831 Lords into 80 Senators: if not now, when?

The government’s proposals for House of Lords ‘reform’ are a nonsense, but that’s no reason to give up on more sensible and progressive options for change.  Devolution has brought us half-way into a UK federation: the near-universal recognition of the need to reform the House of Lords offers an excellent opportunity to establish a federal-type second chamber on the pattern of the many successful federal democracies around the world, namely a Senate with equal representation for each of the units which constitute the federation — in our case the four nations of the UK.

Professor Bogdanor, our leading constitutional expert, has recently dismembered Mr Clegg’s proposals for reform of the Lords in an article in The Times (protected by a paywall), but concluded that the present House of Lords was doing little harm and might do some good, so it was best to leave it alone — an argument against reform of any kind used by conservatives down the ages.  I offered my federal-type alternative in a letter published in The Times on 29 August 2011:

Sir, Professor Bogdanor (“100 years on, the Lords is doing fine as it is”, Opinion, Aug 18) is surely wrong to argue from the obvious unacceptability of the government’s proposals for House of Lords reform that we’re therefore permanently stuck with this anachronistic, undemocratic body.  The Professor asks how, “in a non-federal state”, voters can be represented in two differently elected chambers. But in a recent book he has himself described our post-devolution constitution as “quasi-federal”, and the experience of many federal democracies suggests a valuable role for an elected second chamber representing the UK’s four nations.

As in, for example,  the US and Australia, each nation should have equal representation in a federal-style Senate, with (say) 20 Senators elected from each: 80 in total should be quite enough — the Americans manage with 100 — compared with the present 831 members of the Lords.  House of Commons primacy would be safeguarded by the Senate’s strictly limited powers (as now) and by the Commons’ role as the sole maker of governments and home of ministers. Equal Senate representation would help to limit England’s predominance, long a source of anomalies and discontent.  A federal-type Senate would encourage resumed progress towards the inevitable, and highly desirable, eventual destination of a fully federal UK, providing the only durable answer to the West Lothian Question and other anomalies arising from half-completed devolution, and the best chance of saving our country from disintegration as a result of Scottish secession.

I had offered the same proposal in a letter in the Guardian only two months or so earlier, and reproduced it in a blog post at the time (“The need for a federal senate instead of the house of lords“, 7 June).  In that post, and in responses to some of the comments appended to it, I argued the case both for a federal-style Senate instead of the House of Lords and also for a federal United Kingdom as the logical destination of the process of devolution on which we have embarked, but which is now stalled, despite the serious challenge to the status quo posed by the demand of the SNP government and parliamentary majority in Scotland for independence and the disintegration of the United Kingdom.  There’s no need to spell all that out again here now.

I should however issue just one clarification:  some of the comments on that earlier post, and two or three messages that I have received since the publication of my letters in the Guardian and The Times, have mistakenly supposed me to be recommending that the existing House of Commons should be converted into an English parliament, equivalent to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh Assembly, etc., while the House of Lords should become a single-chamber federal parliament, both bodies presumably continuing to sit in the Palace of Westminster.  This would in my view solve almost nothing and indeed would create new problems and fresh confusion.  The concept of a federal parliament in the whole of which all four UK nations would have equal numbers of representatives, irrespective of population size, would be obviously absurd:  it makes sense only in the context of a second chamber (like the US Senate) where the other chamber is elected on the basis of population size, either more or less exactly as under Proportional Representation (PR), or roughly as in the UK House of Commons and the US House of Representatives.

