in that area. I’ve argued before that such a localised approach needs to be adopted here, too.

So why is Westminster so reluctant to see different parts of the UK as legitimate political entities to consult with or allow to do their own thing? Some would label this British nationalism, or even English nationalism, but I think these labels are themselves misleading.

There is no good reason why a British nationalism should insist on such over-centralisation of the state. The United States does not. Germany does not. Australia does not. These are ‘proudly patriotic’ nations but with very strong federal structures in place.

It’s not British nationalism at work here but the Westminster establishment. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the fact that the UK never had a revolution or independence that the nation-state is still quasi-feudal in the way power is structured very hierarchically at the centre.

But whatever is responsible for their absolute insistence on centralising political, economic and cultural power in what amounts to a City of London State is the ground zero in the political earthquake shaking the United Kingdom apart.

Conflict

One year ago this week Wales saw its first independence march when 4,000 took to the streets of the capital in Cardiff – far more than anyone had predicted.

And a year later we are experiencing a turning point for Wales which seems just as significant, when our usually rather mild Welsh First Minister has essentially been forced into a position of telling the UK Prime Minister where to go.

Now there is a growing realisation in Wales that the nation is a political entity apart and can decide to handle situations in a way that is potentially better than the UK Government.

And that coverage has all derived from a conflict that did not need to exist between the central state and the other parts of the nation-state.

There may not be any independence marches this year. But Westminster, through its own obstinance, has just given both the Welsh and Scottish national movements all the momentum they need.

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Grayham Jones
1 year ago

It time for a new wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 it’s time to be free

Theresa Green
Theresa Green
1 year ago
Reply to  Grayham Jones

No such state as “free” Wales is part of UK and needs to stay that way for the benefit of itself and the UK.

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
1 year ago
Reply to  Theresa Green

Union may benefit England but it is and always has been one-way traffic. The UK won’t last much longer if this government chases a No-Deal Brexit in January anyway. Wales may well have no choice in the matter within 2 years. Start getting used to being and acting as a responsible people. If you don’t it could be a traumatic shock when, not if, it happens.

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago
Reply to  Theresa Green

No nation state exist as a consequence of some inescapable necessity; in essence they’re all arbitrary constructs which only exist as long as they cohere. So the fact that Wales is part of the UK doesn’t in any way imply that the current state of affairs is immutable. But for that sort of change to happen, enough people have to seriously want change and be prepared to accept the risks inherent in the transition – as, for example, was the case with Ireland a century ago. And they have to have the clout and/or the ingenuity to effect the change… Read more »

Sibrydionmawr
Sibrydionmawr
1 year ago
Reply to  John Ellis

But as was the case with Ireland in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, public opinion can rapidly change and that can create the critical mass required to make such changes such as striving for independence.

It’s very early days, but could we be witnessing a move towards the driving desire required? Who can tell?

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago
Reply to  Sibrydionmawr

Indeed public opinion can change, and sometimes remarkably quickly; to take a small – when compared with the present crisis! – relatively recent instance, Gordon Brown was hailed by (nearly) all as hero for his confident leadership role in the early days of the financial crash and rode high in the polls but only a couple of years later he was generally viewed as a much diminished figure and he lost the general election. Right now we’re in the midst of a crisis which makes 2008 look trivial in comparison and which has had incomparably more far-reaching impacts on ordinary… Read more »

DILWYN Ellis ROBERTS-YOUNG
DILWYN Ellis ROBERTS-YOUNG
1 year ago
Reply to  Theresa Green

Would you be willing to share your thoughts on the benefits of staying in the UK please Theresa?

Huw Davies
Huw Davies
1 year ago

did you just hear that ? Ugh, ugh, ugh failure, failure, failure, failure, nothing to say, words not coming, ugh, ugh, ugh………. toolkit please !

j humphrys
j humphrys
1 year ago

Had email am from English friend, wondering whether he could be bothered to read 50 pages of “clarity”.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
1 year ago

“The central problem at the heart of UK politics is the reluctance of Westminster to let go of power. This has been at the root of all of the UK’s constitutional problems over the past few decades.” No. Just plain wrong. Based on a misunderstanding of how the English think. Go back to Heath, Major and on. The problem is that the Welsh will not unite and demand self-rule. We are divided and fight one another and we don’t really think enough about our own economy. If Wales were to organise and demand, say, Dominion status (3/4 of the way… Read more »

Lynne Edwards
Lynne Edwards
1 year ago

Centralisation of power in Westminster has very ancient roots. England (and I do mean England) became a strongly centralised state a thousand years ago whilst most of the current states in the rest of Europe were a patchwork of city states and complex fiefdoms. What is now France could not have attempted to put together the Domesday Book for hundreds of years after the Normans did it in England. Neither could what are now France, Germany, Italy, Spain or even smaller states like the Netherlands or Belgium. In many other countries power was given by smaller units to the centre.… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
1 year ago

Welsh Indy Parties now lagging behind the people?

Malcolm Russell
Malcolm Russell
1 year ago

I completely agree that the UK Government believes that what is right for London and the South East of England is right for the rest of the UK.
This applies not only to the current situation but to many other decisions that have been taken in the past.
Before I moved to Wales I lived in Yorkshire and it was apparent that the UK Government do not understand the needs of areas outside of the South of England.

Jonathan Gammond
Jonathan Gammond
1 year ago

The international commentariat are giving the UK government an absolute pasting… once again. As for politicians, they seem genetically incapable of sharing or delegating real power, whether in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Brussels, London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, they seek to centralize, standardize and control. It has to be the kind of people who are attracted to and succeed in politics. Unless someone else has a better explanation.

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago

I spent the best part of 25 years increasingly closely involved in the local politics ofr the areas where I then lived, and I think there’s good deal of fact in the explanation which you suggest!

Huw Davies
Huw Davies
1 year ago

No matter how well adjusted a person is when entering formal politics I reckon that within 5 years of sitting in a Senedd or Parliament or whatever, most of them undergo a metamorphosis and become power crazy freaks. There are noble notable exceptions but very few and far between.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 year ago

The problem in Westminster isn’t necessarily the whole establishment but mainly the Conservative part. Other parties are now beginning to realise that a new sort of union in the British Isles needs to be established. So long as the Tories are in power it will never happen though Westminster Wales needs to now take the matter in it’s own hands and claim Self Determination regardless what those in London think. Now is the time.

Charles L. Gallagher
Charles L. Gallagher
1 year ago

Ifan, it’s not just a reluctance over the last few decades, it’s a problem going back centuries and the Tories/English Establishment’s ‘bone-headed’ belief that they have a God-given right to rule!!! Just ask any, now free from this shower in their ‘Precious Empire’?

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago

One intriguing development over the last three days or so is that while Westminster government ministers continue to bang on blithely as if their jurisdiction was absolute in all things across every part of the UK, the UK-wide media have started routinely employing the rider ‘in England’/’in the case of England’/’applying to England’ in their references to the easing of lockdown first heralded by Bunter on Sunday evening. I noticed it in various TV news bulletins in the last couple of days, and on UK news websites such as ‘The Independent’. If the distinction wasn’t much made before, it is… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
1 year ago
Reply to  John Ellis

That’s right. And it’s going slowly Europe-wide, as I’ve noticed it on DW tv and France 24, though not so much
on Finnish tv, though they did mention, last night.

Lynne Edwards
Lynne Edwards
1 year ago
Reply to  John Ellis

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