A federal United Kingdom: more questions and their answers

In earlier posts (here and here) I have sought to deal with the most substantial objections raised against the federal solution that I advocate for the UK.  Here I try to answer some of the relatively more marginal questions and objections.  The first of these was suggested in one of the letters published by the Independent in reply to mine of 31 January 2007:

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?   

This hybrid system, half federal and half unitary, in which ultimate power remains with the quasi-federal central organs, perpetuates the power of England over the smaller nations by leaving open the possibility that the England-dominated federal parliament will some day take back what it had previously graciously bestowed on its subsidiary bodies.  The essence of federalism is the equal autonomous status of all the units, nations and federal centre: that the nations own their own powers, and can't be deprived of them without their own consent.  The powers of the federal centre are to be seen as ceded by the nations for the convenience of the federation as a whole, not as instruments of domination of the nations.

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?

Any attempt to divide England into smaller regional units so as to reduce the inequality of size between England and the three smaller nations would be doomed.  Hardly any region of England has a sense of its own separate identity (culture, language, history) to compare with those of Scotland, Wales and (Northern) Ireland.  A case could be made for, say, Cornwall, and perhaps Yorkshire, but not — so far as I can see — for anywhere else.  It would be represented, not entirely unreasonably, as abolishing England.   The artificiality of the resulting regions would contaminate the whole federal concept.  It would also arouse intense opposition from the growing band of English nationalists, including the most moderate and constructive of them (or us).  Above all, it isn't necessary.  Federal mechanisms can be used to minimise the negative consequences of England's disproportionate size.

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? 

In almost every federation whose units (states, provinces, Lander, nations) are unequal economically, eg in terms of development and income, there are provisions designed progressively to reduce that inequality — including in the semi-federation of the EU.  This inevitably involves a transfer of resources from the richer units to the poorer, designed to ensure that radical and increasing inequality doesn't ultimately result in the denuding of any part of the federation of its population and their opportunities.  In all federations the extent and method of such transfers, and the formula that determines how they are calculated, are among the most controversial and hotly disputed topics of political and constitutional debate.  Even in the UK, still well short of full federalism, the formula for the distribution of expenditure and resources between England and Scotland, the 'Barnett formula', gives rise to sometimes acrimonious debate.  When the federal constitution is being drawn up, through the usual procedures of Royal Commission, Constitutional Convention and referendum, provision will have to be made for a system of [re]distribution, covering all the smaller nations.  The outcome of the discussion of this provision will be determined by a long process of bargaining and haggling, and it's fruitless at this stage to try to predict how it would come out.

What if the party forming a government in England is of the opposite political persuasion to 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 (with the benefit of Labour votes in Scotland and Wales)? 

This frequently happens in federal systems.  It can occur in aggravated form in federations which have an elected executive presidency independent of, and sometimes opposed to, the separately elected legislature (as now in the US):  this is most unlikely to be a feature of a federal UK which will presumably maintain the Westminster parliamentary system under which the executive is determined by the elected parliament and both are controlled by the same party.  However, there can be no reason to expect that all the nations will elect the same party as the federation as a whole, nor will each elect the same party as the others.  The necessity of maintaining a constructive and reasonably cooperative relationship with other organs of the federation of a different political colour imposes a useful discipline.  In any case, the areas of responsibility and powers of the units and the federal centre will be almost entirely different.  

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? 

This will need to be decided along with all the many other issues arising from federalisation, but a move of either the federal government and legislature or their new English equivalents from London would be enormously expensive and disruptive.  Most of the present British departments of state, including the Home Office, and the departments responsible for education, health, transport and all other domestic or internal matters, will inevitably become departments of the government of England, since they will not come within the new federal government's sphere of responsibility.  To move them all physically to another part of England would involve huge disruption and dislocation of thousands of people's lives, with dramatic implications for housing and other public services both in London and the new location.  

