Federalism – The Answer to a Question Scots Aren’t Asking

A Federal UK (the Federal Kingdom?) is a recurring theme for more progressive unionist politicians in Scotland, as well as a certain section of the commentariat. It’s a sensible idea; the UK is a large, diverse country, and despite significant devolution to the small fringe nations remains highly centralised for most of the population. The problem is it keeps being posed as a vague alternative to independence, rather than a serious project. And it’s a conversation a small clique of Scots are having amongst themselves, not the inclusive UK wide debate it needs to be. There are a whole range of issues that must be considered – and most have little to do with Scotland. This post is basically so I have a “right, but it’s not that simple” button to press every time this issue pops up.

Whilst some supporters of independence heap scorn on claims that “Scotland has the world’s most powerful devolved parliament”, it’s not necessarily wrong. Devolution has come a very long way. Direct comparisons are hard as no two federations or autonomous regions are identical, but in many areas Holyrood does match or exceed the powers held by some federal states. A federal UK has very little to offer Scotland that devolution doesn’t already. Scots would undoubtedly back federation in a single issue referendum, but it’s neither an exciting prospect nor a hard sell for us.

Trying to make Scotland the focus of the campaign for a federal UK isn’t a simple resolution to Scotland’s constitutional status. That’s not to say a re-balanced and federal UK wouldn’t shift some views. But we aren’t the ones that need convincing. It’s not going to work as the centrepiece of constitutional reform for any Scottish party. The rest of the UK has to buy in too, and therein lies the biggest hurdle – England. I know, I know, a Scottish person saying “The English are the problem!” is so cliche… but in this case it’s true!

Do people in England want a federal UK? It doesn’t seem so. Despite two decades of devolution, England shows little sustained desire for seriously reforming their internal governance. Sure, folk were agitated about English Votes for English Laws, and obviously most English voters wanted to leave the EU. But these are external influences on English governance. There isn’t a serious campaign for any change to the fact that the source of all English legislation and regulation post-Brexit will be Westminster. To change that, there needs to be at least a rough outline of what a federation would look like.

How does England fit in a federation? A single English state would seem the obvious option, but then with 85% of the UK’s population it would give us one of the most lopsided federations anywhere on the planet. That may not kill the idea in the crib, but it is a difficulty. Any sensible federal structure represents the states in the upper house, which requires at least a concession in the direction of equality of representation. But a US or Australian style “same number of seats for every state” which would see England with only 25% would likely be going too far. So a minimally contentious balance needs to be found.

A single state for England also fails entirely to deal with the country’s highly centralised nature. “City region” style devolution with directly elected metro mayors is gathering pace, but it’s patchy and exclusively concerned with budgets and strategic planning. Except for London, there are no directly elected assemblies or parliaments to properly scrutinise and question these new mayors – something a lot more important than many people realise. We may be seeing tentative moves towards a whole Yorkshire devolution deal, but that’s still the exception rather than the rule. Rural and small town England is still out of the loop of even these modest schemes. An English Parliament, even if run from Manchester, may do little to seriously challenge the economic black hole that is London.

But the prospect of dividing England isn’t just a can of worms – it’s a whole bunch of cans, each with a different nasty thing inside. If England is divided, how? The existing regions of England, except London and Yorkshire, are pretty hollow concepts. They aren’t true representations of local identity. Plus, Cornwall in particular would be pretty grumpy at the idea of not getting their own state. So you’d need to come up with more natural divisions. That’s a lot easier said then done.

Then you need to talk about powers. Symmetry is the standard in federations. With a single English state, giving it (and Wales and NI) the same powers Scotland has is nice and easy. With a number of English states, it’s tougher. In Scotland we have our own legal and education systems. Does it make sense for 6, 10, 15, however many English states to have completely different systems? Definitely not. What then? Do we layer an English Parliament on top as well? Complex and expensive.

Do we leave those powers with the Federal Parliament (asymmetric federation)? Then we either keep EVEL in place, risking federal governments with no English majority unable to act in these areas. Or we have to roll back EVEL and somehow get England to accept federal representatives from the other nations once again voting on their internal issues. Do we take powers away from Scotland for the sake of symmetry? Aye, that’ll go down well.

Most contentiously, would England even accept being divided? It wouldn’t make sense to divide any of the other UK nations within a federation. English people could be forgiven for feeling like their entire nation and identity was being erased whilst everyone else gets to keep theirs. Those regions with the strongest identities, like Cornwall, London and Yorkshire might be quite happy with it. Would the likes of Kent, Cumbria and Somerset be so keen, especially given the likely need to group up with neighbouring counties to form a state? Perhaps not.

None of this is to say that a Federal UK is impossible, and certainly not to say it isn’t desirable. But it isn’t a neat silver bullet. And it’s not in the gift of Scots. It requires serious thought, deep conversations, and a long slog to convince people in England that it’s the best way forward. Whatever happens, it probably doesn’t kill the drive for Scottish Independence. If you want a federal UK, neither the comment pages of Scottish papers nor the manifestos of Scottish parties are going to deliver it for you.

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