A UK federation certainly does require an English parliament:  we can’t go on indefinitely with the nonsense of a Westminster parliament elected (or, in the case of the House of Lords, appointed, God help us) and constituted as a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, but simultaneously functioning in its spare time as a parliament for England (without anything remotely resembling an English government to accompany it).  The fact that most English people blithely assume that the parliament at Westminster, with members elected to it from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is nevertheless at heart an English parliament, only adds further confusion and resentment to the hopeless muddle we are currently in.  If and when we wake up to the need for a proper federal system, a new parliament — and, just as important, a new government — will have to be established in and for England, concerned purely with English internal affairs.  It’s unlikely to be situated in London, for that would risk continuing confusion between the English parliament and government on the one hand, and their federal all-UK counterparts at Westminster on the other.  It would also fail to satisfy the strong feelings in some regions of England that London is too far away and too London-centric to understand or cater for their needs.   The Westminster parliament and government would continue to be responsible for those all-UK matters which the four nations will have agreed should be handled centrally and uniformly – principally foreign affairs, defence, external trade, and some (but not all) kinds of taxation.

But there’s no reason for us to have to wait for these changes to be agreed and brought into operation — that will take many years.  We can replace the obviously undesirable House of Lords with a federal-type Senate, if not tomorrow, then as soon as the necessary legislation can be prepared and passed, if necessary using the Parliament Act to force it through a probably recalcitrant House of Lords.  It would be a huge improvement in our constitutional arrangements: it would signal a willingness on the part of England not to use its disproportionate size and wealth to the detriment of the three smaller nations or in a way that involves constantly interfering in their internal affairs:  it would improve the ability of the second chamber, with its new democratic credentials as an elected House, to hold the government to account, despite its iron control of the House of Commons:  and it would symbolise our country’s quasi-federal status, reminding Professor Bogdanor and others that the devolution process is only half completed.  There’s more work to be done.

Post-script:  Ephems is going on holiday now for the next three weeks or so, with only sporadic and partial access to the internet.  So there will be no responses to comments for a while.  Some of the questions and objections that this post is likely to prompt are already answered, e.g. in the June post mentioned earlier, especially in responses to comments there.  These still hold good, in my opinion anyway.  Others will just have to hang in the ether:  I don’t promise, or even intend, to deal with them all, or any of them, on my return.  Those posting comments in Ephems for the first time, or the first time for a year or two, may have to wait longer than usual for their comments to be ‘approved’ for publication in this blog.  For any such delays I apologise.

And now to finish the packing.


6 Responses

  1. Acilius says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful discussions of this topic.  I do have a question.  Wouldn’t one suppose that a federation in which 20% of the people hold 75% of the voting power would be inherently unstable?  If the super-enfranchised were the richest 20%, perhaps they could exploit their economic power to defend their position for some time, but if their average income is considerably below that of the other 80%, surely the system would collapse almost immediately.
