An Unequal Kingdom

“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.

Unequal Kingdom Cover

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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’)?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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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7 thoughts on “An Unequal Kingdom

  1. There’s a question missing from the list suggested by Craig Dalzell. Why?

    Why would we consider the F-thing? Even in the massively unlikely event that any of the British parties actually managed to “create a credible policy”, why would we subject Scotland to yet another round of inept constitutional tinkering overseen by the British political elite? Why would we have any faith in any constitutional settlement ‘negotiated’ with the British state?

    Even if any of the British parties were to provide plausible answers to those questions, why would we trust them? Why would we accept another ‘Vow’? Why would be be so stupid?

    Why would we settle for anything less than the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status? Why would we settle for anything less that what is ours by right?

    Why would we accept any form of association with any other nation that is not freely negotiated on the basis of equality of status? Why would we accept any arrangement that has not been negotiated on Scotland’s behalf by the government we actually elect acting under the auspices of a Parliament that can rightfully claim democratic legitimacy?

    Independence is the only acceptable starting point for any such negotiation. Independence is essential and inevitable because any devolution measure – or alternative constitutional arrangement, including the F-thing – which succeeds in terms of the aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the aspirations of Scotland’s people.

    Why would we even be talking about the F-thing?

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    • Simple reason. They demand that we dot, cross and underline every letter of our proposals but expect to simply throw out a soundbite and get away with it. No longer. Any proposal that they could come up with, we’ll be ready to respond even before they’re ready to make it.

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          • Once you start explaining, there’s no end to it. Once you start answering their questions, there’s always more questions. All of a sudden, it’s polling day – and you haven’t quite got around to talking about the fundamental constitutional issue.

            The F-thing is not an option. That is all that needs to be said about it.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. You haven’t mentioned,Dr Craig, that, the one thing Westminster isn’t allowed to do is to dilute it’s power.
    It cannot bind it’s successors, Federalism and the resulting written constitution to frame it, is not compatible with Westminster’s Parliamentary Sovereignty.
    Much the same as the Vow, Westminster can never make Holyrood permanent without keeping for itself the right to change it’s mind,at any time.
    That’s the beginning and, I think, the end of the conversation around Federalism!
    Once people understand how the Westminster system actually work’s,it becomes obvious that absent a revolution in England,it cannot happen at all.
    As I see it, when Federalism is floated,as it surely will be (and we should be ready with a response) the question that we should be asking is.

    Will Westminster give up it’s Parliamentary Sovereignty to achieve it?
    Bring it on to how Federalism will remove “The Crown in Parliament” not one of them who are punting Federalism will ever say they support that.
    Federalism is not compatible with a Constitutional Monarchy and if they don’t know that they should.
    They are just banking on.. That we in Scotland don’t!

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  3. Pingback: unDemocracy | The Common Green

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