Reactions to a Canadian proposal for a UK Federation

Dear D.I.D.: Here are some reactions to your ideas about a federal system for the UK, as seen from your viewpoint in Canada (itself of course a federation).   I appreciate your kind remarks about this blog and the many interesting ideas and suggestions in your excellent post for a federated UK, many of which I support, while inevitably having reservations about some of the others.

For example, I predict that splitting England into regions, even if only for the purpose of equal representation in the federal upper house, would be fiercely resisted, to the point where any such proposal would probably wreck the federal project for good.  The predominance of England is a reason for equal representation of the four UK nations in the federal Senate, not an obstacle to it.  The object would be to prevent English representatives at the federal level being able to ram legislation through parliament against the opposition of any two of the other UK nations, a necessary safeguard against the domination of the federation by England.  (In the American federal Senate, little Rhode Island has the same number of Senators as California or New York State, for the same reasons.)  Remember that the only legislative subjects that would be affected by this would be the limited range of subjects, such as foreign affairs and defence, that would be assigned under the constitution to the federal level, and that very few of these would directly impinge on the ordinary lives of UK citizens — and that in addition, the powers of the Senate to amend or delay legislation coming to it from the federal House of Commons would anyway be very limited.

Once again I would stress the need to give adequate recognition to the reality that the UK is already a semi-federation, with actively functioning legislatures and governments in three of the four nations, all three with extensive powers.  The parliament at Westminster already functions for much of the time as a federal legislature for the whole UK, just as the Westminster government functions as a federal government most of the time.  It is the absurd and unsustainable paradox that both also have to function simultaneously as the legislature and government of England, with theoretically unlimited powers in England only, that makes it essential to move eventually to a full federal system, including an English parliament and government separate from those at Westminster.

The idea of an English Grand Committee of those House of Commons MPs who have been elected in England acting as a substitute for an English parliament, suggested in an earlier comment on your blog (and official Conservative Party policy!), is a non-starter, for many reasons, not the least of which is that such a ‘parliament’ could not function in a recognisably democratic manner unless accompanied by a separate English government.  It would perpetuate, instead of solving, the existing problem of dual-purpose MPs.  Moreover almost all legislation by the Westminster parliament on behalf of the whole UK inevitably impinges on England’s interests:  how would a conflict between the policies of the English Grand Committee and those of the whole House of Commons be resolved?

Some of the subjects that would normally be allocated to the federal level are already within the competence of the EU, so the new federal government and parliament at Westminster would exercise only very limited functions in respect of them — exactly as is already the case.

Several of the problems that people raise as objections to a fully federal system already exist — most obviously the massive disparity in population size, area and wealth between England and the other three nations — and are arguments in favour of federalism, not obstacles to it.  A full federal system would provide safeguards against English dominance over the other nations, mainly by giving the four nations full self-government, thus preventing England from interfering in the internal affairs of the other three nations.  At present there are few such safeguards against English dominance apart from those provided by devolution, itself a diluted and still inadequaten form of federalism.

In UK circumstances I envisage that under the constitution the (limited) subjects assigned to the federal level would be listed and defined, whereas everything else (“residual powers”) would rest with the four nations’ parliaments and governments, and these would not need to be specified, apart from a few shared subjects on which the federal organs would prevail in the event of conflict.   Thus almost every kind of law affecting the daily lives of citizens, from education and health to crime and local government, would fall within the competence of the Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English parliaments and governments. The main provisions of the federal constitution would be ‘entrenched’, e.g. amendable only by a special majority (perhaps two-thirds) in the federal parliament and with the approval of two-thirds of the members of each of the parliaments of three out of the four nations.  Some constitutional changes might also need to be approved in a national referendum or in three out of four separate referendums at the four-nations level.

Much of this would need to be worked out during the process of drawing up the detailed federal constitution following, probably, a Royal Commission, a Constitutional Convention, elections to the new English parliament and government, endorsement by the Westminster and all four devolved parliaments, and at least one national referendum.

All this would have to be preceded by a consensus between all the main UK political parties on the ultimate objective of a full federation.  I doubt if this could all be accomplished in less than 20 years.  It’s pointless to get into debates now on the details of the new régime when there isn’t even any sign of agreement among the main parties on a full federation as the long-term objective.  The first and overriding task is to try to create a national consensus in favour of federalism to which all the major parties could sign up, leaving the small print to be settled after exhaustive debate at all the many later stages.  Our present hybrid constitution with all its glaring anomalies (the West Lothian Question being only one of them) is deeply unsatisfactory and almost certainly unsustainable, as the SNP victory in Scotland has demonstrated: we have been warned, although our political leaders seem so far to have ignored the warning.  No other remotely defensible solution to our current constitutional problems has ever been proposed.  It’s really a case now of federate or bust.

