Adam Price 'Benelux Britain' speech at the Centre on Constitutional Change

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Bydd arweinydd Plaid Cymru Adam Price yn traddodi araith yn y Ganolfan ar Newid Cyfansoddiadol ym Mhrifysgol Caeredin, pan fydd yn dadlau y dylai gwledydd Prydain fabwysiadu model o gydweithredu ar ôl annibyniaeth sy'n seiliedig ar wledydd Benelux.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price will deliver a speech at the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh, in which he will argue that the nations of Britain should adopt a model of post-independence cooperation based on the Benelux countries.

Benelux Britain

Re-casting relations in the post-independence era

I always have mixed feelings when in Edinburgh. On the one hand it is a magnificent city, the landscape combining with the architecture to give you a lift and a sense of dynamism. There can be no doubt that this is a capital, of a nation certainly, but of a rapidly emerging state as well.

The contrast, and the source of my mixed feelings, is with my own country and our much younger capital. We don’t have an Arthur’s Seat or a Calton Hill to act as a backdrop for our monuments and memorials.

But we’re catching up. There can be no doubt these days that Cardiff is a metropolitan city. It is increasingly conscious that it is a national centre, and one that aspires to be home to a greater range of mature civic institutions.

Being in Edinburgh puts me in mind of a former luminary of Plaid Cymru, Phil Williams, Professor of Astrophysics at Aberystwyth University, who spoke here many times during the 1970s and 1980s. Phil had an historical turn of mind and he would often begin a speech in Edinburgh with a reference to the Angles who populated this part of the world in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Angles were a Germanic people who came from the Baltic coast region near Jutland and founded Northumbria. Today, of course, this is a county confined to north-east England. However, more than a millennia ago Northumbria extended northwards as far as Edinburgh.

And as Phil Williams famously put it, the Acute Angles went northward, while the Obtuse Angles went south.

The moral of this reflection is that whether they were Acute or Obtuse, the people Phil was talking about were still Angles.

And that leads me to the central point that I want to make this evening, and it is this. When Scotland becomes independent, and when Wales becomes independent, along with England we will all still be part of Britain, still sharing many things in common.

We will be Scottish, Welsh, and English most certainly. But we will also continue to be British in some important and definable ways. As, indeed, we will continue to be European – and that is regardless of whether or not Britain leaves the European Union, a prospect I believe is receding by the day.

It was Andrew Wilson, chair of the Sustainable Growth Commission, who argued, in a speech at the SNP conference in 1999, that Scotland would find a faster route to independence if the party recognised the reality of British identity.

As he put it, “we should be intensely relaxed” that a sense of Britishness will continue following Scottish independence, as would many shared British institutions.

Of, course Britishness has its darker side. It can be inward-looking, and backward-looking to an imperial past, one that is jingoistic and Anglo-centric – which J.R. Jones, one of our greatest philosophers, described as Prydeindod. This is the ideological corset of today’s British body politic, in its last stages of putrefaction in the form of Johnson, Farage and co.

We have a completely different vision for what the future of Britain and Britishness could be. It is one where its constituent nations come together to create a new civic sensibility and a new partnership of equals. It is one that is outward looking as well, that embraces a confident sense of being at ease with a wider sense of Europe.

My main message this evening is to underline what Andrew Wilson said twenty years ago. We in the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales do not have as our objective the break-up of Britain.

To the contrary, our agenda is to remake Britain. We want to renew politics on this island. And we want to change the way its constituent nations are governed and relate to one another.

Because, in any event, Britain is already broken. Even if we wanted to, we have no need to break up Britain. Brexit is doing that for us.

Brexit has put Britain on hold, and while it stands still – rudderless, without effective government – it is fraying, not just at the edges, but right through its body politic. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving on, technological change advancing, and climate change speeding up.

Take just one statistic. In the three years since the Brexit referendum, foreign direct investment into the UK has fallen by 30 per cent. Meanwhile, in the rest of the EU, it has risen by 43 per cent.

