SUBWAYArk Drakeford is right. The threat to the union of the United Kingdom must be treated as an important issue of our time. Wales’ Labor Prime Minister says the union has not been able to keep up with the return and is fracturing before his eyes. From Cardiff, Drakeford sees little sign that the UK government is remotely upset.
Boris Johnson’s “aggressive unilateralism” was making things worse, the prime minister said Monday, a taste for “slogans, buildings and flag-waving” fueling separatism. But it does not have to be like that. The differences should be a source of strength, and could be, if Britain had the devolutionary reset it needs. Drakeford presents this case from a position of renewed strength, having rejected both anti-devolutionists and separatists in the May assembly elections.
Historically, the worm in the outbreak of the UK return is that it has been piecemeal. Northern Ireland achieved autonomy within the union in 1921. Scotland had had its own department of Whitehall from 1885; devolution only followed in 1999. The Wales Office arrived in 1965; devolution, with fewer powers than Scotland, again in 1999. There has never been an English office, nor an English parliament; the return within England, once a land of local government, has been fortuitous.
The 1999 agreement had an idealistic side, but it was driven primarily by political interests. The work again embraced decentralization in the 1990s in part because it shared the national sentiment of Scotland and Wales (though not England). However, it mainly did so to block a nationalist wave if a Labor Scotland again faced a conservative UK government that acted with the aggression that Margaret Thatcher unleashed there in the 1980s. Wales was treated as a second-rate problem. in comparison, while England was completely ignored.
The problem for the 1999 deal is that the core threat scenario never played out. Instead, in 2007, Labor collapsed in Scotland anyway. As a result, for 14 years and counting, both under Labor and the Tories, the SNP has positioned itself as the champion of Scotland in a union that relentlessly tries to subvert and trash – no, how Labor would have positioned itself, as the champion. Scotland into a delegated union that wants to make it work.
One irony is that while Labor’s underlying assumption has never been fulfilled in Scotland, it has been regularly manifested in Wales. Labor has been in power in Cardiff Bay during the current UK Conservative rule. The Welsh experience is thus much more authentic evidence than the 1999 agreement was expected to achieve. It also means that Drakeford must be heard as a witness of incomparable authority over his weaknesses.
So you better believe him when he says there is an urgent need for a new commitment. But that can no longer be another set of partial changes: additional fiscal power for Scotland here, the return of the police to Wales there. To be stable, the restart has to be an agreed compromise for the union as a whole, a joint UK project based on shared sovereignty located in four different legislatures. This is far beyond the self-interest of Labor or any other party.
The political problem, obviously, is that there is currently no other government in the UK that wants this. Conservatives are dismissive, even if conservatives are not. The SNP is actively hostile. The Irish nationalist part of the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement has no interest in strengthening the union by reforming it.
However, despite everything, this must be addressed now, in a cross-cutting and non-partisan way, in order to have the slightest hope of halting the UK’s continued descent into separatism. The task is to allow reasonable people with different mandates to work for the common good within institutions that respect each other and share sovereignty. It will have to have a federalist character, if not a strictly federal structure. Subsidiarity and consent must be essential. Above all, it must be centripetal, not centrifugal, as the current system is now.
That is an overwhelming challenge, especially given where we are now, both Westminster and Holyrood, and it is at odds with the history of these islands in many ways. It leaves Drakeford with little choice but to be his main voice in the UK, not just Wales. However, it cannot, as the Welsh government document Reform of our union inevitably it does, leaving England aside. The corrosive elision between England and Great Britain that remains at the heart of the UK parliamentary agreement, not to mention coverage of football in the UK, will not be easily undone. But it cannot remain intact.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism