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Could a federal UK work?

Writing: Max Hunter

Perhaps Brexit has done us a favour. There is no denying that it has thrown our politics into shambles. Our internal dialogue has now become increasingly dark, introspective, and confused. Our politics seem in terminal crisis, as pressures are put upon our body politic that threaten to rip it apart in several directions. It is an intractable, stability-threatening, and hellishly confused issue which has renewed attention to the inadequacy of our constitutional arrangements. A once mighty but now embittered England, clinging to lost imperial grandeur, threatens to drag its bed-mates out of the largest trading bloc on earth against their wishes. Scotland voted overwhelming to stay in the European Union, the margin being 62% in favour of remaining in the EU. Perhaps more significantly, the support for the EU wasn’t concentrated in privileged, metropolitan urban areas. Instead, all 32 council areas across Scotland voted to remain.[1]

In Northern Ireland the situation was similar. Perhaps sensing that a key plank of the delicate peace that has prevailed in the country since 1997 is the maintenance of a soft border with the Republic of Ireland, 56% voted to remain. [2] In this vote, as has been noted by Cambeul in his article, the constituent nations of the UK were not given any kind of individual powers. They voted in aggregate, as a unified whole. The referendum result, however, has thrown that unity into greater question than it has faced for many years.

The British constitution is murky, and perhaps deliberately so. In legal terms, we live in a modern form of hyper-democracy, set within the crumbling structure of a feudal empire. Our constitution is not forged of Enlightenment ideals but is instead an uneasy and pragmatic compromise. The union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was not a spontaneous joining together of equals for mutual benefit. It was a union achieved and maintained through periods of bloodshed, domination and uncomfortable co-existence. Of course, the story is more complicated than that, but it is not the purpose of this essay to recount how we got here.

Suffice to say that the UK is not the standard candidate for a federal union. Britain has never known a written constitution, despite enjoying the longest history of unbroken parliamentary democracy in the world. Where power really lies has always been unclear. Today, we have a central Westminster parliament that agrees, by virtue of the Sewel convention, not to legislate on areas given to the national assemblies, whose powers are so unevenly devolved that only one of them is called a parliament. All of the nations within the UK have a devolved legislature but England must be content with ‘English votes for English laws’, a frankly gimmick-like measure for substituting the English MPs at Westminster for an English parliament without having to bother building a separate one.

There is something very British about such a gimmick. Avoiding ideological purity in our governing arrangements, we prefer to stick with what works. Our lack of a written constitution allows for such flexibility, and the disparity of devolution perhaps allows for discriminatory policy to fit diverse circumstances.

We have become, or perhaps we have always been, somebody trying to keep their roof from caving in by adding another timber beam to hold it up, whenever a section of the wall starts sagging. This will work up to a point (and I’m not sure there isn’t something to admire in the intent), but there are moments in history when the roof does come crashing in. If Brexit isn’t handled properly, we could soon be standing amongst rubble. And even if our roof does remain standing, we will hardly be able move in our own home from all this timber. If we take as a given that we want to continue living in this house, with the same flatmates, then we can discuss renovation. If our flatmates are just plain sick of us- which perhaps they have a right to be- then the following exercise will be futile. We should also consider what we mean by ‘what works’.

We should also be asking who our government works for. At the moment, our governing arrangements, with their careful and reluctant delegation of power outwards from the centre, are intended to maintain ultimate control for the centre. Our lack of a written constitution gives us flexibility, but perhaps it gives flexibility to the wrong people. We are now one of the most centralised states in Europe.

How do we create a federal United Kingdom? Federalism entails a democratic union of composite parts, each with their own state government and a unified central government in which they each have a guarded stake. There would be some areas of policy-making reserved to the federal government, and some that are left to the composite parts to decide on their own. Crucially, these policy areas must be carefully set out in a written constitution, and they must be uniformly observed. This ideal is a world away from the piecemeal, haphazard and asymmetrical devolution that we have now. A vital distinction must also be made with regard to terminology; ‘devolution’ entails power granted downwards from a central government that remains officially sovereign; ‘federalism’ entails power being granted upwards from the composite parts, with consent, to the central government.