Having written in more detail than I originally intended, I am posting a copy of this piece on my own blog as well as submitting it as a comment to your own admirable blog, at  Comments in either or both locations will be welcome — except that demands for separate membership of a UK federation for Cornwall may be taken as read, despite it being my favourite English county.


5 Responses

  1. Should we be concerned that federations tend to be republics? Canada (and Australia?) are royal federations by historical accident. Would we need a new name? The Federated Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Barrie. I don’t myself see any connection between the republican/monarchist issue and the federal/unitary/semi-federal issue. The need for federal-type constitutions arises primarily in countries with diverse populations comprising distinct ethnic, cultural or geographic groups which need protecdtion of their identities in order to live together under a single flag: whether history has bequeathed to them a hereditary or an elected head of state seems to me irrelevant. That the United States is a republic is as much an accident of history as the fact that the Australian and Canadian federations have (so far at least) retained their monarchical systems. There is certainly not the slightest reason why the completion of the devolution project by moving to a full federation of the UK should affect the future of the monarchy one way or the other — that should be decided on the basis of totally different and unrelated considerations.

    As for the name of our newly federated country, I doubt if it matters very much so long as we avoid, for obvious reasons, “the Federal United Kingdom” (!).

  2. robin fairlie says:

    After some years of listening to your views on this subject, I am, still with some reluctance, won over. As a Scot who opposed all aspects of devolution from Day l, and whose over-riding priority (like yours) is the protection of the UK, I find your arguments logically unimpeachable. My remaining reluctance arises from two considerations – the time and energy likely to be wasted in engineering such a project, at a time when the whole world is locked in a series of existential crises (vide your own comments on the relative unimportance of the phone hacking scandal) and the lingering suspicion that such a move may in fact never be necessary in order to preserve the unity of the UK. That is, I can’t see the Scots (or, as would seem to be the present plan, the residents-for-the-time-being of Scotland) voting for independence in the foreseeable future, and sure as hell the residents of Wales and/or N. Ireland won’t. So it remains possible that the current stupid, illogical (how very English) non-system may creak on indefinitely. Which, if realistic, would be much preferable to spending 20 years (your figure) arguing about it, and doing, in consequence, very little else. 

    Of course, the ticking bomb in all of this is the West Lothian question, primed to explode on the day when a (Labour) government is elected in Westminster with a contrary (Conservative) majority in England. Perhaps we need such a scenario to concentrate minds that never think more than 5 years ahead. Or perhasps it won’t happen – DV.

    Another consideration. If we are taking the long view (as you appear to be doing) what is the prospect within your timescale of N. Ireland achieving a republican majority, and what is the prospect, if this happens at a time when the province has left its present semi-detached position to become one of a federated quartet. (Since you don’t want to discuss details, I will refrain from mentioning the position of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man etc.)

    Despite all this (and no doubt more) I do now think we should proceed to further the adoption of your solution.


    Brian writes: Many thanks for this, Robin. I take considerable pride in having achieved this conversion, however reluctant it might be. I hope you’re right about the unlikelihood of the referendum coming out for Scottish independence: given the remarkable political skills of Mr Salmond and the two or three years in which he will be exercising them, I think it may be too unpredictable to take a No vote for granted, or to use that assumption as an excuse for lack of any action to try to preserve the UK from disintegration. In any case, I regard the promotion of full federalism as desirable in its own right, not just as a device for heading off Scottish independence, so I wouldn’t regard the effort required over 20 years or more in bringing it to birth as a waste. I agree that Northern Ireland could be a bit of a joker in the pack: if Scotland were to become independent, this might give a fillip to the Sinn Fein/IRA campaign for Irish reunification, whereas a full federation of the four UK nations, including NI and Scotland, might take the edge off NI nationalist appetites for reunion with the Republic of Ireland. I doubt if a UK federation would be viable without Scotland, and it certainly wouldn’t be viable without either Scotland or Northern Ireland, obviously!

  3. D.I.D. says:

    If you want a constitution that goes for a great deal of decentralization, then the US model of division of powers is the one to follow, provided that you can keep the federal government from using its purse strings from placing the national governments into a position of fiscal bondage. I recommend listing some core powers exclusively for the national legislatures under the constitution as a guard against this: without any direct numeration of core powers the federal government could employ an elastic reading of the constitution and the usage of the financial carrot to gain a deciding say over how some “national” powers are employed. A clean and clear separation of powers between the two, although never perfect, is neccesary to prevent either side from encroaching on the others implied jurisdiction. 

