“A system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85% of the population” – Gordon Brown, 2014
The “F-word” is rearing its head again in Scottish politics. Federalism. An idea sometimes presented as a “credible” alternative to Scottish independence and a way of granting Scotland greater autonomy over its own affairs whilst maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that is rarely presented in any greater detail than that previous sentence.
Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have flirted with this idea throughout their history and have been doing so again recently. In an attempt to raise the level of debate about this subject, I have just co-authored my latest policy paper for Common Weal with long-time constitutional activist Isobel Lindsay which you can read here or by clicking the image below. Isobel also has an article in the Sunday Herald which you can read here.
Federalism is often so tied up with the idea of Scottish autonomy and “more powers” for Scotland that it’s sometimes seen purely as a means of delivering that whilst remaining short of independence. This is not true. Federalism requires a radical restructuring of the way politics is conducted in the UK but it does not, in itself, speak to the amount of power that would be wielded by any particular level of government within it.
To give a very broad brush sweep, there are three basic ways that a country can govern itself. A Unitary State – such as the UK – is one in which the central government is sovereign and controls all power (though it may delegate or devolve power “down” to regional or local level, it retains the right to take back that power at will or whim). A Federation – such as the USA – is one in which the central government is still sovereign but the powers of the states below it are mutually agreed by them and often are firmly codified by a written constitution. Finally, a Confederation – such as Switzerland – is one in which the states are sovereign and they decide which powers the central government should have.
None of these models tell us much about how many of the powers are distributed (or even if they are distributed evenly or if devolution is “asymmetrical”). It is possible to construct a Unitary State in which the devolved regions control almost every aspect of their domestic affairs and the central government is retained only for foreign affairs and defence (the so-called “Devo-Max” option). Equally, it is possible to build a federation in which the state powers aren’t much more than ceremonial.
The UK, however, has a particular problem with federalism in that one of its potential states, England, makes up 85% of the population of the country. A “Four Nation” Federation with representation split solely on population would therefore have to contend with the same issues that the present unitary state has in that what England votes for, the other countries cannot prevent. The solution would be either to reduce England’s power (by balancing a Senate more evenly or by giving the smaller nations a veto – though that may result in problems of its own) or to dissolve England as an entity and form the Federation out of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. It is fair to say that the political demand in England for either of these solutions is limited to non-existent and without that, it is simply irrational to speak about Federalism anywhere else within the UK.
Finally, one of the more disturbing undertones to the talk about federalism is the idea that it could somehow “stabilise the UK”. Many federal constitutions invoke language about the “indivisibility” of their state and some – Hi Spain – have resorted to physical violence, imprisonment and political repression in order to try to thwart the democratic ambitions of one of its states. It is vitally important that governments remember that their laws are in place to serve their people, not to act as an aegis against them.
The goal of this paper is to encourage proponents of a Federal UK to stop simply throwing the slogan around and hoping that it’ll stick but to actually work to create a credible policy which overcomes the significant barriers in front of it. In particular, it must provide answers to the following key questions.
- Which model of federalism do you support?Enhanced Devolution (‘Devo-More’ or ‘Devo-Max’ but without an English Parliament or a full, written federal constitution).Four Nation Federation (each of the four home nations would have its own parliament with a federal parliament which would have either a large built-in majority for England or some form of parliamentary voting which prevented this)Three Nation plus English Regional Parliaments Federation (in which England would itself be federalised and the resulting regional-states being given equal power and status as parliaments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
- How much policy power would each state have and would this be asymmetrical – for example would Scotland lose its power to create criminal law or would Yorkshire (in the event of a federated England) have the power to set a different criminal law than Lancashire, or would some hybrid system be created?
- How much power would each state have over the federal state (which would be subordinate to the other) and would the federal state be directly elected or consist of representatives of the individual state parliaments?
- If an ‘Enhanced Devolution’ model is adopted, do you believe this can really be described as federalism and exactly what additional powers would be devolved (‘Devo-More’ or ‘Devo-Max’)?
- If a ‘Four Nation Federation’ model is adopted, what safeguards would there be against the built-in ‘supermajority’ that would be enjoyed by England, and/or what safeguards would be imposed to ensure that smaller nations did not continually use veto or other powers to thwart majority opinion in the federal parliament?
- If any state in the federation expressed a desire to secede, what democratic, legal and political mechanisms would be built into the federal constitution to assist or impede the secession?
- What path towards the proposed settlement is envisaged? This must take into account the need to achieve full public and political consent in all constituent parts of the prospective federation for the proposals, the process of developing a written constitution to enshrine the settlement which will be ratified by all the component federal states and a plan which explains how the substantial reconfiguration of the British State would be enacted in practice.
There are good reasons to argue for the reform of the UK into a more federal structure but until an appetite for such reform is developed in the four nations (particularly in England) and until a plan is presented which can answer these questions and overcome the barriers explored in the paper then the point of further discourse will be limited at best.
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