And following from that, the number of jobs created by foreign direct investment has fallen by 28 per cent in the UK over the past three years. On the other hand, in the EU27 it has increased by 30 per cent.

New investment in the British motor industry has all but dried up – plummeting by a staggering 80 per cent over the past three years, with predicable results. Nissan has cancelled production of new models in Sunderland, Honda is pulling out of Swindon, and a few weeks ago Ford announced its withdrawal from Bridgend.

All this and we haven’t even left the EU.

Opposing visions of Britain’s future

Brexit is not just an institutional question about Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is about opposing and completely different visions of Britain’s future.

On the one hand we have the status quo, in which Brexit Britain is stuck, where political, financial and economic power is hugely concentrated in London and the south east of England, significantly known as the ‘Home Counties, and where the gap between rich and poor is among the widest in the developed world.

And on the other we have calls for radical political decentralisation and an economic re-balancing of Britain. This has long been a demand from Wales and Scotland. Now it is being articulated with increasing force in the north of England as well.

Just a few weeks ago thirty-three newspapers – including the Manchester Evening News, the Liverpool Echo, the Yorkshire Post, the Sheffield Star and the Newcastle Journal – shared the same front page demanding a “revolution” in the way Britain is governed.

They called for, and I quote:

“…a fundamental shift in decision-making out of London, giving devolved powers and self-determination to the people in the north”.

The significance of this intervention was the political character of the message, the demand for ‘self-determination’.

But the North of England doesn’t have a political movement capable of threatening the established parties at Westminster – though it is noteworthy that the Yorkshire Party won 4 per cent of the vote in the Yorkshire and Humberside constituency in the European elections.

England may be an intensely varied country in cultural terms, but politically, it has never been a decentralised system. In essence it is a Parliamentary nation, focused on Westminster.

So the main levers for the change I am advocating must be the SNP in Scotland, and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Plaid may not be making the same dramatic progress that the SNP has seen in recent years, but it is fair to say that the Welsh wheel is beginning to turn. We put Labour into third place in the Euro elections. The opinion polls are looking promising as well. The latest Yougov poll in Wales in mid-May, found 30 per cent in favour of independence, a new high. And in terms of support for my party, we’re firmly on course to form the first Plaid Cymru government following the 2021 election.

The six unions of Britain

A year ahead of the independence referendum in 2014, then First Minister Alex Salmond made a series of important speeches across Scotland, emphasising the ties that would continue to bind an independent Scotland to the rest of Britain.

His argument was that as a part of Britain Scotland was a member of six unions. And he said, Scotland would only be leaving one of them when it declared its independence – the political and economic union.

The other five would remain, and he specified them as follows:

  • The currency union
  • The union of the crowns 
  • The defence union through NATO
  • The European Union
  • The social union

Of course, the currency union acquired some controversy later during the referendum campaign, and it remains controversial to this day. In 2019 it seems more likely that Scotland will develop its own currency more quickly than seemed likely back in 20913. But, nonetheless, at that time Alex Salmond insisted that despite sharing the £sterling with England, Scotland would still have “the full taxation powers we need to promote jobs and investment, social justice and prosperity.”

Scotland, Salmond said, would retain the monarchy and remain part of the Commonwealth, but adopt a new written constitution, enshrining the ancient Scottish principle that ultimate sovereignty rests with the people.

As for remaining in NATO, he insisted that Scotland could still decide not to be a nuclear power - like 25 out of 28 current NATO members.

And as for remaining European Union, I don’t imagine that even Alex Salmond could have envisaged how fissile a factor that would become for the unity of the UK in such a short time.

In his speech Salmond put special emphasis on the social union. As he put it:

“Under independence, we will continue to share ties of language, culture, trade, family and friendship. The idea that these ties are dependent on a Parliament in London is and has always been totally nonsensical.”

But the main point I want to make this evening is the fact that Salmond lay so much stress on what the peoples of Britain would continue to share in common, even in the circumstances of Scotland gaining independence. Of course,  in doing so he was simply recognising the realities of our island life.