    There will still be wrangling for constitutional powers in any case. Consider the United States and Canada. The American Union was at its establishment fairly decentralized, wheras the Canadian federation at its formation leaned towards centralization. Today, they have virtually switched positions, and yet the written constitutional division of powers remains more or less unchanged. How did this happen? Because the structure of society and the economy has changed dramatically since those dinosaurs were written, some powers became have more important (esp. education and public health) while others (militia, tarrifs) died away.

    Even the most decentralised union requires that more be kept at the centre than merely embassies and guns. The UK is, and has been for centuries, a common market (with a few small reservations at its formation), so the UK government will need to keep the power to maintain this common market at least formally. Also, there will be doubtless large scale public works or programs that no nation or even all the nations could not collectively afford without the input of federal cash, so public works that are to the benefit of the whole UK should be at least influenced by federal input if not put under its direction.

    Plus, since Great Britain is a massive island but ultimately a comparatively small landmass, I question the economic  practicality of creating four still smaller jurisdictions in the realms of telecomminications, finance, and electrical generation to just name a few.

    While I suppose that economic policies could be left entirely to the regions as the EU tends to de facto exercise those powers anyway, it would probably be prudent not to wager the ancient British common market on the endurance of the EU. Regional legislatures, especially ones that carry the designation of “national” can be quite pigheaded about the exercise of their powers, so if the EU common market or its political institutions ultimately fails – and there still is a decent chance that this will happen – the national legislatures could very well be so stupid to spark a tariff war or some other form of economic protectionism within Britain.

    In most cases, border stations and toll booths between members of a federation doesn’t tend to make for a successful federation. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic or visible: Canada still has trouble with internal barriers to trade even though the country is a de jure common market. The devil is in the details.

    Also, please keep in mind that the more decentralized a federation is, the easier and more practical it would be for it to be divided, economically and socially as well as politically. As such, there needs to be enough macroeconomic and social initiatives eminating from the centre to make the whole cohesive, even at the extreme ends of decentralization.

    In short some things are best left at the centre, because a centre that is too small will become irrelevent, but putting too much at the centre creates conflict and tensions like we have right now. Everything in moderation – neither extreme centralization nor extreme decentralization is a good idea.

    The argument that political expediency would be neccesary to shelf the proposal of spliting England into different jurisdictions seems reasonable. I admit that this was more of a theoretical, very long term proposal (ie: 50 years) and as you said would encounter enourmous resistance. My pathetic little plea to not be tarred and feathered over that notion seems to have been in vain, as I bet you saw in the comments section.

    But the big question remains: how do we convince England to give up a good deal of its current power at Westminster, which a Senate based on nation states would definately entail, and how would a single English government be built so it does not neglect the poorer, underpopulated reigons of England? If the Celtic Senators develop a taste for shooting down pro-English economic legislation, then we may in a few years after federalisation be seeing a small but loud and growing group of English separatists, even more so than we are now.

    Solutions for both of these problems would be to weight the Senate in such a manner that it neither neuters England nor reduces the Celtic nations to a sort of provincial status, and to make the English Assembly bicameral (English Senate, anyone?) or at least structured to adress regional concerns.

    As for the process, it would indeed be a long haul, but a referendum or gathering the support of the major political factions would both go a long way to meeting that goal quickly. If this cannot be accomplished immediately, then I suppose the British will do as you have always done with your constitution – implement gradual, cautious reforms here and there, trick or outmanouver the vested interests that keep the broken system broken, and then drop a legislative bomb that is revolutionary in theory but merely confirms what is actually happening in practice. 

    I guess I’ll conclude by saying that the US comparison is difficult to sell to me because the American Union has fifty members instead of just four. While California and Rhode Island have a population discreptancy almost as great as that between England and N. Ireland, there are 48 other states and thus 96 other potential allies for either position in the US Senate. There are also many US states that have nearly the same population as well, and America has its economically specialized blocs that tend to have similar interests. No American state dominates the whole nation as completely and totally as England does the UK, or even as Ontario and Québec do conjointly vis a vis Canada. A four member UK makes political allies in very short supply for England, indeed.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to go over and respond to some of my ideas, and this brainstorming gets more fun when it is done by two or more instead of one.

    Back to you, Brian.

