The threat of UK disintegration: time for a federal alternative (with update 13.ix.09)

On the always stimulating Our Kingdom website (“a conversation on the future of the United Kingdom“, part of the City University‘s[1] OpenDemocracy network) there’s an interesting if somewhat academic debate in progress about the implications for the whole of the UK of a referendum in Scotland on Scottish independence (whatever its result), and the disintegration of the United Kingdom which Scottish independence would entail.  This stems from a post by Gerry Hassan, “The long march to Scotland’s independence referendum.  Gerry Hassan is a writer, researcher, policy analyst and associate at the think-tank Demos.  What follows is based on my comments contributed to the debate at Our Kingdom.

For many of us the destruction by Scottish secession of the United Kingdom, or at any rate Britain, the country which for all its faults claims our loyalty and in my case, anyway, my affection, would be a tragedy for all the people of all its four constituent parts.  I am English, of English, German Lutheran and Polish Jewish ancestry, but for me Scotland and Wales (and equally but in a different way Northern Ireland) are just as much part of my national heritage, ingredients in my national history and culture, as England is.  Scots, Irish people and Welshmen simply aren’t foreigners in my book, and never can be, whatever constitutional changes might occur, any more than Queenslanders can be foreigners to the people of New South Wales when they are all Australians, any more than Californians can be foreigners to Vermont people when they are all Americans.

What this signifies to me is that it is now quite urgently necessary to consider possible alternatives to the break-up of the UK into its component nations, in ways that would meet most of the legitimate aspirations (and grievances) of the people of all four nations.  It’s fairly clear that the distinctive identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus their common ownership of the United Kingdom, need to be translated into a new constitutional dispensation under which each of the four nations governs itself by democratic right (i.e. not by kind permission of some authority in Westminster, or anywhere else) in all their internal domestic affairs, from the criminal law to education to taxation, each – necessarily including England — with its own separate elected parliament and government (which three of the four of course already have).  The four entrust to a single elected authority, comprising a separate central government and legislature, those things which they agree are best run collectively on behalf of all of them:  mainly foreign affairs and defence, with collaborative arrangements for revenue allocation and some transfer of resources from the richer to the poorer areas of the kingdom.   The division of powers between the four self-governing nations and the upwardly-devolved centre would be defined in a written constitution administered by a central supreme court.  The dominance of England as by far the biggest and richest of the four nations, now almost unfettered except by convention, would need to be formally limited, probably by turning the House of Lords as the second chamber of the all-UK parliament into an elected ‘house of the nations’ — call it a Senate — in which all four nations have equal representation, so that English representatives on their own can never out-vote those of the other three nations.

We could call this novel arrangement “a federation“.  The Australians, Germans, Americans, Canadians, Swiss and several other nationals of functioning democracies might even agree to offer us some useful tips on how to make our federation work, if we asked them nicely.  It would, by the way, give Scotland virtually all the advantages of full independence with none of the disadvantages;  it would answer the West Lothian question, although not in quite the way that Tam Dalyell, its distinguished author, would approve;  it would cure the whole of the UK of its congenital over-centralism;  it would complete the half-finished process of devolution while reversing its top-down power trajectory, and remove its present inchoate[2] anomalies.  It would take at least 20 years to complete the transformation.  It would be a bumpy but exhilarating ride.  It would be worth the wait and the effort.

It’s hard to be sure about the reasons for the extreme reluctance of the political and media establishments even to discuss the possibility of moving to a fully federal system, despite the fact that it would solve so many problems and that the availability of a better alternative to the disintegration of our country is daily becoming more urgent.  With devolution we are half-way into a federation already, and most of the serious anomalies that have resulted (encapsulated in the West Lothian question) are due to our failure to complete the process.

