A federal UK: some more answers

A week or two ago, in a letter published in The Independent and in somewhat greater detail on this blog I argued the case for completing the process, on which we have embarked but stopped half-way, of making the United Kingdom a fully fledged federation of its four nations, with virtually all internal powers over domestic affairs exercised by the legislatures and governments of each of the nations (including England), the existing Westminster parliament and government becoming the federal tier bodies responsible mainly for foreign affairs and defence in respect of the whole of the UK.  I contend that this is the only durable and defensible solution to the West Lothian question (which asks why Scottish MPs should be able to vote at Westminster on matters affecting only England while English MPs are prevented, since devolution, from voting on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament and executive), and the only way of resolving the anomalies inherent in our present constitutional mess — especially the unsustainable situation in which England, alone of the four nations, has no parliament or executive of its own.   Even more indefensibly, the Westminster parliament tries to combine the two incompatible functions of a federal parliament for the whole of the UK (but dealing only with undevolved subjects in respect of parts of it), while simultaneously acting as a parliament for England — for which the membership of the House of Commons is manifestly inappropriate.  Much the same unsustainable contradictions afflict the British government, whose members are embarrassingly unsuited to act as a government for England, while simultaneously having to function as the government of the whole of the UK.  Sooner or later these nonsenses will have to be sorted out.

My letter in The Independent prompted two interesting comments, in further letters on 3 February 2007, each accepting the logic of a federal system, but in one case expressing reservations about going the whole hog in the way I had suggested.  My blog post of 31 January prompted numerous comments, most of them generally positive, while many advanced various objections to the federal idea.  I have promised a considered reply to the more serious of these.  This is it, or at any rate Part 1.

The Campaign for an English parliament: English nationalists please sit down, you're rocking the boat

The reaction of several correspondents, both in online comments and in private snailmail, was to welcome me as a convert to the cause of English nationalism.  I received literature inviting me to join 'The English Democrats' ("Putting England First!  We are English patriots and we are campaigning for our liberties and our rights to live as a sovereign nation…  We want a firm but fair immigration system … with 100% enforcement of Deportation Orders…", etc.), an invitation I was not in the least tempted to accept.  I  received a far more rigorously argued booklet from the 'Campaign for an English Parliament', presenting its case a good deal more persuasively than the slightly noisy nationalism of its website might suggest.  The booklet, 'Devolution for England: a critique of the Conservative Party policy "English Votes on English Matters" ' (sadly not available online), does an admirable demolition job on that half-baked Tory policy (under which only MPs for English constituencies would vote on matters affecting only England — thus providing a poor substitute for an English parliament without the inconvenience of an English executive).  It also provides conclusive answers to many of the objections commonly raised to the idea of an English parliament.  The booklet's presumed author is the Chairman of the campaign, identified (with telephone number and e-mail address) in its latest newsletter for Autumn 2006 (pdf file).  In the course of setting out the detailed arguments for an English parliament, the booklet also states the case, almost inadvertently, for a fully fledged federation of the whole UK.  Where I respectfully part company with it is in my conviction, as a Brit as well as an Englishman, that the emphasis should be on the benefits of a full federation for the whole of the United Kingdom and all four of its nations:   the arguments for an English parliament are unanswerable, but they should be subsidiary to, and always put in the context of, the federal system of which it should form a part. 

Meanwhile, embarrassment at some of the excesses of the English nationalists — right-wing extremists in many cases, Europhobes and Scotophobes, xenophobes into the bargain, true Little Englanders — should not be allowed to divert the debate; nor should the noisy wavers of the England flag be permitted to hijack the argument about the need for a true federation, one which should appeal above all to small-l liberals and internationalists of all the mainstream parties.

"England is too much bigger than the others for a federation to work"