Just as Britain as a whole is discovering that, despite the Brexit referendum three years ago, it is caught irrevocably in the economic and social gravitational field of the European Union, similar economic and social realities bind together the peoples of Britain.

It’s a matter of finding new, more independent but also more equal ways of living together, ones that I believe will prove to be more comfortable and certainly more congenial.

The inter-dependence of nations

In those speeches back in 2013 Alex Salmond was articulating a philosophical viewpoint that has long been at the heart of the thinking of our two parties – Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Essentially, that is the inter-dependence of nations

In the first of those speeches, in Nigg on the shores of Cromarty Firth, Alex quoted Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a member of the auld Scots Parliament, who was speaking in its debates that led to the 1707 Act of Union. Fletcher recognised that close bonds of trade, language, science and ideas were already forming across Britain. They led him to make a very modern observation:

"All nations are dependent, the one on the many, this we know."

At the same time, however, he went on to warn that if “the greater must always swallow the lesser, we are all diminished."

A similar outlook was insisted upon by one of Plaid Cymru’s founders, the academic and playwright Saunders Lewis. In 1926, at our first Summer School, he delivered a lecture, The Principles of Nationalism, in which he sketched the outlines of what still today guides my party’s thinking.

Following the First World War in which he had fought and been wounded, Lewis emphasised the urgent necessity for nations to share their sovereignty. He was writing nearly 100 years ago. Yet his words have a contemporary resonance. Indeed, Saunders was so keen on sharing Welsh sovereignty he was prepared to surrender the purity of our political independence before we had even won it.

“What then is our nationalism?” he asked, and answered:

“It is this: to repudiate the idea of political uniformity, and to expose its ill effects; to plead therefore for the principle of unity and diversity…”

Note those words: unity and diversity. They were to become the hallmark of the European Union’s approach to cohesion. Then Saunders went on to declare, our Welsh nationalism was:

“To fight not for Welsh independence, but for the civilisation of Wales. To claim for Wales not independence but freedom. And to claim for her a place in the League of Nations and in the community of Europe, by virtue of her civilisation and values.”

The confederal tradition

Saunders Lewis was arguing that basing our programme on demanding the purity of independence would be to undermine it. He was in doubt that we had to gain our freedom, to assert Welsh sovereignty.

But we should only be morally justified in doing so if we were then willing to share our sovereignty for the greater good of the peoples of Europe.

In that sense Plaid Cymru’s and, indeed the SNP’s nationalism, is the opposite of that espoused by the UK Independence Party, now morphed into the Brexit Party. That is why both our parties are so ardently in favour of the European Union.

Let me briefly refer to three moments in the 20th Century – in 1956, 1976, and 1999 – when our respective parties articulated this viewpoint, sometimes collectively, at other times separately.

The year 1956 is mainly remembered for Anthony Eden’s Suez intervention and retreat, an episode that symbolised Britain’s retreat from Empire, an Empire which it continues to hanker after. But it was also the year when a little remembered but nonetheless remarkable booklet appeared, entitled Our Three Nations.

It was published jointly by Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and the Common Wealth Party. The last was founded during the Second World War on libertarian, decentralist and socialist principles, and for a while was represented by a number of MPs in the House of Commons. The booklet pressed the case for a British confederation, or as it described it a confraternity, and addressed in some detail the questions that posed:

“How can the nations of the British Isles dissolve into self-governing units without breaking up the economic integration which has made all parts of the United Kingdom so much more prosperous?

Fast forward to 1976 and the Second Reading of the Scotland and Wales devolution Bill that was being debated in Parliament in the autumn of that year. During the debate a predecessor of mine in Carmarthen, Gwynfor Evans, was called to speak and was immediately interrupted by the Swansea East Labour MP Donald Anderson. he asked Gwynfor:

“Will he confirm his view of the future of Wales as a self-contained State, with all the panoply of a State, including separate armed forces?”