I suspect that a large part of the resistance to the idea of federation stems from dislike of the idea of England having its own elected parliament and government, separate from the existing Westminster parliament and government.  These would automatically become the new federal institutions, much smaller and with greatly reduced powers (mainly over foreign affairs and defence).  A separate English government would inevitably wield more real power, although only in England, than the downsized federal government at Westminster, not an attractive proposition for current Westminster politicians with their romantic fantasy of a Westminster parliament and executive with unlimited ‘sovereign’ powers.  Persuading politicians to give up some of their powers and  status is always going to be an uphill task.  They should, though, take heart from the reality that the federal governments and legislatures of existing democratic federations, such as the President and Congress of the United States, enjoy far more international and even national prestige, despite their limited powers, than those of the component states that comprise their federations.

I surmise that there are at least four other major obstacles to the required all-party consensus in favour of movement to an eventual federation:  (1) It’s too radical for our timid politicos;  (2)  It would take at least a couple of decades to complete the process, and our political leaders’ congenital short-termism prevents them from looking that far ahead;  (3) There’s a cosmic ignorance in the Westminster village and among its attendant media clowns of other democratic countries’ constitutional arrangements, and a deeply ingrained reluctance to learn from them, so every problem that crops up in the course of change requires us laboriously to re-invent the wheel;  and (4) The federal idea requires a capacity for a vision of a different way for the nations of the UK to govern themselves — moreover in a new and unfamiliar democratic relationship with each other;  and our politicians (with a few rare exceptions) don’t do vision.

Time to wake up before it’s too late.

[1] See correction in Anthony Barnett’s comment below.

[2] Inchoate: “Recently started but not fully formed yet; just begun; only elementary or immature.”  Unconnected with ‘incoherent‘ or ‘chaotic‘, except in (frequent) error.

Update (13 September 2009): (1) This has now been re-posted at LabourList — see  Comments on it posted there will no doubt be more widely read than those here. (2) By coincidence Vince Cable MP, perhaps the most widely respected politician in Britain, has just published an article in the Daily Mail (at sounding the alarm at the possible break-up of the UK and suggesting that a federation “like the US, Canada or Germany” would be the best solution [actually Australia is probably the best model of all].  Might this be the start of something big?


6 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Btian, I have to agree with the essence of your proposal. I have to say, to put things in perspective, that although my parents were both born in London I always thought of myself as British rather than just English, perhaps because I was born abroad (Alexandria) and lived there throughout the War. Like you, I take pride in being British, and in contemplating the UK’s achievements in the past 300 years and the great men it has produced on both sides of the Border. Like many English, though, I did not fully realise how very different Scotland is in so many repects until I came to live there in 1963. A legal system, educational system, and Church separate from those of England, and separate lots of other things from football leagues to SPCA and National Trust. It would be improper for me to speak for Scots, but my general impression is that they are in general content with the UK but vigorously resent the ignorance of the English about Scotland, and the English tendency to regard Scotland as a rather large county in the north of Britain with no real history of its own – a feeling which they regard as self-respect and the English as a chip on the shoulder.
    I would make just one comment on a federal Great Britain: it would be a splendid laboratory for political and social experimentation: experimentation in, for instance, penal reform implemented in just one nation and closely watched by the other three whose continuing systems would act as calibrants, with due allowance for pre-existing differences in national practice and traditions. I hope I live to see a federal Britain up and running.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Tim. (You might like to re-post your comment on the same piece over at LabourList:

    I’m not a Scot, either, but my Scottish friends would I think agree generally with your analysis. You make an interesting point about individual UK nations acting as laboratories for political and social experimentation, which the others could observe and if appropriate, emulate. Of course something of the sort is already happening, with Scotland maintaining free tuition at its universities (for Scots — fair enough) and abolishing prescription charges. So far these have tended to prompt envious, even angry, cries in England, with people claiming that English taxpayers’ subsidies to Scotland are being used to give the Scots benefits that the English taxpayers don’t themselves enjoy. But whatever the rights and wrongs of who is subsidising whom (English wealth, Scottish oil, etc.), it’s in the logic of devolution, and even more so of federation, that laws and practices will vary from place to place. People who have been brainwashed by the years of manic over-centralisation, especially by Thatcher, Blair and Brown, will cry “post-code lottery”, as if everything ought to be uniform from the Shetlands to Land’s End, meaning in turn that everything has to be decided in London. We have to learn to put up with, and benefit from, differences if local control of their affairs is ever to be returned to the people, both within and as between our four nations.