    Now, if it were possible to create a system in which England had 80% of the regional governments and 80% of the representation in the federal senate, that might be sustainable.  So, rather than four regional parliaments, there would be fifteen, twelve in England and one in each of the other nations, and an equal number of senators from each region in the federal upper house.  For such a system to work, the twelve English regions would have to be so distinct  from one another that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland could ensure their own autonomy by playing the representatives of the English regions against one another.  I don’t know whether it would be possible to satisfy that condition.
    On the other hand, it would not be necessary for the various regions to be precisely equal in population for the system to endure.  The USA doesn’t seem to be in danger of dissolving, even though Wyoming (population 544,270) has the same representation in the US Senate as does California (population 36,961,664.)  So the system might have a chance or survival even if London were put on the same footing as the Channel Islands, though obviously that would produce some of the same strains as would putting England on the same footing as Northern Ireland.  Again, if the number of regions and the diversity of their political interests were diverse enough, the smaller ones would not only be rivals for the bigger, but would also offer them potential allies.  This certainly seems to be part of the reason why the fifty states of the USA get along as well as they do, and why the large member states of the European Union have acquiesced so readily in the admission of small states.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. But my proposal is much less far-reaching or controversial than your comment implies. In the first place, we are talking about the federal legislature in a fully federal system, so the federal parliament at Westminster would have only very limited responsibilities compared with the (theoretically) almost unlimited powers of the current UK parliament. The individual parliaments of the four nations would have complete responsibility for almost all subjects that touch on people’s everyday lives, such as health, education, crime, security, planning, and local economic and financial matters, leaving the Westminster federal parliament with only those subjects that have to be handled on an all-UK basis, such as foreign affairs and defence, plus overseas trade and a few other matters as agreed by the four nations. Secondly, my proposal (that all four nations should have equal representation in the federal Senate, the second chamber) would apply only to the Senate, not the Federal House of Commons, which would have primacy over the Senate in all legislative matters, just as the House of Commons has primacy over the House of Lords now: in the event of disagreement, the House of Commons can always prevail if it wishes. Thirdly, even within the limited number of federal subjects dealt with by the federal parliament, the Senate, like the present House of Lords, would have very limited powers compared with the House of Commons — effectively no say in dealing with money Bills such as the budget, and no power at all to override decisions of the House of Commons, only to delay them or to suggest ways to improve them. Thus the apparent anomaly of giving England, with around 80 per cent of the UK population, only 25 per cent of the seats in the Senate, would have only very limited effects in practice. But it would be a valuable and indispensable way of preventing England from being able to override the wishes of the other three nations on federal subjects only and even then only if the House of Commons (whose membership would reflect population sizes, as now) accepted the Senate’s decisions based on equal representation. At present there is no bar whatever to England dominating the other three nations by using its dominance in population numbers and wealth: and that is what has brought the UK to the verge of disintegration because of Scottish (and to some extent Welsh) dissatisfaction with English domination. What I propose matches exactly the pattern in the US and Australia, among other successful democratic federations. There’s no reason to suppose that the four peoples of the UK are incapable of working the system which the Americans and Australians have had for years.