This is much the commonest objection to the federal proposal.  It seems to me to be based on a misconception.  England more or less consistently constitutes 84% of the total population, Wales around 5%, Scotland about 8.5 %, and Northern Ireland less than 3% (yes, I know, they don't add up to 100).  The figures alone demonstrate that England is on any reckoning by far the biggest and most weighty of the four nations.  But this is a fact of UK life, which no constitutional arrangement can negate.  The question is: what kind of UK constitution is best equipped to minimise the negative consequences of England's dominance for the rest of the Kingdom?  Put this way, the answer must be that the existing unitary system (i.e. that which existed before devolution went some way to modifying it) does nothing at all to protect the other nations from English dominance: if anything, it magnifies it.  The parliament of the whole country, enjoying theoretically unlimited power over every aspect of national life in every constituent nation, was and remains dominated by English MPs.  A Conservative majority at Westminster with its accompanying Conservative government could (and did!) impose policies on Scotland (and could still impose a wide range of policies on Wales and Northern Ireland) regardless of the fact that Scotland and Wales usually return a majority of Labour MPs along with their respective nationalist party MPs.  It was English dominance that nourished the demand for Scottish self-government, echoed in differing ways by similar demands and aspirations in Wales and Northern Ireland.  This is and was the case for devolution: self-government for the three small nations so that they could get out from under the shadow of those 84 per cent of English.  Yet even devolution to Scotland of far more autonomy and powers than to the other two (and none at all to England) has failed to quench the Scots' appetite for yet more control of their own affairs, either by further devolution of yet more powers, or else by full independence, spelling the end of the Union.  The reality is that full federation, with almost all powers exercised by the individual nations, is the best and only system for protecting the small against domination by the big.  So far from disqualifying the UK from conversion to full federation, the overwhelming dominance of England positively demands it.  Complete domestic self-government for Scotland within a UK federation would offer us the best of all possible worlds: the benefits of virtual autonomy for the Scots while still giving us all, throughout the UK, the benefits of membership of a single, sovereign, internationally recognised United Kingdom.

Nor is a huge discrepancy between big and small units in a federation unprecedented.    There are huge discrepancies between the population sizes of (e.g.) California (36 million) and Wyoming (509,000), and between New South Wales (6.5 million) and Tasmania (470,000 and shrinking), yet their federations work remarkably well.  One significant protection for the smaller states, apart from their enjoyment of full control of their internal affairs, lies in equal representation in the federal upper house regardless of population size, as in the US and Australia and elsewhere.  As the Wikipedia entry for the Australian Senate says, admitting that the Senate is not strictly numerically 'representative', —

"But the proportional election system within each state ensures that [the] Senate incorporates much more political diversity than the lower house, which is basically a two party body. Consequently, the Senate frequently functions as a house of review, intended not to match party political strength in the lower chamber but to bring in different people, in terms of geography, age and interests, who can contribute in a less politicised manner to the process of legislative enactment."

The UK would need similar provisions, including PR for the federal upper house to ensure that no one party would win an overall majority in it and to enable independents and persons of experience who belong to no party to win election to it.  The precise form of the electoral systems for the two federal chambers, including whether we should continue with First Past the Post in the lower, government-creating house, would need to be settled at the all-UK Constitutional Convention tasked to draw up the draft constitution for the whole of the UK for subsequent endorsement in a country-wide referendum.  Each of the four nations will similarly hold a national Constitutional Convention to draw up its own national constitutional provisions, including the form and electoral system of each of its parliaments, again to be legitimised and sanctified in four national referendums.  

The sole remaining objection in the context of England's relative size is that there's no obvious example of a federation in which a single federal unit is so much bigger than any of the others.  So what?  It remains a truism that only full federation provides the mechanisms for protecting small against large and weak against strong, regardless of the number of the weak or the number of the strong. 

Other problems raised

In a further post here in Ephems (what, yet another one?) I shall deal, perhaps more briefly, with some of the other points that have been raised both in comments on my earlier post and also in the letters published in the Independent:  why not content ourselves with setting up an English parliament and then devolving to England, Northern Ireland and Wales the same extensive powers already devolved to Scotland, thus removing the inequalities of the present situation while leaving the Westminster parliament with its full, theoretically unlimited powers and avoiding the need for all the panoply of a formal federation?   Why should England continue to subsidise the other nations in a full federation — and how would the others survive without their subsidies from the English?  What would be the implications for EU membership?  Why should we scrap our centuries-old tradition of managing without a written constitution in a single document, with all the flexibility that this entails, but which a federal system would require us to abandon?  Why not abolish England's dominance by splitting it up into smaller geographical units?  What would be the consequences for England of doing so, and would they be acceptable?  What if the party forming a government in England was of the opposite political persuasion from the majority party at federal (Westminster) level so that they would be permanently in conflict with one another – a real possibility as long as the Tories might well win an England-only election, while Labour might continue to win at the federal level?  Why not make the Westminster parliament and government the parliament and government for England, and set up the federal bodies somewhere else — Lancaster has been suggested?  More generally, would a federal UK divided into four incomparably stronger self-governing nations mean the end of our British identity: even the end of the Union?  You can probably guess the answers I shall be offering to all these questions.  They aren't very difficult, really.


8 Responses

  1. Carl Lundquist says:


    As a foreigner and the citizen of a federal country and a ex-worker in a local government of that country, I have heretofore bit my tongue in this discussion of a UK federal constitution.  Now scanning over some of the comments in the discussion I would like to make a few points.