The elephant in the room is England. By far the largest of the four nations, with 85% of the UK’s population and the lion’s share of its economic output, England threatens to derail our plans for renovation. A federal union can work with inequality between the members, but this is usually within unions of several more states than four. If a federal UK government gave an equal vote to each of the four nations, England would suffer a severe democratic deficit. Despite containing the overwhelming majority of the UK’s population, it could be outvoted on any issue. Furthermore, a two-versus-two scenario would lead to inevitable and probably frequent deadlock. When examining plans for UK federalism, a four nation approach always appears unworkable.

Alternatives to the ‘four nation’ approach usually involve dividing England up into smaller segments so that a semblance of equality could be maintained between the UK’s composite parts. On paper, there is much to commend in a plan that could bring tax raising and spending autonomy to England’s beleaguered regions. However, this brings its own problems. Firstly, attempts to devolve power to England’s regions have been met with public apathy, and in some cases hostility. An example of this is the 2004 North East England Devolution Referendum, where 78% voted against the idea for a regional assembly for the North East of England.[3] We must be careful when we read into this. It may well be that the inhabitants of North East England were simply fed up with politicians and didn’t want to hire another group of them. Cynicism and disillusionment with Westminster politics is now a unifying force for people all over this country. More likely, I think, there is little understanding in England of the necessity of making federal plans. From an English perspective, our current arrangements look pretty palatable, without any pressing need to dissolve themselves. If such a dissolution did take place, it must be seen to be equally born by each of the four nations.

There is a map on my wall. It shows the British Isles in the 1920s (the Irish Republic is yet to be born, and the land south of the Irish border is charmingly labelled ‘Free State’). The four nations aren’t coloured differently. There is no pretence of smoothing over the complex, intricate and overlapping destinies of the peoples of these islands by pigeon-holing them into four distinct categories. The cartographer has chosen counties for her dividing lines. Sussex is a different shade to Kent, and Angus is different to Fife. Armagh retains its character next to Down, and Yorkshire’s three Ridings don’t have to bare the embarrassment of being confused with each other. Issues of identity are always too complex for the constitutional lawyer to fully grasp. And perhaps they shouldn’t try. A sound rule of thumb is to prefer the local to the national, and to bring power as close to the people as can be feasibly arranged. The county lines of the United Kingdom bare close relation to historical, ethnic, linguistic and cultural facts. They certainly, at least in administrative terms, bare closer relation to structures that have existed continuously for a thousand years. Unlike nations, they are numerous, small and diverse enough to be workable composite parts of a federal union. Such an arrangement would be fitting with local identities, and would avoid provoking the divisive forces of nationalism. Local identities are too small to be destructive of the whole, but fierce enough to enact loyalty to the new governing structures that we would need.

The counties of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England would combine as roughly 90 federal units. Each already has its own administrative structure and legislature. These local governments could be combined with a national government formed of representatives of each, perhaps to replace our archaic House of Lords. The problem with a four nation model is that the needs and interests of Hull differ immensely from those of Torquay; lumping these diverse locations in together is unnecessarily problematic. My county model is merely a suggestion, intended to shine a fresh light on a tired subject, but much more work needs to be done, especially with fleshing out how this arrangement could realistically work. It could provide the opportunity to secure a lasting union, and act as a genuine and radical move towards localism. The United Kingdom’s shift to federalism is an issue that needs careful and immediate deliberation. Brexit has thrown us into a fit of confusion, but perhaps in the long run, we will be grateful for the reminder that our democracy and stability cannot be taken for granted and that instead, they require careful and continuous work. Federalism would be a huge change to our governing structures, which have evolved, with a remarkable degree of continuity, from the Middle Ages. In the end, whilst I admire our national habit of piecemeal preservation of a sagging wall, this is a time for regeneration.

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