    As I have explained elsewhere, I don’t believe that any proposal to split England up into smaller units for federal purposes would have any chance of acceptance. English nationalists would strongly oppose it as designed to ‘divide and rule’, and there is no region of England, even Cornwall, that could claim the status of a reasonably homogenous ‘nation’ remotely comparable with Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The governments of the various bits of a divided England would amount in practice to little more than county or borough councils. But it’s reasonable to expect that there would be general agreement to the inclusion in the new federal constitution of the ‘principle of subsidiarity‘ as obligatory for the constitutions of each of the four nations, so that the government and parliament of England would be required to devolve their powers as far as possible downwards to regional, county and borough, ward and even parish and village levels, as in many continental European countries. Thus the federal pattern should be replicated at each successive level, right down to the elected village mayor and his local council. But any proposal to divide up England into regions at the top, federal level, would kill the whole federal project at birth.

  2. Acilius says:

    Thank you for your characteristically courteous and well-developed response.  I very much appreciate the gift of your time.
    If I may presume a bit further upon that gift, I would say that your plan does in fact seem quite radical and far-reaching to me.  If the four nations are to have “complete responsibility” for health care within their boundaries, to take just one example from the list you give, the NHS would have to be broken up into four separate services, each funded by a tax regime designed and administered independently of the federal system or the other three nations.  That hardly sounds like a plan that UK voters would find more appealing than the division of England into twelve regions.
    Moreover, there is considerable overlap between the functions you list as federal and those you would devolve to the four nations.  Could the four nations collect VAT, for example, without impinging on the federal prerogative to regulate overseas trade?  If the federal system collected it, would the revenue from it stay at that level, or would it be distributed to the nations?  If the federal system keeps VAT revenues, wouldn’t the rate have to be drastically reduced to accord with the drastic reduction in the responsibilities of the London parliament?  And if VAT were drastically reduced, wouldn’t the UK be in violation of its EU tax harmonization responsibilities?  And what sorts of tax regime might the nations construct to meet their vast new obligations, if VAT were not to be among them? On the other hand, if VAT remained at its present rate and were distributed by the center to the nations, would that not reduce the nations to dependence on the center?
    As for the analogy with the USA and Australia, I see the similarity in purely abstract terms.  However, the number and variety of states in those federations changes the character of the system quite profoundly.  So, to stay with the USA example that I mentioned in my previous comment, it is of course true that the heavily populated states are underrepresented in the federal senate, while the thinly populated states are overrepresented there.  The fact that there are fifty states prevents this from triggering a crisis of legitimacy. Left-leaning California and New York are underrepresented, but so are right-leaning Texas and Florida.  The right leaning states of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain west are overrepresented, but so are a few left-leaning states such as Vermont, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.  In a federation with only four constituent states, one of which is home to roughly 80% of the total population, it is difficult to imagine what sort of balance could be found in a body where each constituent state had an equal number of votes.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, and for your kind words. With respect (genuinely!), I think you implicitly undervalue the enormous accretion of experience of operating federal systems by widely varied countries around the world for very many years. By becoming a federation, the UK would not need to start from scratch. We need to avoid succumbing to the illusion that we must begin by inventing the wheel. All the specific problems that you identify have arisen in other federal systems in the past, and variants on the solutions they have worked out are all readily available to us if we eventually summon up the courage to accept the logic of our semi-federal, semi-unitary, anomaly-ridden situation. There are perfectly serviceable arrangements in existing federations for sharing responsibilities for specific subjects, such as health, between the federal and unit levels. If (in the UK’s case) the peoples of the four nations wish, through their elected parliaments and governments, to maintain a unified National Health Service throughout the UK — something we don’t have at present, incidentally! — rather than each nation running its own, that can quite easily be arranged, not necessarily by ceding control of it to the federal government, although that could be one option. Responsibility for a subject at national level doesn’t prevent any or all of the four self-governing nations from collaborating and harmonising their activities in the relevant sphere as much or as little as they choose. For example, the four nations should have responsibility for their own income tax regimes, but that needn’t prevent them from agreeing together on the rates of tax and allowances that they want and then asking the federal government to collect it on their behalf. The existing police system in the UK is one possible model: we have largely independent police forces combined with a degree of light-touch coordination and provision of certain services undertaken centrally by London’s Metropolitan Police plus the Home Office, the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in support of the individual autonomous police forces around the country.

    I would argue that it’s probably more difficult for the 50 states of the USA to maintain national unity within a federation than for the six states of Australia where there are comparable disparities of size and wealth as between the states; and if a six-state federation can work well in Australia, why shouldn’t a four-nation federation work in the UK? Remember that we’re already half-way into a federal system and there’s no way to go back to an England-dominated unitary constitution now; also that the UK’s survival is threatened by Scottish discontent with the present half-way house, and the need for a rational, constructive response to that threat is becoming daily more urgent. If that response is not to be a commitment to eventual full federation, what else is it to be? The current situation is fairly plainly unsustainable. Yes, full federation will entail knotty problems, as indeed devolution already does. But political and constitutional problems are what we elect our politicians to solve!

