The Federation of the United Kingdom is here

The paradox highlighted by Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian Question (why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be allowed to vote on English domestic matters while they would not be allowed to vote on Scottish domestic matters, which are dealt with by the Scottish Assembly?) reflects the anomaly in our constitution created by devolution. With what amount to regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (currently dormant) and London, we already have in effect a federal system, but England has no comparable regional institutions and above all there is no proper federal constitution setting out the respective powers of the federal level institutions (the Westminster government and parliament) and the regional institutions. As long as we lack both of these — English regional institutions and a federal constitution setting out federal, regional and joint powers — we are going to continue to encounter anomalies such as that identified in the West Lothian Question, and many others.

Unfortunately there are four huge obstacles blocking the way to progress in remedying either of these deficiencies:

1. British, or at least English, addiction to the concept of the unlimited sovereignty of the Westminster parliament, which will have to be abandoned when we eventually bite the bullet and make Westminster the federal parliament and government with no jurisdiction in subjects assigned exclusively to the regions;

2. The extreme reluctance of many of the English to allow the establishment of regional parliaments and governments, seen as ‘adding an extra layer of bureaucracy’ — and expense;

3. The fact that in the debate on the EU and its powers relative to those of its member states, the word ‘federal’ has become a term of opprobrium, which hinders recognition of our current realities and their implications for further reform; and —

4. The widespread hostility to the idea of having a written constitution in a single document, a sine qua non for a properly functioning federation, since clear definition of the distribution of powers and functions is absolutely essential in a functioning federation.

So we are a federation in all but name, and because of our deep reluctance to recognise it, we are trying to run a federation which lacks certain key elements required to make it function properly and in a democratic way. And because of the four obstacles listed above, there is almost no prospect of repairing this defective situation in the foreseeable future, unless a political party emerges which (a) is prepared to exercise brave and far-sighted leadership on these issues, and (b) has a sporting chance of being elected with a working majority and a constitutional reform programme. (Incidentally, PR for elections to the House of Commons would almost certainly rule out any hope of these conditions being satisfied.)

Meanwhile we shall no doubt continue to muddle through regardless, probably making a reasonable fist of it in spite of the anomalies and loose ends.

[This is a comment that I have posted on the admirable blog The Sharpener as a response to an interesting post there by ‘Third Avenue‘.]


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