    1. Size of states and political power: California has 38 million people and an area twice the size of the UK.  West Virginia has 1.8 million and roughly the size and topography of Wales.  Nevertheless, until the accession of Nancy Pelosi to the Speakership of the House of Representatives, CA was infamous in Washington as a helpless giant in Congress. West Virginia otoh has Harry Byrd for a senior Senator who is the doyen of the Senate, specializes in carving up the federal budget to benefit W. VA.   Alaska with its 600,000 has Ted Stevens for its lad, and tho without the seniority chops of Bryd, Ted nevertheless does well by milking the federal budget.   CA otoh gets back only about 60 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington.   In our senate, state size is nothing, Senatorial seniority and talent is everything.   That is not a fault in the design of the Senate, it is rather the object of the design of the Senate.

    2.   States have a sort of 'national identity' even the artifical rectangular states like Wyoming and Colorado. They have individual histories, and collective histories with the other states.   Those histories are taught in the states' schools along with the US national history.   In California, it is traditional that 4th graders tour the nearest Spanish mission.   Texas kids learn all about the Alamo and memorize the names of the states counties.   Look at Germany's senate and you will see the old German principalities and kingdoms.     I do not know if England has the equivalent regions with identities but I would suggest looking at the traditional counties or even the old Anglo Saxon kingdoms. Essex and Yorkshire certainly seem to have a sense of identity.

    3. A federal government must control foreign affairs, national defense, monetary affairs, and inter-state commerce. Everything else is subject to debate.   Health care?   Well, I would submit that the USA, bar Medicare for the old folks does not have a national health plan.   However, the states of Hawaii and Massachusetts do have such, and California is getting ready to institute one. That is one great advantage of a federal system, initiatives like health, or back in history, the abolition of slavery or women's suffrage can come from the states rather than be imposed from above.   Citizens of a state do not have to wait on some distant legislature, they can do it themselves.

    4. Tho the USA is an older example of a federal government, I would suggest that the Federal German Republic is more appropriate to your situation  you all do not need a presidential system to be federal.    


    Carl L/Los Angeles  

    Brian writes:  Many thanks for this, Carl: as informative and stimulating as ever.  On your last point, I agree that we shan't need to abandon our monarchical system if and when we complete the federalisation process: indeed, it's going to be hard enough to get John J. Public to swallow federalism, without trying to ram the abolition of the monarchy down its throat at the same time.  (Later, perhaps!)  I'm a little leery about the German model if only because I'm not keen on the idea of indirect elections to the federal upper house, which seems to me to risk empowering the political parties in effect to nominate the members of the upper house, thus excluding independents and mavericks.  (They get into your US Senate via direct elections, including the occasional non-party independent — and also because party discipline in your system is far less rigorous than in ours.)  

    I think and hope it's unlikely that going over to a federal parliament and national parliaments would cause us to adopt the seniority system that rules in the US Senate (and House, I think?).  At present membership and chairmanships of committees are mainly decided by the party Whips, who take seniority into account but as only one of several factors: and if they are too outrageously partial in favour of the obedient party hacks, their selections can be overturned by votes of the whole House, and occasionally are.  It's impossible to say how things would work in a new and completely reorganised upper house (now Lords, probably Senate in a federal system) with a substantial group of non-party members and no single party having an overall majority, although I don't see seniority emerging as overridingly important.  There'll possibly be a limit to the number of terms any member of the upper house can serve and perhaps an age limit too, and if so you'd get a large number of members of equal seniority, coming in and going out at the same time. 

    I am sure there would be widespread resistance to any proposal to divide up England into regions for federal purpose, putting each on a par with Scotland and Wales, despite the theoretically tidy solution to size discrepancy that it would represent.  Some areas such as Yorkshire and Cornwall do have a strong sense of identity:  others don't (e.g. I doubt if Essex has).  Personally I would want maximum application of the principle of subsidiarity throughout the UK federation, right down to parish and district level, with strong county and borough elected bodies and elected mayors throughout the country exercising the maximum practicable powers.  We are bedevilled by over-centralism here, and one major benefit of a federal system would be to begin to unpick it.  I'll be doing a new post soon on some of these issues. 

    But all this should be settled by a Constitutional Convention preceded by a Royal Commission and followed by a referendum.  Even if the concept ever gets the go-ahead, the resulting procedures would take, I reckon, between 10 and 20 years.  It will certainly see me out!

  2. Ed Davies says:

    Well, making such a formal change would help – at least the government might get an idea as to which countries make up the UK.

    The Environment Agency have a flood map for England and Wales at


    Try scrolling up to Scotland.  The dialog box says "Sorry, you can’t pan when viewing the entire UK" .  I suppose "UK" here is, at least, shorter than "England plus the bit we weren’t quite so serious about devolving", "the odd bits of Great Britian other than Scotland"  or whatever.