  3. ObiterJ says:

    “Equal representation.”  Why, the population of England is much the larger.  You will never convicnce the majority of people unless the make up of a second chamber is proportionate to the electorate.
    Prof. Bogdanor has to be wrong on a very fundamental level.  The House of Lords – as presently constituted – is totally undemocratic – filled with appointees and a few others there by birthright.
    Why should the hand of the SNP be enhanced by giving Scotland equal representation to England in a new second chamber?
    I fully agree with the need for a distinct Parliament for England.
    Once there is a Parliament for England, a Parliament for Scotland, and Assemblies (maybe Parliaments) for Wales and Northern Ireland then would we really need a UK Parliament with two Houses in it?  I suspect that this question would be raised.
    Finally, if the UK is to remain as a single nation in the face of the world, then it must become a proper Federation.  That would, in turn, necessitate a formal constitution.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree that on the face of it the idea of equal representation in the federal second chamber for all four UK nations, regardless of population size, is counter-intuitive. But (i) the reason for the Scottish threat to the survival of the UK as a single sovereign state is the resentment of the three smaller nations of England’s long history of interference in their affairs, exploiting England’s superior size, power and wealth; (b) If this threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom is to be warded off and Scottish (and other) discontent allayed, limits must be placed on England’s capacity for interfering in the affairs of the other three nations; (c) Devolution has gone some way towards immunising Scotland (especially) and to a lesser extent the other small nations against English dominance and interference, but it has obviously not gone far enough, so additional measures are required if the UK is not to disintegrate; (d) The principal safeguard against English meddling in the internal affairs of the other three nations is a full federal system which gives the parliaments and governments of all four nations exclusive power over their own internal affairs, leaving only limited functions to the all-UK federal government and parliament at Westminster; (e) But to limit the scope for English predominance and English neglect of the interests and wishes of the other three smaller nations even in the limited federal sphere (i.e. foreign affairs, defence, external trade, and a few other subjects), measures are needed to protect the three smaller nations from being overborne by England; (f) the traditional and well-tried way to achieve this in other successful federations has been to give all the federal units equal representation in the federal second chamber, sometimes called the Senate, so that the small units can’t be out-voted in that chamber by one or two of the bigger ones; (g) This measure applies only to legislation on the limited range of federal subjects and only to proceedings in the second chamber with its highly limited powers compared with the federal “lower House” (i.e. in the UK, the House of Commons), so its effects would in practice be strictly limited; and (h) decisions by the second chamber, based on equal representation for all four nations, could always be overruled by the federal House of Commons whose membership would reflect population size more or less as now, although it would be publicly clear that in doing so the majority in the House of Commons, essentially the federal MPs elected in England, were overruling the wishes and perhaps the interests of the smaller nations as expressed in the decisions of the Senate.

    It’s surely unnecessarily pessimistic to rule out as obviously unacceptable to the British a system which has been adopted (with some individual variations but with the same basic purpose of protecting the smaller from the bigger) by almost all federal constitutions in western democracies, and which works well in countries similar to ours. Traditionally the federal second chamber is the ‘States’ House’ whose members represent their own federal states or provinces (or ‘nations’ in UK parlance) and whose membership structure is designed to prevent the bigger units from dominating the federal parliament and government, thereby putting the whole federal system at risk. As I have said before, we in Britain need to guard against the temptation to act as if we would be inventing federalism from first principles. We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that we can’t, or needn’t, learn from the experience of other countries that have in many cases been running federal systems for generations.

  4. Acilius says:

    foreign affairs, defence, external trade, and a few other subjects Doesn’t this list raise another thorny question?  Common membership in NATO sets rather narrow bounds for the variation one might expect to find in the foreign and military policies of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland; common membership in the EU sets even narrower bounds for their policies in external trade.  Would policy-making on these matters really prove so substantial an undertaking as to require the full attention of a bicameral legislative body, with its own executive and judicial apparatus?  Were such a system to be established, dissolving the UK would come to have the advantage, not only of doing away with a redundant level of government, but of increasing each component nation’s representation within NATO and the EU by joining each group as four separate member states.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. It’s unnecessary to speculate about how much work a federal legislative organ would have to do to justify its existence when there are so many practical examples actively functioning around the world. Ask any American or Australian whether their federal Senates have enough to do. They would find such a question weird and baffling. There’s no question of setting up a new “executive and judicial apparatus”: both already exist. What level of government do you think might become redundant if we moved from a semi-federal to a fully federal system — do you think the Scots would regard their government and parliament or government as redundant? We already have a federal level of parliament and government (the Westminster organs) and the corresponding organs at the next level of the nations (the parliaments and governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). No additional level is needed.

    The idea of a United Kingdom without its own all-UK government and parliament responsible for the usual federal subjects is manifestly absurd. Equally absurd is the idea that anything would be gained by dissolving the UK with each of its four nations having to set up its own Foreign Office and diplomatic service, its own army, navy and air force (along with its own coastguard, ministry of defence, customs and excise, intelligence and security services….), each reproduced in quadruplicate! Finally, I doubt if the EU, NATO, WEU, the Council of Europe, or the UN, among numerous other international bodies, would take seriously applications for separate membership by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (England would of course not need to apply to any of these for admission since according to most precedents England would automatically inherit the former UK seats in each).