Similarly, the federal departments (especially the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence but also probably including parts of the Treasury and the departments responsible for overseas development and trade), if moved out of London, would have to take with them more than a hundred foreign embassies and Commonwealth High Commissions, with all their staffs, some running to several hundred persons, and their families, homes and offices.  It would be extremely difficult, even if all these offices and homes could somehow be transferred to another city somewhere in the UK (not necessarily in England), to ensure adequate international transport facilities for a group of officials, diplomats and their families who inevitably travel internationally more than any other groups in the UK. 

Some other federations have a small separate territory in which the federal organs and their staffs are situated so as to avoid an invidious decision on which state (nation, province, Land) is to host them:  Washington DC in the US, the Australian Capital Territory in Australia, and so forth.  There might be a case for making London a separate capital territory as the home of the federal government and parliament: London already has its own elected Mayor, government and quasi-legislature so this could be fairly straightforward.  But it would mean carving London out of England and therefore moving the English parliament and government out of London, with all the attendant problems  described earlier, and it would arouse intense opposition — at least, I think it would! — in both London and the rest of England.  Londoners who are not involved in government at all would inevitably resent their loss of English rights and status and deprivation of a voice in newly devolved English domestic affairs, and many English people outside London would resent the loss of London with the enormous income that London generates.

If we were setting up a federation from scratch or at a very early stage of the development of the UK, it would make sense to create a separate capital territory like those of the US, Australia, Nigeria and Brazil, among others.  But it's now too late for that. 

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? 

There are serious problems as well as arguable benefits from the absence of a written constitution in a single document, which creates enormous uncertainties as well as almost unlimited flexibility.  Even the flexibility that stems from reliance on tradition and convention as well as on statute law and international obligations has its dangers:  for example, it could be exploited by some future authoritarian government for totalitarian or dictatorial purposes. There are also dangers in not having a constitutional supreme court with the authority to strike down as unconstitutional and invalid actions of the Westminster parliament or its government:  again, a future extremist government might well use parliament to give itself wide-ranging powers which as things stand now the courts would in theory be obliged to uphold.  A federal constitution would define the respective areas of authority of the various federal and national units, and establish an independent supreme court to monitor, interpret, defend and enforce it.  There would also be provision for special procedures and safeguards for the most important provisions of the constitution to prevent them from being amended without proper consideration or without the consent of all the elements of the federation.  A written constitution would inevitably, and usefully, include a Bill of Rights, probably based on the Human Rights Act, which would be one of the entrenched sections of the constitution requiring special procedures for amendment.  All this would help to reduce the power of the central government (and of the federal parliament), power which in our present circumstances is widely and rightly regarded as excessive.  It leads to an unwholesome centralising of power which it would be a main purpose of federalism to disperse and localise. 

What would be the implications for EU membership? 

None.  The UK would remain a single member of the EU.  None of the constituent nations (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) would qualify for separate membership of the EU or for a more direct relationship with it than they have now — any more than Bavaria does.   Some of the literature of the English nationalists suggests that the creation of an English parliament and the devolution to it of the same powers as those devolved to Scotland would somehow entitle England to separate membership of the EU.  This implies a demand for English independence, not incorporation in a UK federation.

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? 

Quite the reverse.   By removing almost all the sense of grievance in the smaller nations over the dominance of England in their government, the move to a federation would greatly strengthen the cohesiveness and sense of continuity and permanence of the whole of the United Kingdom.   A Californian feels no less American (or a Tasmanian no less Australian) just because his home state enjoys full control of its own internal affairs.  Full autonomy for all four of the UK nations would strengthen the sense of Britishness of all of them:  being British would no longer threaten their right to run their own affairs in whatever way they wished, without constant interference from Westminster or Whitehall.  All nationalists — Scottish, Welsh and English (the [Northern] Irish are in several ways a special case) — would at last be able to have their cake and eat it:  enjoying full domestic self-government, together with the benefits of an international British identity and citizenship with the status and benefits that they confer.  A desire for (eg) Scottish independence would become a harmless eccentricity.