Gwynfor answered that those like Anderson who were against autonomy had no faith in their country. But those who did, had a more optimistic vision of, as Gwynfor put it:

“…Wales in the future as a member under the Crown of a closely knit partnership of nations in no way subordinate one to the other in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, but freely co-operating as members of a Brittanic confederation.”

Fast forward once more, this time to 1999, the year that saw the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly. But it was also the year that saw the publication of Neil MacCormick’s remarkable volume Questioning Sovereignty.

I imagine all here will be recall the philosopher and politician the late Sir Neil MacCormick, Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at this University, and for a brief period, from 1999 to 2004, an MEP.

He was the son of one of the SNP’s founders, John McCormick. He was also a delightful and charming man, unforgettable for those who had the good fortune to meet him.

His book is a tour d’Horizon of nationalism and national identity, of the transformation of countries from being ‘sovereign states’ to becoming what he termed ‘post-sovereign states’. In particular, he explored how that idea applied to sovereignty within the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Most relevant for the line of thought I am pursuing is his concluding chapter, New Unions for Old? In it he demonstrates, to my mind conclusively, that federalism is not the answer to Britain’s constitutional dilemmas. Rather it is confederalism.

McCormick rested his case partly on the Council of the Isles that emerged out of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This is the intergovernmental body that brings together the governments of the UK and Ireland, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the constitutionally independent Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – to which this university provides the Secretariat.

McCormick argued that we should develop the Council of the Isles into what he called:

“… a league of nations equal in mutual regard of countries that are fully self-governing, but that are also post-sovereign states in the way characteristic of the members of the European Union.”

And he added:

“Fellowship within such a confederal commonwealth seems to me much better and more readily achievable than any vain attempt to transform the UK into a federal state."

The Benelux model

Neil McCormick suggested that the Council of the Isles could be the embryo of a body akin to the Nordic Council that links together Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, together with the autonomous areas of the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the Äland Islands.

The Council, with 87 representatives from the participating countries, was established in 1951. An executive inter-governmental Council of Ministers was established later, in 1971. However, most of the collaboration it undertakes is across education, cultural and climate change initiatives that suggest an exercise in soft power rather than a more cohesive economic and political agenda.

I would suggest that a stronger model for future relationships between the nations of Britain is the close collaboration that has developed between the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

To begin with, just three countries are involved, and though their population and geographical differences are not as marked as those between the three British nations, there are still considerable contrasts.

The Netherlands has a population of 17 million, Belgium just over 11 million while Luxembourg’s is only 600,000. In 2016 Belgium and Luxembourg’s GDP per head was $36,000, but the Netherlands’ was about half that. The constitutions of all three are those of a Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy. Belgium, of course, has become extensively federated, with parliaments in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels having substantial powers.

The Benelux Economic Union was established in 1949, involving the complete liberalisation of trade, free movement and the co-ordination of commercial and monetary policies.

The development of Benelux received a strong impetus with the creation of the European Economic Community, which prompted it to strengthen its own integration through the Benelux Treaty of Economic Union in 1958. This expired after fifty years, but was replaced in 2008 by a stronger Benelux Union focusing on three main areas: the internal market and economic union, sustainability, justice and internal affairs

The institutional infrastructure of the renewed Treaty identifies five Benelux institutions: a Parliament, a Committee of Ministers, an Economic Council, a Court of Justice, and a Secretariat General.

The Benelux Parliament, created in 1955, comprises 21 members from the Belgian national and regional parliaments, 21 from the Dutch parliament, and 7 from the Luxembourg parliament. The Benelux General Secretariat, located in Brussels, is the central administrative pillar of the Union. It handles the secretariat of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Economic Union and various committees and working parties.

From this brief account it can be seen that Benelux operates as a sophisticated supranational structure. It has an overarching range of political, administrative and legal institutions that, taken together, constitute a relatively cohesive confederal system, operating inside the looser framework of the European Union.

Nonetheless, who would deny that Belgium, the Netherlands, and even tiny Luxembourg are distinctive countries with a strong presence on the international stage?