    I have shown in my original post how the adoption of a full federal constitution would enable the UK to reduce very significantly the number of practising politicians and members of parliaments around the country. A federal Senate would not need more than 80 members, compared with the 831 present members of the House of Lords, all eligible for their daily sitting allowances and expenses, while the absurdly inflated number of members of the House of Commons (650!) cries out to be significantly reduced by a much greater number than that proposed by David Cameron; and a new separate English parliament would not need more than around 100 members to function well.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    Thank you for such a comprehensive response.  It is much appreciated.  I think that I am persuaded by the federation argument on the practical basis that the UK is already acting like one in many respects.  I did wonder whether a bicameral federal legislature would actually be needed but I now think that it would be so as to act as a check on the executive in the vital areas which would remain for decision at that level – defence; foreign affairs etc.  The suggested arrangement might actually lead to greater scrutiny of the executive in relation to defence and foreign affairs.  As things stand, the executive gets quite a free reign over these matters since they continue to be subject to “Royal prerogative powers” – in practice, “Executive prerogative powers.”  Of course, I might have just touched on one reason why the “powers that be” will resist the whole idea !!

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I think your point about the likely resistance of the house of commons to anything that would improve the effectiveness of the second chamber in holding it to account is all too perceptive and convincing. I have no doubt that the sharp reduction in the functions of the house of commons and the present second chamber (the house of lords) that would result from the institution of a separate government and parliament for England is another reason why federalism is so resolutely kept off the national agenda.

  6. Acilius says:

    Thank you again for your attentive responses.  You are indeed a model of courtesy.
    Ask any American or Australian whether their federal Senates have enough to do. They would find such a question weird and baffling. Not just any Australian; the abolition of the federal senate was the official policy of the Australian Labor Party from 1917 to 1979, and there are still some antipodean unicameralists about.  They aren’t as active as the movement to abolish the Canadian Senate, a movement which that country’s prime minister has endorsed, but they are still findable.
    Nor do I think that the USA provides a very strong example here.  While it is of course true that the USA is today a much looser federation than the UK, the Washington government is responsible for far more than “foreign affairs, defence, external trade, and a few other matters.”  The US federal government is the primary agency for transport policy, health policy (such as it is,) old age provision, and any number of other matters which your proposal would delegate to the Four Nations of the UK.  Within the areas you would reserve to Westminster the Washington government has far greater latitude in policy-making than would any counterpart it might have in London.  Since the USA is not an EU member, it is responsible for its own policies relating to external trade in a way that the UK simply is not.  And Washington’s relationship to NATO is somewhat different from the UK’s relationship to the same alliance; not to say that the UK is a satellite of the USA by any means, but it is certainly the fact that the leadership in Washington is in a position to consider a wider range of options in diplomatic and security policy than are their counterparts in London.  The federal parliament that would exist after all the big spending departments of the Westminster government, excepting defence, had been delegated to the Four Nations would have little to do but send representatives to NATO and the EU and to write the directives of those confederacies into law.  That is why I say that under your system, the Westminster parliament would be superfluous.
    Would NATO, the EU, the UN, and other clubs admit the Four Nations separately, and could those nations maintain their own “Foreign Office and diplomatic service, its own army, navy and air force (along with its own coastguard, ministry of defence, customs and excise, intelligence and security services….“?  I don’t see why not.  Northern Ireland has a population of 1,759,000.  That is bigger than Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg, or Malta, all of which are EU members; in fact, bigger than Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta combined.  With nearly 3,000,000 population, Wales is larger also than Latvia or Slovenia.  Passing 5,000,000, Scotland would enter the middle ranks of the EU, bigger than Ireland or Lithuania, virtually the same size as Denmark, Finland, and Slovakia.  While the per capita GDP of Northern Ireland is significantly lower than that of the other parts of the UK, it is not much lower than either the EU or the NATO average, and of course there are many smaller and poorer countries in the UN than in either the EU or NATO.  Scotland and Wales are above the EU average per capita GDP, as is England, and so none of those three nations would be especially absurd as a potential sovereign state.