  2. Brian,
    Not being British at all, perhaps I shouldn’t intervene … but I do wonder why you stick to the Four Nations for your federal solution.  I don’t know of any federal country divided only into four statelets.  That seems unnecessarily few and it’s unclear how they would ever send separate-but-equal representatives to what’s left of Westminster.   Why not revive the counties, which once had meaning, and would bring true diversity?
    But, since Westminster will never give up power, this is somewhat theoretical 🙂

    Brian writes: Judith, non-Brits (especially if they have a blog as fabulous as yours) are more than welcome here: thank you for your comment. I agree that a federation of only four states or ‘nations’ would be unusual; but (as I’m sure you know) we already have a semi-federal system based on our four nations, three of which already have their own parliaments and governments, although they have varying degrees of autonomy. We also have the equivalent of an all-UK federal government and parliament but (ridiculously) these also try to double as a government and parliament for England. Proceeding from what we have now to a fully federal system would not be inordinately difficult. All four nations existed as distinct entities before England and Wales became united, and before the Act of Union between England and Scotland of 1707 as the United Kingdom — Northern Ireland is sui generis but obviously Ireland itself has had its own separate identity since long before the rest of the UK came together. All four have their own distinctive languages, cultures and laws. England and Scotland are each as big as many independent sovereign states and can hardly be described as ‘statelets’.

    There are too many counties for a genuine federation based on them — 83 metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties in England alone. It wouldn’t be feasible for each to exercise full internal autonomy, each with its own full-scale parliament and government. Most of them already have their own local government equivalents of these but with very limited powers. To that extent we already have a county-based system, but no-one would call it a federation.

    A more realistic alternative to federating the four nations, sometimes discussed, would be to divide England into four or five ‘regions’, each with autonomy, a parliament and government, etc., each English region corresponding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But there seems to be very little interest in such a scheme, the regions have no real sense of national identity comparable with those of the four nations, and there would be bitter opposition in England to what would be seen as its fragmentation at the hand of the Scots, for purely academic or theoretical reasons. There would also be strong opposition to such a multiplication of politicians, ministers, parliaments, etc., whereas a four-nation federation as I envisage would entail the creation of only one new parliament and one new government, accompanied by a sharp reduction in the size of the parliament and government at Westminster, which ought to be more acceptable. There are other and better ways in a federal system of limiting the natural tendency of England, representing around 80 per cent of the whole of the UK population, to dominate the other 20 per cent — please see some of the relevant comments on the same post, dealing with the same point, over at LabourList — The disparity of population size, wealth, etc., between England and the other three nations is no greater than that between the biggest and smallest states of the United States or of Australia, for example, both federations that work extremely well.

    You may be right that “Westminster will never give up power”; but our present system is so full of anomalies and injustices that it’s unlikely to be sustainable indefinitely, and I believe that it’s important to demonstrate to the few people interested in these arcane matters that a better alternative to it exists, and could be achieved, given imaginative and radical leadership (none of which admittedly seems to be on offer just now!).

    PS: The above was written before I had read Tim Weakley’s helpful reply (below) to your comment, which makes much the same points as mine but in a different way.

