"Given how close we came to losing the Union, we ought to have the courage to choose the more radical option"by John Law / November 7, 2014 / Leave a comment
Since September’s independence referendum in Scotland, the Labour and Conservative parties have descended into an unseemly spat, each appearing to prioritise its own narrow interest above the national interest. This is, in part, understandable: for what is at stake is nothing less than their ability to control the principal legislature of the country—the raw stuff of political power. While the Conservatives saw a tactical opportunity to gain a near-permanent majority on English issues and paint the opposition into a corner by proposing “English votes for English laws,” Labour, alarmed at the prospect of losing their valuable block of Scottish votes, resorted to scaremongering, arguing that the measure would lead to the “break-up” of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, compelling responses to the “West Lothian question” are hard to find. Devolving power to cities or regions, a much-touted solution, won’t deal with the growing sense of unfairness felt in England, since many of those regions are not built on pre-existing cultural communities or historic popular allegiances. However, there is another option—the idea of a four-nation UK federation—though it has been given short shrift by a number of leading commentators, including Jim Gallagher (in the November issue of Prospect), Vernon Bogdanor, Quentin Peel and Anthony Seldon.
This orthodoxy seems to have roots in the 1975 report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution (the Kilbrandon Commission), which dismissed federalism rather summarily on the somewhat unconvincing grounds that there was “very little demand [for it] and people who know the system well tend to advise against it.” This echoed the attack on the concept made by the Victorian constitutional theorist AV Dicey, who argued that it made for weak, legalistic and conservative government. Given the subsequent success of federal states around the world—Germany, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the United States today offer solid and long-lived examples—we now know better. Perhaps it is time for a little humility on the part of the British and for asking whether we can in fact learn and benefit from the experience of other countries with different systems of government?
The critics’ main objection is that a federal UK would be heavily lopsided and thus not durable. Gallagher cites the Kilbrandon Commission as authority for the claim that “one state…