"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 consisting of 85 per cent of the population would unbalance a federal system.” He maintains that England would “dominate” and that the parliament of England “would look and feel very much like the parliament of the UK, and the government of England would be at least as powerful as that of the UK.” But this betrays a profound misunderstanding of what federalism entails. By design, there is no competition among the regional units of a federation within the common sphere of policy action assigned to them, as their territories are all separate from one another. Nor is there competition between the regional governments and the federal government, as they act within different policy spheres. An English First Minister would present no more of a challenge to the authority of the British Prime Minister at Westminster than his Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts do presently. His or her attention would be focused on the “domestic” issues of health, education, transport, housing and much of welfare, while the British Prime Minister would be dealing with the “federal” matters of defence, security, foreign policy and macroeconomic management.
George Anderson, president of the Forum of Federations, says there is enormous variety among federal regimes: “The largest units can be much bigger than the smallest ones or relatively close in size.” But Ronald Watts, probably the world’s leading scholar of federalism, observes that where a single regional unit has contained over half a federation’s population, it has been “almost invariably a source of instability.” The UK, however, has the advantage of an ethnically, linguistically, culturally and ideologically homogeneous population, with a shared history of several hundred years. There are certainly longstanding differences between the four nations of the Union, but it ought not to be beyond our wit to accommodate the natural desire for autonomy within a federal structure tailored to our unique circumstances. Both of the solutions that Watts recommends to the problem of variability in unit size—representation in a federal second chamber weighted to favour the smaller regional units and redistributive equalization transfers—could be implemented here within the framework of a federal constitution.
The federal model has a number of clear advantages. Here are four of them. First, establishing an entirely new parliamentary institution in England in a central location—Birmingham, Manchester or York, say—would solve at a stroke the old problem of perceived southern dominance and help shift England’s political centre of gravity northwards. With Westminster becoming exclusively the federal parliament of the UK, dealing with a reduced range of federal policy competences, the number of MPs could be correspondingly cut by as much as half. So there would need be no dramatic rise in the overall financial burden on the taxpayer.
Second, establishing a separate English parliament alongside those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would allow citizens to perceive clearly the symmetry between the four nations of the federation, and the equal relationship to the whole that each of them would enjoy. English votes for English laws or Westminster doubling up as both a federal parliament and an English parliament (in a “federation-lite” model) would not achieve this.
Third, in contrast with English votes for English laws, federalism would solve the problem of the “bifurcated executive”—one government acting over two different territories (with corresponding West Lothian-style representation issues). A separate English parliament with a separate English cabinet and First Minister would establish a clear division between the regional and federal realms of competence and remove the potential for overlap and conflict.
Fourth, reform of the UK parliament to reflect the new federal structure would in the process address the problem of the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords. One possible template for a second chamber would be the German Bundesrat, which is composed of appointed delegates of the Länder (state) governments, with votes weighted according to population. Imagine an allocation in which there are eight, four, three and two votes for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish government delegations respectively. By substantially boosting the relative weights of the smaller nations, the claim of English dominance would be quashed definitively. The three smaller nations could out-vote England if all agree on a given issue; conversely, England would need to find only one ally in order to gain a majority.
Within a UK federation, the four national assemblies would all be raised to full parliament status, each endowed with an equal share of powers. Each nation would be responsible for setting its own budget within this sphere, raising taxes and managing spending. The federal parliament at Westminster would retain powers only in the essential functions of common UK concern. A federal revenue base would be required to fund these services and to provide for some level of equalization of resources. As Jim Gallagher argues, maintaining the UK’s social union will require a continued commitment to equity and fiscal transfers, probably somewhere mid-way along the spectrum of existing practice, on the lines of the Canadian model.
One last point, which is central but has so far not been properly understood: federalism and symmetrical devolution are not the same thing. As Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out, historically in this country we have tended to use the term “federal” in a loose sense to mean an equal distribution of powers. Thus, the plan for “home rule all round,” put forward in response to the difficulties thrown up by the Irish home rule proposal in the early 20th century, was labelled a “federal solution.” It wasn’t; it was really a plan for generalised devolution, not true federalism. For there was no intention to alter the principle of the supreme authority of the UK parliament at Westminster. Instead, what was envisaged was the creation of four subordinate parliaments. Federalism, by contrast, implies the creation of two coordinate levels of government with powers attributed to each by a written constitution, the latter subject to interpretation by a supreme court.
Undoubtedly, moving from our present unitary system of government to a federal one would represent a major upheaval in British political life, and as such, it shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Calling a convention to examine carefully all aspects of this and other proposals for changing our constitutional arrangements would therefore seem sensible.
Federalism and symmetrical devolution would probably be the main options that such a convention would consider. Given how close we came to losing the Union in September, we ought to have the courage to choose the more radical option, and with it a wholesale recalibration of the relationship between the centre and the periphery in this country.