    Brian writes: Thank you again, especially for all the striking comparative statistics. To take the last point first, I haven’t (I hope) suggested that any of the UK nations would be ‘absurd’ as an independent state, or even that any of them would necessarily be economically or financially unviable, although I think it could be a struggle for both the two smallest. Northern Ireland can I think be omitted from this speculation, since I can’t see any critical mass of NI people who want full independence for the Province: nearly half of them appear to want independence as part of the Republic of Ireland and rather more than half want ever closer union with England. It’s a very special case. Fortunately its long term future with either England or Ireland would not be prejudiced by membership of a federal UK and NI already has its own governing and legislative organs. If the UK were to dissolve as a result of Scotland voting for independence, it’s anyone’s guess what effect this would have on NI’s future. My own untutored guess is that it would greatly strengthen the nationalists in their demand for reintegration with the Republic of Ireland, since the UK would rightly be seen as having failed, and that this could easily lead to a revival in NI of violent conflict with the unionists.

    I remain convinced that it would verge on insanity for all four of the UK nations, or even three of them, to have to have their own armed forces, intelligence services, customs and excise, heads of state (whether or not representing the Queen), currencies, national banks, and all the rest of the appurtenances of sovereignty. The fact that there are even smaller independent states which have all these things is, with respect, irrelevant: the four UK nations have had all these organs and services in common for many generations, and there are obvious advantages in continuing to share them, as they can perfectly well do under a federal system which would additionally confer the huge benefit of full internal self-government for each of the four. Duplicating all these services and institutions four times over would be ridiculously expensive, hugely controversial and divisive, and above all demonstrably unnecessary.

    I repeat that there’s no reason to suppose that the three smaller nations (or two if we leave out NI) would be automatically admitted on the nod to whichever international agencies and organisations they might be inclined to join: after the credit and more general financial crises precipitated or aggravated by the behaviour of some small countries (among others), it’s extremely likely that an application by, e.g., Wales for separate EU membership would be viewed with enormous distaste by several of the key EU governments. It would be rash indeed to assume that membership would be granted without the imposition of numerous extremely arduous conditions after negotiations likely to last for years.

    Finally, I agree that under the US federal constitution in the way it has evolved over the years there has been a steady accretion of powers and subjects to the federal centre and away from the constituent states (or in many cases shared with them), because of the naturally centripetal tendencies of all federations. I would expect a federal UK to develop in the same way over many decades or even centuries. It’s pointless to try to define in advance precisely how the numerous functions of government would be divided up between the federal and national levels of a UK federation, and which would be shared: that would all have to be worked out by negotiation and bargaining over several years. If I were still to be alive during that process (highly unlikely!), I would argue strongly for the absolute maximum of subjects to be reserved to the national level and indeed even lower within each of the four nations, with the irreducible minimum allocated to the federal centre — simply because over-centralism has been the curse of UK politics for several generations and a federal system should start off as decentralised as humanly possible. Centripetal tendencies could safely be relied on to swell the role of the federal organs soon enough.

    But even with maximum decentralisation, there’d be plenty of solid work for the federal Westminster parliament and government to do: the reduction would be considerable (e.g. they would no longer be the government or parliament for purely English affairs) but there would be a sizeable benefit in the opportunity greatly to reduce the size of all the government organs at the federal level. All of them — the UK government, the House of Commons and the House of Lords — have been allowed to become obscenely big and one strong argument for federation, one among many, is that it would enable all three to be cut down to a much more sensible size.