    Brian writes: Very many thanks for this meaty contribution. My views about the degree of centralisation versus decentralisation that would be desirable in a UK federation are coloured by the plain fact that over-centralisation has been the curse of UK politics for well over a century and that maximum decentralisation would be essential to convince both our politicians and our citizens that things had really changed. In my view we should start with the proposition that sovereignty and power rest with the people (not with the Crown, and certainly not with the parliament at Westminster), that they should be exercised as close to the people as is practicable, and that only those powers should be delegated by the people and the four nations to the federal level as the people agree need to be exercised centrally on behalf of the whole of the UK. Top-down devolution needs to be reversed, in other words. In any case, the history of all federations shows that federalism invariably has a strong centripetal tendency, with federal power inexorably increasing at the expense of the lower tier; so we should start with the minimum of power at federal Westminster while recognising that it’s bound to grow. Obviously the precise balance between the powers of the federal centre and those of the lower-tier units is something that can’t be defined in advance: it will emerge from the long period of negotiation and consultation which will produce the eventual federal constitution.

    I agree of course that a four-nation UK federation will differ in many important respects from the US federation of 50 states — and will differ to a much lesser extent from the six full states of Australia and the ten provinces of Canada, some of them extremely small. All three (US, Canada, Australia) exhibit huge discrepances in population size as between the biggest and the smallest states or provinces. Switzerland, with a population of around 8 million people divided into 26 cantons, could be regarded as having a system more like local government than confederation. But the fundamental point is that federalism provides safeguards against the misuse of power by the big against the small groups in a single sovereign country, and that without a federal system such abuse is much more difficult to constrain.

  4. robin fairlie says:

    Mr Salmond is, of course, the joker in everybody’s pack – a highly intelligent man, and a brilliant political operator. Two qualities in remarkably short supply in Westminster (or elsewhere in Edinburgh). It is surely significant that he has recently suggested that, rather than a simple Yes/No referendum on independence, he will introduce a further question involving extended powers for the Scottish executive. Without knowing just what is intended here, it seems obvious that any such “middle way” would be likely to obtain overwhelming support in Scotland, enabling Salmond to avoid the taint of failure, indeed to claim success, and to come back for a further bite at the cherry at a later date. At the moment he must know he would lose a straight Yes/No referendum; nor is this position likely to be reversed in three years’ time. In fact, the more precarious the state of the UK economy, not to mention the Irish, Icelandic and Potuguese, the more likely voters are to cling to nurse. What voters may have thought a reasonable gamble in the days of Celtic tigers are a lot less attractive when said tigers are seen to be composed of disintegrating paper. Salmond, of course, is an expert at riding tigers of all kinds.


    Brian writes: As I understand it, Alex Salmond’s ‘suggestion’ that there might be a third option in the referendum, ‘independence lite’, is just that — a ‘suggestion’, not at all at this stage a commitment. My guess is that he’ll keep this option open until and unless he’s pretty sure of a majority for full independence shortly before the referendum. By floating the idea now, he protects himself against the accusation of introducing it at the last moment if it’s clear then that there’s still no realistic chance of a majority for full independence. It’s an insurance policy, not evidence that he knows he can’t win the referendum. A vote for ‘independence lite’, with virtually full internal powers for the Scottish government and parliament, might well prompt demands in England (and perhaps the other two nations) for the same degree of self-government, and thus in practice move us a big step further towards a federal union.

  5. D.I.D. says:

    Thanks Brian, and I’d like to add here that I think the previous proposition for English Grand Commitees was with regards to a devolved English Assembly rather than within the UK Parliament. I agree entirely with the proposition that without its own executive an English “commitee parliament” within the UK Parliament would be weak and useless.

    England by itself does have significant regional economics, with all the social and political effects to go with them. While I guess this is true for every nation, and much more so for Canada or Russia than any of the smaller countries of Europe, but I wonder how a single English government would behave with regards to its underpopulated regions. We seem to be in agreement that the current model of the UK government tends to neglect some of the Kingdom’s regions for those selfsame  reasons of underpopulation, centralization, and economic depression, so what could be done to prevent an all-England government  from doing the same to England alone? 

    Maybe the new English Assembly could by bicameral, with an English Senate of its own to deal with regional inbalance within England. To my knowledge, most American states are bicameral (although none of the Canadian provinces and few of the Australian states are) and it seems to work well for them.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these further thougts. It would of course be for the future English parliament and government to decide how best to tackle the problems arising from disparities between the various English regions, and a second chamber of the English parliament would certainly be one way of doing it. I would anyway favour a provision in the all-UK federal constitution requiring the four national parliaments and governments to apply the principle of subsidiarity within their jurisdictions to the maximum extent possible, right down to parish level. Each should in effect mirror the federal principle writ small, and devolve power to as close to ordinary people as the traffic will bear. But it’s pointless to try to lay down this kind of requirement now, in advance of agreement on the overall principle of federalism for the UK. The issue of the English regions will be one of thousands that will have to be settled in the course of the consultations and drafting of constitutions on the way to federation.

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