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Judith’s suggestion is bold and imaginative, but it would entail far too many units all wanting representation in the Senate, the ex-House of Lords. I take it she is thinking of the traditional counties, not artificial recent creations like Cleveland or Avon, or even the 100-or-so year old County of London? My recollection is that there were some 45 English counties, or more if you count the subdivisions of Yorks, Lincs, and Sussex separately; some 20 Scottish counties, ten or so Welsh ones, and six in Ulster. Anyway, about 80 altogether. Also, the counties were originally administrative districts back in pre-Conquest times; even though there was a time when most of the English, at any rate, thought of themselves as (say) Warwickshire folk rather than Englishmen, the counties were never semi-independent princelingdoms like the bits of Germany, or separate colonies like the original components of the USA, or the Australian states. The Four Nations are the objects of present emotional attachment, and it is these we should stick with. Of course (just joking) you could reach further back in time and revive the seven kingdoms of England – Mercia, Wessex, etc. – and Galloway, Lothian, Pictland…no, I don’t think that would fly. Besides, the counties would be likely to form voting blocs, generally in the sense of the English ones out-voting the others.

  4. What this signifies to me is that it is now quite urgently necessary to consider possible alternatives to the break-up of the UK into its component nations, in ways that would meet most of the legitimate aspirations (and grievances) of the people of all four nations.

    This is the problem. Nationalists are never satisfied. We see this in Spain. It is difficult to see what more the Basques could have apart from full independence (heaven help them), and the Catalans aren’t far behind, but still they moan and go on about how hard done by they are. The nationalists will always find some grievance, however much they are pandered to, and if they don’t get what they want, they’ll turn racist.

    Brian writes: Peter, I’m sure you’re correct. Some nationalists will never be satisfied with anything short of full independence for their own particular tribe. But in the case of the nationalists of the four UK nations, it seems very unlikely that any of them represent majority opinion in their own nations. Where a system is used in a way that is perceived as oppressively unfair to a particular national minority group, as was the case with Mrs Thatcher’s treatment of Scotland, then ordinary people, not previously or intellectually committed to the aim of full independence, may begin to suspect that independence may be the only way to prevent further exploitation or other high-handed treatment from outside.

    The object of advocating movement to a federal system is to satisfy that moderate and uncommitted centre ground in each nation that all their reasonable concerns, both aspirations and fears, will be catered for in a federal system which gives them almost all the benefits of full independence while still preserving the benefits of belonging to a wider, more prosperous, more internationally influential nation-state that is better able to protect and promote its interests than any one of its constituent communities acting on its own amid the ravening beasts of the outside world.

  5. Basque nationalists of various kinds get about 50 – 55% of votes in the Spanish Basque Country. That means that they are never going to get a majority for independence even there, let alone in the Greater Basque Country including Navarre and the French Basque Country, where they get 20% and 5% respectively. It is rather as if the Scottish Nationalists wanted Northumberland and southern Norway. But that doesn’t stop them banging on about independence instead of respecting the political reality.
    Scotland may have been badly treated by Thatcher, but so was Liverpool. Michael Heseltine famously came, saw, and buggered off back to London on the next available train. Yet no-one is talking about independence for Merseyside.
    As for a ‘system which gives them almost all the benefits of full independence while still preserving the benefits of belonging to a wider, more prosperous, more internationally influential nation-state that is better able to protect and promote its interests than any one of its constituent communities acting on its own amid the ravening beasts of the outside world’, the Nationalist argument in Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and the Basque Country is that that will be provided by the EU. Maybe it will at some distant time in the future; de Gaulle’s Europe des patries can be  defined according to what is your patrie. And that brings us right back to where we started.
    Personally, I see no reason why a state as a political and administrative unit has to have any connection with the cultural nation or nations that it comprises; nor do I see why a nation, which is essentially a cultural and social entity, needs a distinct political state for its expression.

  6. Hi Brian – thanks for the plug. Small point: City Uni advertises on oD (and pays a little for it) but oD is independent and not part of City. Cheers  Anthony Barnett

    Brian writes: Anthony, many thanks, and apologies. I have amended the first sentence accordingly and added an explanatory footnote.