  3. Carl Lundquist says:

    Indirect elections are, indeed, to be avoided.  The US Senate was originally elected by state legislatures.   We overturned that with the 17th amendment in 1912 and provided for direct election by the voters of each state.   It is a change we made that no one has ever expressed any regrets about since. 

    You are right to express doubts about the acceptance of regional governments.  Both the USA and the FRG have long histories as federated states and their regional governments actually preceded the national government — Munich was a kingdom long before Germany was an empire.  Furthermore, it retained some sovereignty even under the Reich.   Germans are used to their lander, like Americans are used to states.   It has been a long time since Wessex or Sussex have been around as operating sovereign or even partially sovereign governments – or do I have the wrong impression here?

    Brian writes:  No, I think your impression is correct, although some Cornishmen and Cornishwomen might differ, despite not having had their own separate government for many centuries.  Australia is another example that supports your case: the founding states of the Commonwealth [i.e. Federation] of Australia also pre-dated the federal state and existed in their own right, with their own governments, before federation.  They agreed voluntarily to cede certain defined powers upwards to the federal centre: it was not a case of an existing unitary centre graciously consenting to confer limited powers downwards on the lesser lower-tier units, which tends to be the impression given by, and indeed is the reality of, UK devolution.  But even though it's a very long time since England had its own government, many English have a strong sense of nationhood — and often tend to regard the all-UK government institutions at Westminster and Whitehall as in some sense English bodies which the English owners have generously allowed a limited number of Scots and Irishmen to join (the Welsh are somehow accepted as honorary English, with some reservations).  This is partly of course a function of the much greater size of England and the preponderance of English members of our national bodies, something that will need to be partially rectified when we complete our slow reluctant uncomprehending stumble into a full federation.

    Some foreigners, not just English people, seem to find it difficult to distinguish between Britain and England.  The Russians, for example, generally refer to the British embassy in Moscow (where I worked for a couple of years in Soviet days) as "the embassy of England", and not just because the Russian word for "of Great Britain" is rather cumbersome – seven syllables compared with the three syllables of "of England".  By the same token my ambassador was almost invariably "the English ambassador".  It used to drive the many Scots in the embassy crazy. Probably still does.  All the more need for a federation that guarantees the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish their own secure identity vis-à-vis the English.  It also I suppose helps to explain why this doesn't seem to be a problem for Americans (by which I mean the people of the United States, with apologies to the numerous other Americans) or Australians, who don't appear to have any difficulty in feeling themselves both (for example) Californians and Americans, or Queenslanders and Australians. 

    PS: Funny how we don't have an easily accessible and accurate single word to describe the people either of the US or of the UK:  'Brits' or 'Britons' are not words in common use and anyway they don't strictly speaking include the people of Northern Ireland.  In the same way there was no one word in English to describe the citizens of the former Soviet Union.  Americans used to call them "the Soviets", which could only in fact mean "the communist committees".  So, like the Russians calling us all, including the Scots, "the English", we used to call all the people of the USSR, including the Uzbeks and the Latvians, "Russians" — much to the chagrin of those who weren't.

  4. Carl Lundquist says:

    Do not know about Brits but there is a name for us — Americans.   In fact, we were the first people called Americans, Brits used the term well before the Revolution.   With the Revolution we became the first nation-state in the Americans.   If Bolivar had gotten his way we might have had to share the term with South Americans, but he did not and the countries of South America became Venezuelans, Columbias, Bolivians, etc..   Canadians call themselves Canadians, or Canadiens, and us Americans.   Mexicans call us Norteamericanos — which tends to confuse the Canadians but that is another story.   I won't go into Gringo

    No matter what Brits or Americans us are called, the French do not think all that well of either of us. <g>.

    Brian writes:  I know plenty of Canadians — well, several, and they are just the ones I know — who regard themselves as Americans and who strongly resent the hi-jacking of the term by the United States.  I would be surprised if there weren't lots of people in Central and South America who feel the same way. 

  5. Carl Lundquist says:

    HIghjack?  As a Canadian would say — eh.    Folks in the ill tempered 13 colonies were called Americans by the English and Scots long (100+ years) before there were anything but French and Huron in Canada.     IIRC Canada was ruled by the UK thereafter as the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada and then after 1867, Canada.    I mean, Jeez, if they prefer ‘American’  as an appelation, they sure have taken their time about the matter. 

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    It comes as a shock to Spaniards learning English to discover that American means estadounidense. But then I point out the anomaly of their own norteamericano meaning the same thing (as Carl has mentioned) and they have to concede the case.

  7. Carl Lundquist says:

    On the other hand, Peter, it is no shock to natives of Los Estados Unidos de México.  <g>

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