A UK Federation and another Guardian letter

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.  Today’s Guardian publishes yet another letter from me calling for a fully-fledged federal system for the UK (if you have a sense of déja vu, please re-read this, from November 2007).  As always, some of what I originally wrote has got lost in the Guardian‘s compulsive ‘editing’, but the main thrust has survived, not terminally scathed.  For the record, and for those who may be interested to read my ipsissima verba, here’s what I wrote before the Guardian‘s letters people got their hands on it (actually, I love them all dearly, and gladly acknowledge my debt to them):

George Monbiot (England, that great colonising land, has itself become a colony, February 17) is right to high-light a glaring defect in our present constitution: England alone of the UK’s four nations has no separate legislature (and, he might have added, no national government). Another equally untenable defect, flowing from the first, is that the Westminster parliament attempts to play two separate and incompatible roles: first, as a legislature for the whole UK dealing with all subjects not devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, such as foreign affairs and defence; and secondly, as a parliament for England dealing with all the subjects devolved to the other three nations.

The injustices and anomalies noted by Monbiot result from the composition of the House of Commons being wholly unsuitable for that second role. Tory proposals for an ‘English Grand Committee’ (only English MPs voting on purely English matters) are half-baked and unworkable, not least as completely failing to remedy England’s lack of its own executive. The only workable (and inherently desirable) solution is a separate legislature and government for England plus full devolution of all remaining internal matters to all the four nations. The Westminster parliament and government, with much reduced powers, should become the federal organs for all-UK matters on the federal models of (e.g.) Australia, the US, Germany and many other successful western democracies.

If the Tories genuinely seek to push real power downwards and away from the centre, as David Cameron asserts in the same issue, why do they not accept the logic of federalism, which does exactly that? Only a federal system can resolve the West Lothian Question, give a democratic role to the Westminster second chamber as a federal Senate, and cure the distinctively English disease of gross over-centralism.

A parliament for England should not be just an issue for English nationalists, but one part of a long-term, comprehensive constitutional reform which everyone, of whatever party, who wants a durable relationship between the nations of the UK should be working for.

Several relatively small omissions from this in the published version seem to me mildly regrettable, but the omission of the hyphen between “all” and “UK” is especially mortifying (“The Westminster parliament and government, with much reduced powers, should become the federal organs for all UK matters…”). For want of a hyphen, the sense was lost, etc.

The letter immediately following mine in today’s Guardian, from the Director of the Federal Union, argues that England is so much bigger than the other three UK nations that a UK federation would work only if England were split into regions for federal purposes.  I tried to deal with this argument back in 2007 in my response to an interesting comment by Anthony Barnett:

….the point in Marquand’s article about the asymmetry of a federation of the four nations (because of the enormously greater size and resources of England than those of the other three nations put together) is an important one. In my opinion, FWIW, a federal system would help to protect the three smaller nations (and the federation as a whole) from the potentially destructive consequences of asymmetry: in other words, the asymmetry is a fact of life whatever constitutional system is in force in the UK, and inevitably presents problems (unless of course the Union disintegrates), but much the most effective way of minimising those problems would be a federal system that gave the three smaller nations the maximum possible autonomy and protection from English domination (e.g. by, among other things, preventing the federal centre from interfering in their internal affairs, and by establishing an upper house of the federal parliament, i.e. senate, with equal representation for all four nations irrespective of their populations, as in the US and Australia which also have lower-tier ‘states’ of widely varying sizes). Asymmetry is an argument for federation, not an obstacle to it. I tried to spell this out at (even) greater length earlier this year in a response to a comment that questioned the viability of a federal system dominated by a single disproportionately big participant (England).

I hope that those who are bothered by the asymmetry point will, if they have the time and inclination, also have a look at the fuller exposition of the argument from an even earlier response to a comment, here.

I’m glad that the Guardian is airing discussion of federalism again in its main letters section, and I hope it will prompt further vigorous debate.  I’m baffled and frustrated by the fact that this is not a live issue in our overall national political conversation.  The problems and anomalies arising from our halfway-house semi-federal system are pretty widely debated and agonised over, yet their obvious cause is rarely identified, still less discussed.  For politicians it goes straight into the Too Difficult tray:  the urgent, as always, is the enemy of the important.  For much of the media, ‘federal’ is a dirty f-word, signifying (perversely and ignorantly) the crafty attempts of the European Union to lure Britain into a single unitary European state and to destroy its national identity.  For English nationalists, it’s a diversion from the chauvinist campaign for an English parliament for its own sake, as a means of allowing England to go its own way without having to accept the authority of a lot of Scottish politicians in Whitehall and Westminster — the opposite of the federal cause, which seeks to bind the four UK nations together in a durable, equitable and democratic system: something we don’t yet have.