If you're still with me, that really covers the main points.  But in case you're strong enough for even more, here are some clarifications of earlier points in reply to an eagle-eyed sceptic and friend who never misses a fudged or ambiguous argument:

I…still think you haven't fully answered the difficulty about the overwhelmingly preponderant weight of the English constituent of the federation…

Whatever the constitutional set-up of the UK, the preponderance of England will always cause difficulties.  In a unitary or semi-unitary UK, the problem creates maximum discontent outside England because a highly over-centralised Westminster parliament, overwhelmingly dominated by English MPs, and the government that it produces, insist on micro-managing every detail of life throughout the UK (or anyway they did before devolution, and still largely do).   A full federal system alone can minimise the ill effects of the problem by giving all the lower-tier nations almost total control of their own affairs, regardless of size, plus a 'Nations' House' with equal representation for each nation in the federal upper house (see below).  The difficulty can never be "fully" solved because it's a fact of life, but you can surely see that a federal system is the only way to minimise its ill effects short of breaking up the UK altogether?

….which would be exacerbated further by the small number of the other component parts.

Why?  I see no reason why it should be. In many ways it should make it easier — for example, much easier to get the agreement of four second-tier units (states, nations), or even six-and-a-half (Australia), than 50 (USA), to any constitutional amendment, and indeed before that much easier to get their assent to the federal constitution itself.

You are, of course, right that England's size has always been a problem for the Union,…

Exactly.   The trick is to minimise its negative effects as far as possible.

 ….and that the Scottish and Welsh devolutions don't seem to have done much to alleviate it.

Actually I think devolution to Scotland and Wales (and in principle to NI) clearly has gone some way to alleviating it, but apparently not far enough.

It seems difficult in equity to argue, as you appear to, that Scotland, Wales and N Ireland should have "equal representation" with England in the supra-national federal tier of government.

No, no.  I am suggesting equal representation for all the 'nations' only in the federal Upper House, i.e. the Senate — precisely as in the US and Australia.  (Bear in mind that the federal organs would have only very limited responsibilities: mainly foreign affairs and defence, and certain other matters affecting the whole of the UK, including some that would be shared with the national governments and parliaments, the latter prevailing in the event of conflict.)  It would be for the Royal Commission > All-UK Constitutional Assembly > all-UK referendum to determine the details, and also to decide the electoral system for the House of Commons, which would produce and host the federal government, just as is now the case with the British government.  In the Commons the nations would be represented in proportion to their populations (probably eliminating the present over-representation of Scotland, which would no longer be necessary since Scotland would have other and much better kinds of protection against English domination).  Since the principal function of the House of Commons would be to produce, host and sustain the federal government (unlike the US House of Reps, but like the Australian House of Reps), my vote would be for continued First Past the Post.  But that would be for lengthy public debate and decision at a much later stage.  Similarly, the whole constitution-making process would have to settle the question of the electoral system for the Senate, although I think the case for one or other form of PR for the Senate, and probably also in the upper houses of each of the nations' parliaments if some or all of them opted to have two chambers, would be almost irresistible.

The US tripod model – where elections to the Senate, House of Representatives and Presidency are all held separately and where it is possible to have a President who does not enjoy a majority in either House of Congress – is not easily applicable to the UK.

I am certainly not suggesting an elected — or any other — Presidency: why should we need such a thing just because we would become a full federation?  The Australian federation functions all right despite, or some would say because of, being a monarchy — indeed, it shares the same Queen as ours as its head of state, and it follows broadly the Westminster parliamentary system.  (I'm not saying that most Australians are satisfied with their bizarre monarchical system — they aren't;  I merely observe that federation is perfectly consistent with being a monarchy.)  There is no reason why elections to (say) one-third or a half of the Senate should necessarily always, or ever, be held at the same time as elections to the House of Commons, or for that matter at the same time as elections to the European parliament or local government elections, although Commons and part-Senate elections might sometimes be synchronised, sometimes not, depending on the reason for holding them (as in Australia).  The timing and electoral systems of local government elections would of course be decided exclusively by the national governments and parliaments, which might well all take differing decisions.