Indeed, I would argue that by pooling their powers within both Benelux and the European Union, the three countries have enlarged and strengthened their sovereignty. By operating closely together they have obtained greater flexibility and reach in the exercise of national power, grown their economies, and enhanced their presence on the world stage.

So, I would argue, the analogy is readily made of what could be possible with a Brittanic Confederation between England, Scotland and Wales.

There could be political co-operation with a British-wide assembly or parliament, made up of representatives from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd, and what would, by then, be an English House of Commons. This might meet in Cardiff.

There could be a Council of Ministers, which would be an evolution of the present-day Joint Ministerial Committee of Ministers in the Cabinet Office, but reconstituted on the basis of equality between the confederal partners. This might be located in London – but why not Liverpool? That most Anglo-Celtic of all English cities.

And there could be a reconstituted court structure, with the present Supreme Court acting as a higher, confederal court, above the High Courts of Wales, Scotland and England, but below the European court system. This could be located in Edinburgh.

All this would be entirely compatible with Britain remaining a member of the European Union, but I would argue, it will be made much more pressing and necessary if Britain were to leave.

Plaid Cymru’s challenge

For us in Wales, achieving such a confederal structure for Britain means that Plaid Cymru will have to rise to the greatest challenge it has set itself. And that is, first, to form the next government in Cardiff Bay, and then lead Wales to independence in a referendum by 2030.

We will be undertaking that policy not in pursuit of some romantic dream. To the contrary, it is because we believe it to be pragmatically in the interests of Wales and also, as I have laid out, for Britain as a whole.

We want to form the next government so that we use our existing powers in the National Assembly in Cardiff to raise our living standards, improve our education, and make our health and social services more sustainable.

Then, having achieved these things, we can say to the Welsh people:

Look what we’ve been able to achieve with the limited powers we have at present. What more could we achieve if had the greater powers that independence would bring?

And at the same time we will be saying to our friends across the rest of Britain, and in England particularly:

Look, what we are about is not an attempt to break-up Britain. Our approach is much more constructive. What we are determined to be part of is making a new Britain, a confederal Britain.

We want to create a new Wales, to be sure. But this won’t be possible unless at the same time we are part of making a new Britain.

This will be a Britain in which its three nations live alongside each in equality, and as a result, in greater harmony.

It will be a Britain where economic wealth is distributed more equally. This will benefit much of England, especially northern England, as much as Wales or Scotland.

A wealth of statistics reveal how much wealth, investment, and research and development are concentrated in just one tiny corner of Britain, in London and the English south east. This is the explanation why this is the only part of Britain that produces an economic surplus. The rest is in deficit.

This systemic imbalance is the source of much of the social injustice in Britain – indeed, it was the source of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum. And it is the result of political choice over successive generations. It is in stark contrast, too, with the European principles of cohesion and solidarity.

Only a different kind of political choice can change it. As I have argued, that choice entails radically recasting the constitutional structure of this island, so that we move from the present Union State, to a more decentralised and equal partnership of nations.

In this emerging new formation, the future independent status of England and Scotland is assured. The future status of Wales, admittedly, remains contested. Formally, after all, we still find ourselves bracketed within that hybrid legal construct that is England and Wales. In rendering us indivisible, the England and Wales compound identity has left us invisible for too long.

The Welsh, as Gwyn Alf Williams said, were the first of the British and likely to be the last – in the old sense, the first and last colony, as I have styled it.

But even for us, history is accelerating.  The ancient Britons are becoming the new Welsh. And in this cauldron of rebirth, it’s not just ourselves that we are reinventing, but Britain itself.


Araith a draddodwyd gan arweinydd Plaid Cymru Adam Price AC yn y Ganolfan ar Newid Cyfansoddiadol, Prifysgol Caeredin, am 6 pm, nos Fercher 26 Gorffennaf 2019.

Speech delivered by Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price AM at the Centre on Constitutional Change, University of Edinburgh, at 6 pm, Wednesday 26 July 2019.

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