Update (later on 19 Feb 09): Following an amicable exchange of e-mails with the Guardian’s letters department and Readers Editor, the missing hyphen has been graciously restored to its proper place on the online version of my letter.  Much appreciated!


8 Responses

  1. Patrick Harris says:

    I’ll give you some examples of asymmetry.
    Take the case of the expansion of Heathrow, if the issue had been decided by an English Parliament the government would have lost by 20 votes but, because the Scottish elected MPs, the Welsh elected MPs and the Northern Irish elected MPs were permitted to vote the bill was easily carried by 27 votes.
    This year council tax in Scotland will be frozen – decided by Scottish elected representatives.
    Scottish university students get free tertiary education – decided by Scottish elected representatives.
    English university students get to pay top-up fees – decided, not by English elected rpresentsatives but by Scottish elected representatives.
    I could go on but you will probably trot out the “England has a majority of MPs at Westminster” most of whom have the Party politic at heart and not the English voters aspirations.
    You need to got back to school, or is there scottish blood running through your veins a la Cameron.

    Brian writes: Perhaps you would do me the courtesy of re-reading what I have said in this post (above) and in my letter to the Guardian, before you write any more such irrelevant abuse. If you can’t see that I’m actually in favour of a separate parliament (and government) for England, as part of a move to a federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then you aren’t qualified to comment. And incidentally anti-Scottish sentiments are no basis for constitutional reforms aimed at providing a durable democratic basis for unity among the four constituent nations of our country, of which Scotland is a vital, valuable and indispensable part.

  2. Stephen Gash says:

    I’ll write just three things to refute Laming’s argument:  U   S   A

    When will people get it in their thick skulls that English people DO NOT want regions? Out of all the options this is persistently the least popular, particularly when they are gerrymandered to suit one party or another.

    Why the hell should the English lose their country, to be replaced by regions, for the sake of an artificail Union anyway?

    It is noticeable that those most in favour of carving up England are either self-styled Europhiles, or Scots, or both.

    What happens to the English if England is carved up into Euro-regions then the Scots opt for independence? They will be stateless and powerless, which is, of course, the plan.

    All the choices are given to the Scots, but the English are denied a say, while the theorists pontificate what is best for the so-called United Kingdom.

    The English should decide what they want, but everyone knows it will be a united England with its own parliament, and most probably independence.

    Brian writes: I realise that your comments refer to the letter by Mr Laming in today’s Guardian and not directly to my own letter which precedes it: but I might just point out, what should be clear from my post above and from my letter in the Guardian, that I am strongly in favour of a parliament (and, just as importantly, a government) for England, provided that they are firmly in the context of a gradual move to a fully-fledged federation of the four UK nations. I am concerned that our country should have an assured and united future strengthened by fairer and more democratic constitutional arrangements governing the relationships between each of the nations and the government and parliament of the whole UK than anything we have got now. The idea of the dissolution of the United Kingdom into four separate and ‘independent’ states, implied by your last sentence, seems to me utterly repugnant and in no-one’s interest at all. I am no more in favour of “carving up” the UK than I am in favour of carving up England.

  3. Michele says:

    Brian – ah  a sane voice among all the hype.  I too am in favour of an English Parliament with all that implies and if it is the wish of the English people that power should be devolved even further down the line to either regional or county level then I am happy with that.

    If an English Parliament is part of a greater federal union then it could be the unifying force with the islands.  However – a cautious word here – I presently live in Australia and the interaction between the states for federal funding can be really vicious.  Plus the present political climate appears to becoming more and more federally orientated; but the federal government pushing (or in some cases i.e health being pushed) to take over some of the State’s present powers.

    I seems to me that smaller unit tend eventually to merge into larger units, then they explode in smaller pieces that tend to eventually merge …. ad infinitum!

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Michele. I have lived in Australia for several years, and in four other countries with federal systems of government, and I recognise what you say about the “vicious” character of the arguments that can take place over federal funding of the lower tier states. There is often similar feuding in all federations over the distribution of power as between the states and the federal centre. But that’s natural and even healthy in a federal system. The great thing is, or should be, that the arguments are resolved in the end by peaceful and democratic means, and that the constitutional framework caters for this. The tendency of the federal centre gradually to extend its powers at the expense of the states is another common and natural phenomenon in federations. Again, it’s up to the states (or nations in the case of the UK) either to resist this tendency — or, if enough people see overall benefit in a particular subject being shared with the federal authorities or transferred to them, to help the process on its way. These matters are all part of the life-blood of politics in a federation. In the UK many of the same issues arise now that three of the four nations have their own parliaments and governments in addition to the overall parliament and government at Westminster, but we have no adequate institutional resources for thrashing them out and resolving them: in the end they tend to be settled by fiat in Westminster after wholly inadequate debate. There has to be a better way, and there is.