If it's objected that this would mean altogether too many elections, the answers are that (a) only one additional election will be involved, that to the federal Senate: and the House of Commons is apparently just about to vote for an elected element in the House of Lords which will mean one more election anyway.  In England there would of course also be elections to the English parliament.  But that too is probably coming anyway.  And (b) there's a very strong case for making voting compulsory in the main elections, i.e those whose results determine the political colour of a government.  However, since the national parliaments and their governments would have far-reaching responsibilities for virtually all internal affairs and would be much more accessible to their electorates than the present Westminster equivalents, a lively interest in national (local) politics would probably revive even without compulsory voting.

I ought to put down a marker here about the future of the monarchy.  For various reasons I would like the UK eventually to become a Republic with an elected but non-executive President (as in Germany and elsewhere).  But I fear that some (not all) of our conservative, risk-averse, xenophobic, constitutionally largely uninformed compatriots, and the red-top media, would find a federal system and the abolition of the monarchy too rich a meal to swallow all in one mouthful.  Indeed, to pick'n'mix metaphors, hitching the latter up to the former would undoubtedly sink them both.  The federation is clearly the more urgent of the two.  One thing at a time!


I rest my case.  Your turn. 


1 Response

  1. Gareth says:

    You are quite right, Brian, with pretty much all of your arguments. I have argued most of these points to many people but it seems in British nature not to understand what federalism is. Arguing with nationalists is a non-starter, whether they be English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, as they quite simply believe in the nation state set on their boundaries, usually fuelled with a hatred of the other nations. The more common and more moral-grounding group are the scores of indifferent English who don't seem to care. A good many of the English are oblivious to the West Lothian Question and what it entails. The other big stumbling block is that many better informed people seem to confuse the issue of constitutional settlement between the British nations with that of English local government: hence regional assemblies and the 'nations and regions' ideology. Those who argue this ideology not only argue that England is 'too large' to be a member state, a myth you have already exposed, but also that England would still be so large that the power wouldn't be that much closer to the people. Correct, but not the point. This isn't about English local government, this is about England's relationship with its British brethren. Ideally, I would want an English state to devolve certain powers to sub-national entities, preferably counties and metropolitan areas as opposed to largely artificial regions. But this would be the responsibility of the English national government, not the British federal government.

    As for the capital debate, I feel it should be the federal capital that moves, as London is the capital of England and seen as such by all nations of the UK. My personal suggestion for UK capital would be Liverpool. Firstly, Liverpool is centrally located withing the British Isles; and, secondly, has links and quite good relations with all four nations.  It (and its metropolitan area) could be taken out of England and become a federal district. I feel the city has a large local identity larger than that of being English, so it's ideal. Also, it's a reasonably sized city (over a million in the metropolitan area) and quite well known internationally, unlike Canberra and Ottawa.

    One last idea, though I'm no expert in this subject, but in any upper house (or weaker house of the UK) I feel that splitting the representatives 25% each between the four nations is pushing it too much, even if the dominant chamber is completely unbiased. I propose the possibility of a system where Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh have a member for x number of populace and England has the total of this minus one. Therefore, there's no way English politicians have more than half the total number in the house. I feel this could be more acceptable. 

    Nevertheless, none of this is going to happen anytime soon. I fear English discontent will be allowed to rise to the point where the union falls apart and Britons who previously never had grudges against each other develop a dislike, due to chronic nationalism, for the other nations. On the bright side, we'll have individual entries in the Eurovision and conspire to give one another all the top marks, if we don't hate each other too much at this point.

    PS:  Just to clarify the representation system, which I feel I didn’t explain well above, it would work like this: Scotland would have X amount of representatives, Wales would have Y amount, and Northern Ireland would have Z amount. This would be in relation to population, and so Scotland would have more than Wales, which would have more than Northern Ireland. England would have this formula:  N=(X+Y+Z)-1, so if, for example, the total of Northern Irish, Scottish & Welsh representatives came to 50, England would have 49, which means no legislation could be passed in that house with merely English votes (not including abstaining politicians).

    Brian writes:  Many thanks for this, Gareth.  If I may respectfully say so, you make many excellent and cogent points, although I still have my doubts about the huge cost and disruption involved in moving the federal capital from London.  

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