  4. Patrick Harris says:

    Just because YOU deem an issue to be “repugnant and in no ones interest” does not “qualify” you to comment in such “abusive terms”, If you make statements or if you are just shooting the breeze – be prepared to get the other side of the story. Is there Scottish blood running through your veins???
    Scottish residents seem to be happy with all the inequalities referred to in my previous comment.
    I don’t see or hear the Welsh residents complaining that they get preferential treatment compared to their English “countryfolk”
    The Northern Irish residents are going to enjoy spending £50bn of English tax payers money over the next 7 years.
    Yes I am (aggressively) English not British nor UKish.
    At the same time I am fair, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can have what ever their hearts desire – all they have to do is pay for it.

    Brian writes: I am curious to know what lies behind Mr Harris’s apparent obsession with the nature of the “blood running through my veins”, about which he has speculated in both his comments here. It doesn’t, however, add anything useful to the discussion of the pros and cons of a federal system for the United Kingdom.

  5. Patrick Harris says:

    Therer’s no mystery behind my question, it’s just that all the beneficiaries of the Barnett formula (the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish) seem to want to keep the union albiet in a federal form, those that pay the bills, ie the English want shot of the lot. Now then, for the sake of clarity of purpose, does Scottish blod run through your veins. Don’t be so coy.

  6. Stephen Gash says:

    Brian, you may find English independence repugmant, but I merely pointed out this where we are heading because of the intransigence of the ruling parties.

    Their absolute refusal to offer the English a referendum on a parliament, or even a discussion about it, drives English people more and more towards independence.

    I find their undemocratic attitude and arrogance repugnant. I find the UK as it is currently constituted even more repugnant.

    Brian writes: I agree about the regrettable absence of any serious debate on these questions, but I would favour an English parliament — and, equally important — government only in the context of movement towards a fully-fledged federation of the four nations of the UK. Talk of “independence” for England strikes me as wilfully misleading: it really means (but is understandably scared to admit it) the break-up of the United Kingdom and the abandonment by England (and by the vanishing UK) of any responsibility for the welfare and security of the peoples of Scotland, Wales, and — perhaps most irresponsibly of all — Northern Ireland, contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people in all three nations. I don’t believe that this is what most English people want, or would stomach, either. Happily it’s not on any serious agenda. But even to broach the subject, under the mealy-mouthed cover of “English independence”, is to discredit in reasonable people’s eyes the whole idea of a parliament for England. Hence my emphasis on the case for a parliament and government for England purely as part of a constitutional reform that would link the four nations together in a durable, democratic and widely acceptable way — not tear them apart.

    There’s an ugly word for those who seek the break-up and destruction of their own mother country, but I’ll spare you it. And your mother country is the United Kingdom, of which England is only a part, whether you like it or not!

  7. Patrick Harris says:

    Spit it out, I’m English and more than able to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous unionists. To feel that you have to point out that England is, at present, a part of the UK is to try and hide the weakness in your argument, together we may be, together in a common purpose is undermined by the result of referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the only choice offered to the NORTHERN English. “regionalisation”, was overwhelmingly rejected, the rest is history.
    Don’t tell me, that while English patients die because they are denied the drugs that are readily availabe in Scotland, that we are in a “union”.
    Don’t tell me, that when my children having been lumbered with university fees of between £15k and £22k, that the children of my Scottish “countryfolk” get it for free, that we are in a “union”
    Etc. etc. etc. blah, blah, blah.
    Take your “union” and shove it.

  8. Colin Baker says:

    I agree fully that Britain’s last, latest and largest colony, England, should be granted home rule similar to that which Scotland has been granted (together with Wales and Northern Ireland) in order to create a federation for the United Kingdom. To that end, with your knowledge of federations around the world (America, Canada, Australia, Russia, etc), perhaps you can tell me whether any of these federations have granted any of their provinces or states the right of control over any of the Offshore resources within their Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ)? 

    I ask this question because currently we have the situation whereby Scotland has its own Fishery Patrol vessels and represents the UK on Fishery matter at the UK and is constantly demanding the right of the revenue from North Sea Oil & Gas.

    Further, the waters around the UK have also been divided on agreement between Westminster and Holyrood into Scottish and UK waters. All of this seems to me to go way beyond anything that any member part of any current federation would enjoy.

    Brian writes: Thank you for raising this interesting and important question. I think the answer must be that this is one of the thousands of difficult questions that would have to be settled by negotiation as part of the move to full federal status. On the one hand the question of off-shore resources would seem to be naturally a federal matter, under the external affairs power; but on the other hand, if it can be, and is, partially devolved to Scotland already in our semi-unitary system, it would seem paradoxical to withdraw that devolved power back to the federal centre if and when we moved to a fully devolved federal system. Perhaps others can tell us what happens in other federal systems from which we could learn lessons: Australia, for example, with its offshore oil resources?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *