Here’s a Big Idea for Gordon Brown

Our prime minister-elect needs to shake up politics by coming into office with a Big Idea: one that's new and original, not already under contract to David Cameron or the Lib Dems (still less espoused by Tony Blair), ideally one that will remove the albatross of the West Lothian Question from his Scottish shoulders and give his government a distinctive, controversial and exciting flagship policy from the start.

Here it is.

Today's Independent publishes a letter from me which offers Gordon Brown just what he needs:

Brown's chance for a historic reform

Sir: Our prime minister-elect half-promises a written constitution, but without revealing what might be in it, apart from reducing the powers of our over-centralised government, and giving local people and their institutions more control over their lives. As a Scottish MP, Mr Brown must also be anxious to find an answer to the West Lothian question and to avoid the calamity of Scottish secession from the UK. And he must be casting around for ways to rekindle popular involvement in politics.

He could achieve all these aims, and secure an honoured place in history, by leading the country into acceptance of a fully federal constitution which provided for self-government for our four constituent nations, with the Westminster parliament dealing only with foreign affairs and defence, plus a few constitutional matters affecting the whole of Britain.

This would involve a written constitution and a parliament and executive for England, not as the chief purpose of the great reform (and not for narrow nationalistic reasons) but as a major consequence of it.  We are already halfway there with limited (and still reversible) devolution to three of the four nations, but to escape from the West Lothian and Scottish separatist dilemmas, we need eventually to go the whole hog. Has this cautious son of the manse the imagination and courage to take the first steps in such a radical reform?


Such a sweeping reform would take many years to complete: it would require a great national debate, an all-UK Constitutional Convention and another for England, at least one Royal Commission or its equivalent, eventual approval in principle by parliament, and one or more referendums.  All would be hard fought.  Before a federal system could be installed, a parliament and government for England would need to be established, in itself a huge and controversial undertaking that could not be completed in just a year or two.  Reaching agreement on the respective powers of the national parliaments and their governments on the one hand, and the federal parliament and government at Westminster (or wherever it might be decided to situate it) on the other would be a Herculean task in itself.  Even to secure sufficient support for the launch of the whole enterprise would require inspired and far-sighted leadership, something Mr Brown might well be able to provide.

But just think of the prizes!  By proposing a constitutional settlement that would remove the power of the Westminster parliament to legislate for England's internal affairs (education, health, crime, the environment, transport, culture, sport, and much more), Mr Brown will free himself at a stroke from the suspicion of being a centralist control-freak, congenitally unable to give up power.  He will have the complete answer to those who quote the West Lothian Question to challenge the legitimacy of a Scottish MP in No. 10 laying down the law for England on matters which he can't impose on his own constituents because they have been devolved to Scotland.  He will be championing a settlement which should satisfy those of his Scottish countrymen tempted by the idea of Scottish independence by completing the transfer of all internal powers to Scotland's own parliament and government, thus undermining the case for Scottish secession from the UK.  He will remove the growing discontent among English people of all political persuasions who resent being the biggest of the UK's nations yet also the only one without its own parliament and government.  He will carve out his own political space, owing nothing to Tony Blair.  He will be able — indeed compelled — to seek support for his proposals from across the political spectrum, rising above trivial yah-boo party politics and presenting himself as a national leader.  Above all he will be the author of a new and durable constitutional settlement for the nations of the United Kingdom that will secure his place in British — and Scottish — history. 

But what if he rejects such a radical plan as too difficult, too far-reaching, too open to nit-picking objections and frustrating delays?  What if he is daunted by the thought of a Tory government in England at loggerheads with a Labour federal government at Westminster — a situation with which all existing and successful federations are familiar and relaxed? 

The danger is that the written constitution for which Gordon Brown has begun to argue will set in concrete all the most anomalous and unsatisfactory features of our present half-devolved and half-baked constitutional arrangements, thus greatly complicating the eventual task of converting it into a fully-fledged federation with full control of all internal affairs by the four constituent nations — as we shall eventually be forced to do.  A written constitution will inevitably entrench its main provisions, including existing devolution, so that they will be amendable only by special procedures (such as approval by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament, and perhaps also the approval of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments).  It's hard to imagine a more effective obstacle to further necessary change.  If we are to have a written constitution, it's obviously essential to get it right first time. There may not be another opportunity for a generation or more. 

Tailpiece: FAQs: Those who are unfamiliar with the arguments for and against a federal United Kingdom may care to glance at the more detailed case, including answers to the objections most commonly raised, at, (with some answers to common objections), (another batch of answers to questions) and including 20 comments by others. 


20 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    Eminently sensible plan.  You’ve got my vote.

  2. Toque says:

    "By proposing a constitutional settlement that would remove the power of the Westminster parliament to legislate for England’s internal affairs (education, health, crime, the environment, transport, culture, sport, and much more), Mr Brown will free himself at a stroke from the suspicion of being a centralist control-freak, congenitally unable to give up power."

    But he is a centralist control-freak, congenitally unable to give up power, so he won’t.  I agree with what you say though, an English parliament in a federal UK is the answer.  As an Englishman I won’t settle for anything less, I’d rather civil war than see England sacrificed at the alter of unionism to fulfill Gordon Brown’s perverted fantasies.

  3. HomeRuleforEngland says:

    An English Parliament  elected on a PR basis would be very unlikely to deliver a Tory government with an overall majoriy in England. At the last general election in England the Tories polled only slightly more seats than New Labour. Both gained about  38% of the vote. The Lib Dems polled 20%.

    Brian writes:  I agree that under PR no party would be likely to win an overall majority of the seats in an English parliament — just as under PR no party has been able to win an overall majority in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and if we had PR for elections to the House of Commons, no party would win an overall majority there either.  Hence the current frustrations and anomalies as different parties try to cobble together improbable coalitions in Scotland (where it has proved impossible, with no agreement among the parties on any kind of policy programme apart from abolishing tolls on a bridge) and Wales, where Plaid Cymru (with 15 seats to Labour's 26) is currently trying to form a coalition government with the Tories (12 seats) and the Lib Dems (6 seats), thus hoping to exclude from government the party which won the largest number of seats.  Hardly the result that Plaid voters thought they were voting for!  But that's PR for you.

    In England at the 2005 general election I think that in fact Labour won more seats than the Conservatives, despite the Conservatives having won more votes — something that has happened a couple of times in all-UK elections since the war, once to the advantage of Labour and once to the advantage of the Tories.  According to one Web analysis of the 2005 election results in England, —

    More people voted for the Conservatives in England than for Labour – but the Conservatives won 92 seats less than Labour within England (285 to 193). The Conservatives received 60,000 more votes than Labour in England. 

    If England were to have its own parliament with the function of producing a government, it would be up to the English voters at a constitutional assembly and later at a referendum to decide what kind of electoral system they wanted for their parliament.  If they opted for PR, no party would be likely to win an overall majority and therefore no party would be able to govern alone.  Whether a Tory-dominated or a Labour-dominated government would emerge from the resultant horse-trading, it's impossible to predict.

  4. M.Taylor says:

    volutionary  There is as much chance of us getting a fair devolutionary settlement and our own parliament as getting Neo [New?] Labour to allow the English a day off on St. George's Day or for 'Jerusalem'  to be played at football and rugby matches instead of the faded and colonialist 'God Save The Queen' which belongs to no-one.

    The existing Scots-run  Westminster government works for the benefit of Scotland courtesy of the Barnett formula which kindly subsidises them to the tune of £8 billion a year. Are they likely to give this up? Not if  they can keep their unconstitutional PM in power and their undemocratic lop-sided devolution in place, all at the expense of the 85% who make up the power house of the disfunctional mechanism laughingly called the 'UK'.

    Brian writes:  Some fiscal redistribution from richer to relatively poorer areas is a necessary and healthy feature of both a unitary system (such as we had before devolution) and a federal system (which we shall eventually be forced by the logic of the situation to adopt); also of the half-unitary, half-federal system that we have now.   For those in the richest nation of the United Kingdom to resent the fairly modest 'subsidy' that we pay to the less well-off and the more needy is at best ungenerous, as well as unrealistic.  Scottish MPs have every bit as much right to places in the government of the whole UK as anyone else:  they are there because they enjoy the confidence of a majority of MPs elected throughout the kingdom, including the 80 per cent or so elected in England, and to decry the British government as 'Scots-run' and operating 'for the benefit of Scotland' is wholly unwarranted.  The whole system is deeply flawed (hence the need to complete the federal process), but not in the way you imply.  And, incidentally, our national anthem belongs to all of us in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — including even Little England nationalists.  So, of course, does 'Jerusalem', even if it does mention England rather than the UK!

  5. Toque says:

    "For those in the richest nation of the United Kingdom to resent the fairly modest 'subsidy' that we pay to the less well-off and the more needy is at best ungenerous"

    Yes England is the richest but Scotland isn't the least well-off, so why does it receive so much more than Wales, and so much more than many of the English regions that need the money more.

    I agree with transferring funds to level the playing field so that we all have access to the same services and the same level of social provision.  But that's not what is happening here.  Scotland is being bribed, successive governments have failed to address their over-funding because they fear Scottish nationalism.  Scotland is one of the richest regions of the UK and it has had money poured into it at such a rate that the last Labour administration actually had trouble spending it on several occasions. 

    The message is clear, if you want more money, or at least your proper share, be more nationalistic – threaten separatism – like the Scots.

  6. johnny reb says:

    Freedom and democracy for N Ireland, Scotland, Wales without bloodshed and without enormous loss of life.

    Freedom and democracy for Iraq with bloodshed and an enormous loss of life.

    Lets have freedom and democracy for England without bloodshed and enormous loss of life.

    Brian writes:  No-one will disagree with that.  But the focus should be on the relationships between the four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and between each of them and the United Kingdom, with the settlement for England depending on that larger question rather than on nationalistic sentiment.  England dominates the Union so hugely in our present quasi-unitary constitutional arrangements that we English really have no need to wave the nationalist flag:  and doing so simply exacerbates bad relations with the rest of our country and obstructs an eventual settlement in the interests of all of us.

  7. John Justice says:

    Gordon Brown and Lord Falconer, Alexander Darling  etc will maintain the Tony Blair lopsided 'devolution' because it is in the interests of the Labour Party and allows it to maintain power at Westminster. In the same way the interests of Scotland are paramount to keep it within the UK. (You try finding a mention of England on the Labour Party Website!) John Prescott famously said that 'There is no such thing as English' and this is the government line. If England wants democratic and fiscal equality with Scotland and the other home nations it will have to take it for itself. As for the national anthems- 'God save the Queen/King' should be a Royal Anthem for the UK. Sorry Brian, but 'Jerusalem' is a wonderful ENGLISH anthem and will become the English National Anthem and played when English Teams rather than British or UK teams are on the pitch, such as at Croke Park in Ireland recently..!

    Brian writes:  You may well be right to be pessimistic, John, but I hope you'll turn out to have been wrong.   I'm not sure that Gordon Brown will necessarily agree that devolution in its present half-baked form is in the interests of the Labour Party:  it has already excluded Labour from power in Scotland, its own heartland and fortress, and could still exclude it from power in that other Labour safe zone, Wales;  Northern Ireland is ruled by the two most extreme parties of left and right, excluding Labour's natural centre-left allies;  there is a growing threat of secession from the Union by Scotland, fuelled by dissatisfaction at the continuing micro-management of Scottish affairs from Westminster despite devolution;  and the Tories won more votes in England at the last election than Labour.  If I were in Gordon Brown's shoes (which thank the Lord I'm not, Sir), I'd be pretty worried by the way devolution is working out, partly due to the vagaries and anomalies produced by PR but also because of continuing over-centralised control by Westminster and the continuing dominance of England, and I would be casting around for ways to improve matters before it's too late.

    I'm not sure what you mean by saying that if England wants equality with the other UK nations it will have to "take it for itself", but if you mean what that seems to mean, then I couldn't disagree more strongly.

  8. Geoff Pearse says:

    I wonder if Gordon Brown will take the chance to prove that he is a man of principle by accepting that his position as an elected Scot is not tenable and that he does not have the backing of a considerable number of the English electorate.He could prove it by giving priority to setting up an English Parliament without delay in the same way that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly were instituted. If he chooses to argue about the difficulties and the time it would take rather than getting on with it he will lose what little respect he has.

  9. Len says:

    I totally agree with a requirement for an English parliament, it is ludicrous to even imagine that Britain can carry on with this problem unresolved. Browns first priority upon getting into office should be to address this problem, and inform the English people of his intentions and also include a timetable.

    Regards Len H. 

  10. Brian says:

    I'm a little sad that so many comments posted here have homed in on just one element in the package I advocate, namely the creation of a parliament for England.  Actually the proposals are for something that goes well beyond that, involving a wholly new settlement that would re-define the relationships between the four nations of the UK and between the four nations and the UK itself, united for the first time in a federal system which would give full power to run all their internal affairs to each of the four nations, and restrict the sphere of activity of the federal parliament and government (i.e. the current Westminster parliament and government) to foreign affairs and defence plus some other matters affecting the whole of the federation, while preserving the United Kingdom as a single sovereign state, with all the obvious benefits which that confers on all of us.  It would put an end for all time to the kind of nonsensical situation we have now, in which MPs and ministers sitting in SW1 see fit to decide how often rubbish should be collected from people in St Agnes, Cornwall, and in Hartlepool, and probably also in Cardiff and Berwick-on-Tweed;  and whether people should be allowed to smoke cigarettes in working men's clubs in Truro and Accrington.  Our politicians preach the principle subsidiarity in Europe but can't bring themselves to practise it in their own back yards.  Federation would embed it permanently in the country's DNA.

    To pick out the English parliament as if this was the sole topic of any interest in this scheme of things is really a bit eccentric.  I suppose it demonstrates the power of nationalism, even on the part of the English who have to work really hard to think up a credible grievance against their fellow-Britons in order to justify it.  It would be nice to think that at least some readers of this (in addition to those who have helpfully commented on the federalism question) can see the big and impressive wood and not just the relatively petty trees. 


  11. I cannot see how federalism can do other than reproduce the strains that led to devolution and I am suspicious of written constitutions.  I cannot imagine Gordon Brown willingly disqualifying himself from any process that might possibly lead to the enslavement of the people of England (it is after all not appropriate for a Scotch MP to participate in writing an English constitution) and I believe that all Br*tish legislation enacted since the creation of the Scotch parliament and Welsh assembly is tainted, and must, where possible, be repealed. 

    Apart from that I think you make some interesting points.

    Brian writes:  Thanks.  I fear that we come at this from such widely different angles that dialogue is unlikely to be fruiful: for example, in my view talk of the "enslavement" of England is way over the top and unhelpful in sorting out our current tangles.  I would just take you up on one point:  if we were to embark on a process leading to an eventual federation, as I propose, no Scottish (or 'Scotch' as you pejoratively put it) MP would be involved in writing an English constitution.  There would be some kind of English Constitutent or Constitutional Assembly to seek agreement on the form of self-government to be introduced for England within the new UK Federation, followed by a draft Constitutional Act for England, followed by a referendum (in England only) to approve or reject it.  No Scots would be involved in this (unless individuals of Scottish origin were to be elected, directly or indirectly, by English voters to participate at any specific stage), any more than English or Welsh MPs or others participated in drawing up the instruments of devolution for Scotland.  There would be a similar but separate process covering the whole of the UK for drawing up and approving the new federal constitution for the whole country, including the definition of the respective powers of the four national parliaments and governments and of the single federal parliament and government, in which obviously all UK citizens from all parts of the UK would be eligible to participate. 

    None of this would necessarily, or even probably, increase the number of politicians in the system, an objection often raised ("We don't want yet more politicians — there are too many already").  The new federal parliament would be very much smaller than the present Houses of Commons and the Lords, and the new English parliament (which might well have only one chamber, depending on what English voters wanted) could be even smaller, the reduction in the one probably exceeding the introduction of new politicans in the other.

    But all these matters, however important, are details to be worked through over several years once the principle of the ultimate objective is established — a federal United Kingdom (although those unfortunate initials would probably require a different name!).  

    On your general point (that federation would 'reproduce' the strains that led to devolution), I would argue that on the contrary, a federal system would much reduce those strains by (1) removing the power of an English-dominated — or, as some would argue, Scottish-dominated — all-UK parliament and government to interfere in the purely domestic affairs of each of the four constituent nations, and (2) by disentangling the nonsensical situation in which the Westminster parliament and government try to perform two incompatible functions simultaneously — legislating for and governing the whole of the UK except on matters devolved to three of the four constituent nations, and at the same time acting as a parliament and government for just one of the four (England), on matters that have mostly been devolved to the other three.  These are the pressing problems that have led to the present unsustainable situation, summed up in the West Lothian Question.  Federalism is the only way of answering it in a durable and democratic way.  There will always be problems arising from the disparities in size and wealth of the four nations, but a federal system is by far the best way of minimising their disruptive effects and ultimately of resolving them without the threat of a collapse of the Union, which would benefit no-one and harm us all.

  12. Toque says:

    "I'm a little sad that so many comments posted here have homed in on just one element in the package I advocate, namely the creation of a parliament for England.  Actually the proposals are for something that goes well beyond that, involving a wholly new settlement that would re-define the relationships between the four nations of the UK and between the four nations and the UK itself"

    Brian, I can understand your frustration but it has to be pointed out that England needs national representation before the four nations of the UK can enter into negotiations to re-define the relationship between them. 

    What you are suggesting is a new idea of sovereignty, a reconfiguration where sovereignty is shared and resides at the peripheries rather than absolute at the centre.  At the moment England does not exist in a constitutional sense. 

    I would suggest an English constitution to establish the 'sovereign right of the English people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs' (as Gordon Brown endorsed for Scotland) and when we have decided that we can have a UK constitutional convention to decide how the sovereign right of the English people can be dove-tailed to fit with the sovereign right of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.  Starting from a position of democratic and constitutional equality would seem like the only reasonable starting point.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this.  I am replying in a new separate comment.

  13. Brian says:

    Toque, thanks, but I think your suggestion is a bit like the reply of the Irishman who is asked by a foreign visitor for directions to a remote village :  "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here."   (Not a racist joke: the Irish aren't a race.)  The fact is that sovereignty is currently an attribute of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that's where we have to start from.  Moreover, under any remotely realistic scheme, that's where sovereignty will continue to reside, whatever internal arrangements we might make for devolving a massive amount of power away from the federal centre.  A grouping of four sovereign nations such as you seem to advocate would be a loose Confederation, not a federation, and I can't see that being a starter. 

    I agree of course that before forming a formal federation, the UK would need to put England on the same broad footing as the other three of its constituent nations, with its own parliament and government;  the subsequent all-UK federal constitution would define or confirm their powers, along with those of the corresponding parliaments and governments of the other three nations and those of the federal centre.  But none of the four could be sovereign, independent entities: nor would that be in the least desirable. Among many other objections, it would be impossible for obvious reasons to get all-party agreement in Northern Ireland to the establishment of Northern Ireland as 'sovereign'.  Some of the people of that province want NI to remain part of the sovereign state of the UK, and others want it to become part of the sovereign state of Ireland:  AFAIK, no-one in NI wants it to become sovereign and independent (although I suspect that plenty of people in England would be quite happy if it did!).

    Incidentally, what I am proposing is certainly not 'new':  it's a classic form of federalism on exactly the same lines as that enjoyed and successfully practised by many other countries, and one of its objectives would be to preserve the UK as a sovereign and independent country, not to break it up in the way that in effect you propose.  In my view it will be a tragedy if the federal idea, which would solve so many British problems, were to be diverted and undermined by being hi-jacked by enthusiasts for English independence and the break-up of the UK, not really interested at all in the ultimate goal of a united and federated United Kingdom.

  14. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, a couple of points.

    No federal system in the world would advocate one parliament elected by 90% of the population of the country – so an English parliament would just be too powerful compared to the others and make a break-up of the UK even more likely.

    Your arguments against PR are just laughable – to have one party  – The Tories – ruling with just 35% of English votes is a travesty. It also ignores the very real regional differences – Labour get 40-50% of the vote in the North of England compared to the Tories 20-25% – in the South the percentages are almost reversed. Tory rule over all of England is likely to foster the same resentment in the North of England that led to the Celtic fringes demanding devolution.  PR regional government solves the West Lothian problem and gives a voice to all the regions. You also forget that 10% of England has already voted overwhelmingly to have regional government – you conveniently want to overule the democratic choice of Londoners (then there are the dozen or so city mayors in England decided by referendum that you want to overrule).

    Finally, PR has not been a disaster in Scotland, Wales etc – a couple of weeks of open negotiation is better than a quick installation of one party dictatorship that most voters opposed. Scotland and Wales have the fastest growing economies and are spending more on public services and also now have a much stronger voice in the Union. Not bad for an electoral system still going through its teething stages.  This 'world will end with PR' stuff is absolute rubbish – countries that have had the longest periods of PR elected government have also had the highest growth, best funded public services, lowest inequality, best environmental legislation and highest political engagement. It is our system that is a nightmare that chops and changes policy and undermines any long-term strategy needed to improve the country's infrastructure and business environment. Check out Germany and Scandanavia and tell me their governments are not better than ours.

    The spoilt ballot papers in Scotland were mostly in the first-past-the-post section not the PR bit. It was inadvisable to have different electoral systems used for different elections on the same day – the Electoral Commission warned about this – this was an administrative error and nothing to do with PR.

    Brian writes: Neil, thanks for these cogent points, with which however I don't agree!  I am replying in a separate comment.

  15. Neil Harding says:

    By the way, having a written constitution (changed only by 66% support in parliament) to protect a proper regional federation would be a good idea, although PR would reduce the need by at least ensuring 50% support for change. It seems however from your post that a FPTP English parliament is what you are really trying to achieve.

    Brian writes:  No, my overriding objective is a full federal system with maximum devolution of as much power as possible right down to parish and village level if possible, but in any case removing all power over purely domestic affairs from the central government and parliament at Westminster.  The need for a parliament for England is a by-product of the federal objective, not a primary aim, although it's also part of the only logical answer to the West Lothian Question.  If it were to be my decision, I would have FPTP for all chambers (federal and national) that generate a government and PR for all mainly deliberative and therefore as far as possible representative bodies, i.e. Upper Houses.  But that would be for the respective electorates at both levels and in each nation to decide for themselves, and they might or might not choose either a two-chamber parliament for each of the five legislatures, with or without PR for either or both chambers in each case, or unicameral parliaments with or without PR.  Each nation would be free to choose what it wanted regardless of what the other three and the federal electorate decided for themselves. The only sine qua non would be a bicameral federal parliament with equal representation for each of the four nations in the second chamber or Senate. 

    Similarly, it would be for the electorate of the whole country to decide how the federal constitution should be protected and which provisions should be specially entrenched.  One possibility for the latter would certainly be to require a two-thirds majority in both houses of the federal parliament to amend an entrenched clause of the constitution, plus a two-thirds majority in both houses (or the single house) of three out of the four nations (which would prevent England having a veto, given that all four nations would have equal representation in the federal upper house).  Another possibility would be to submit all proposals for amendment of the entrenched clauses to a referendum, or several referendums, with a special majority in favour being required.  But all this, however important, is really detail.  The first thing is to move towards a consensus in favour of a federal system.  The precise forms of it should be left for later popular decision, guided by the recommendations of a Royal Commission and a series of constitutional conventions. 

  16. Brian says:

    Neil, this is a reply to the first of your two meaty comments above.  I have appended my comments on the second to the comment itself.

    Your main and most apparently persuasive comment is that —
    "No federal system in the world would advocate one parliament elected by 90% of the population of the country – so an English parliament would just be too powerful compared to the others and make a break-up of the UK even more likely."

    Apart from the fact that the figure for the proportion of the electorate voting in England is, I think, closer to 80% than 90% (which doesn’t really affect your point), you need to remember that we already have "one parliament elected by [80%] of the population of the country" — and yet we have none of the safeguards available in a federal system against the domination of the remaining 20% by the English 80%.  A federal system would reduce the negative consequences of England’s disproportionate numerical strength in the UK by (1) having equal representation for each of the four nations in the federal second chamber (the Senate) so that the English Senators couldn’t out-vote the others on their own, (2) devolving all powers over domestic affairs to the four national parliaments, so that the English government and English parliamentarians in both the federal and the English parliament would have absolutely no say in (e.g.) the education, health or crime policies of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and (3) ensuring that the main provisions of the federal constitution allocating all domestic powers to the national parliaments and governments could be amended only with the consent of a convincing majority of the people and parliaments of three out of the four nations (thus also preventing the English 80% from using their numbers to claw back powers from the smaller nations against their wishes).

    The fact is that England is far bigger in numbers and wealth than the other three put together, and this is not a function of a federal constitution, any more than it’s the function of a unitary system such as we used to have, or of the semi-federal system that we have now.  The West Lothian Question and pressure for Scottish secession from the UK both reflect resentment of this untrammelled power of England to impose its will on the other three nations, and at present we have no way of limiting that power (devolution, which does somewhat limit it, could be repealed tomorrow by the English majority at Westminster).  A federal system would enable us to install various safeguards against the misuse of England’s disproportionate size, safeguards that are not available to us at present.  It would make the break-up of the United Kingdom much less likely, not more so.

    I don’t follow your point about an English parliament being "just … too powerful compared to the others".  They wouldn’t be in competition with each other.  Each would be legislating for and producing the government of its own nation, and no-one else’s.  The state legislature of New York or California is incomparably more powerful and is elected from a far bigger electorate than that of, say, West Virginia or Rhode Island, but that doesn’t affect, still less bother, the inhabitants of the smaller states.  The internal autonomy of each state, however small, is protected by the constitution and by each state’s equal representation in the federal Senate.

    On PR, I remain convinced that the ability to produce a reasonably stable and durable government, not at the mercy of a small minority holding the balance of power, and able to seek election on the basis of a coherent set of policies which it is then able to carry out (or, if it fails to do so, for which it can be held to account by the electorate) is more important and more desirable in a chamber (such as the House of Commons) whose main function is to generate, sustain, hold to account and if necessary dismiss a government, than having a lower house that is arithmetically representative of the electorate as a whole but unable to produce a durable government with predictable and accountable policies.  However, I would be in favour of substituting the Single Transferable Vote system for FPTP in government-generating chambers.  (It isn’t PR.)

    I understand the arguments for breaking England up into separate regions but I believe that they are ultimately unsustainable, and would be fiercely resisted by very many English people as a Scottish plot to destroy England.  Anyway, it would be open to an English parliament in a four-nation federation to devolve as much of its own power as the electorate wanted, further on down to regional assemblies and administrations, and thence to cities, towns and counties, and thence to even smaller units such as parishes — exactly as happens in (for example) the federal United States.  There is no reason why London should cease to enjoy its own elected administration and assembly in a federal UK system within England as one of the four federated nations. 

    The problem (which you stress) of different parts of the same political unit tending to vote in different political directions (the north of England voting mainly Labour and the south mainly Tory, for example) can of course arise however far you take the process of fragmentation, until you arrive at units so tiny that they are politically completely homogeneous.  The only result of this is hugely to strengthen the federal or national centre, which will then have no separate administrative unit big enough to stand up to it.  The solution is devolution of the maximum possible power down to the smallest practical local level.  American and French cities, towns and even small villages each have their own elected Mayor with extensive local power and authority.  Why can’t we?  It’s fully compatible with a federal system — indeeed, it reflects and reproduces it.

    Finally, it seems to me to imply contempt for the electorate to suggest that ordinary voters are incapable of casting their votes under different electoral systems on the same day.  If Australians can do it (and they do), why can’t we?  Actually, we already do:  when elections to the European parliament under the deplorable closed party list system are held on the same day as national parliamentary elections in Britain under FPTP, voters have to distinguish between the two systems.  Most people cope all right.  It might take a little while for some to get used to different systems within the same country or nation, but it would soon become familiar and easy, especially with plenty of guidance in the press and on radio and television, by leaflet, etc.

    Federalism would spell the overdue end to our present grossly over-centralised system;  an end to England’s dictatorship in the minutiae of domestic policy in numerous fields throughout the country, despite devolution; an end to Scottish MPs influencing policies that apply only in England because they have been devolved to the other nations;  and an end to the moaning about a Scot leading the federal government, since all four nations would be electing their representatives to the federal institutions and all would be equally affected by its policies and decisions.  What other possible system could achieve such benefits?


  17. Neil Harding says:

    Brian – it seems from this latest reply that we broadly agree.

    A referendum on each electoral system is all I ask – if people choose FPTP fair enough – I personally I think the majority would choose a PR system for each parliament.

    If you are advocating devolving power to the lowest practical level – the principle of 'subsidiarity' – then I am completely with you – this of course is an EU principle. I am also in agreement on mayors elected in towns and cities and as long as that preserves the present London government that is good as well.

    I think since you have ceded that devolving power to the lowest possible level is the objective, I fail to see the relevance of an English parliament. If Scotland and Wales with 5m and 3m popn respectively are large enough to manage their own affairs then so is the North West and the South East etc.  As you acknowledge there are very real regional differences in England that cannot be ignored and regional government solves the West Lothian Question just as well as an English parliament I don't see what your objection is.

    You state that the size of the parliament has no relevance on its power within a federal nation – if that is so – why object to regional government?  You seem to contradict your own argument by stating that it is a 'Scottish plot' to limit English power by having regional government  – so I think you realise that an English parliament would have disproportional influence (to be precise having 85% popn) within the UK. It may not have direct power over Scotland, Wales etc but would have undue influence.

    Finally to lock in and protect this devolved settlement in a written constitution sounds like a good idea to me – as long as it truly is decided by the people in wide ranging and indepth referenda.

    Brian writes:  Yes, our views have much in common.  Just to be clear on one point:  I didn't 'state' that "it is a 'Scottish plot' to limit English power by having regional government":  I said that many English nationalists, a growing band of people, would see it as a Scottish-inspired plot to destroy England as a nation.  It seems to me essential to the whole character of the United Kingdom to maintain the identities of the four nations by defining their relationships with each other and with the UK as a whole in a federal system.  Substituting a group of 'regions' within England for England itself would fail to achieve that, and thus create far more problems than those it would indeed solve.  Disparities of size as between the four nations can be dealt with by various other measures within a federal system, as I have already tried to spell out.

  18. Neil Harding says:

    Forgot to add – the ballot papers in Scotland seem to have been poorly laid out. You seem to use this as a criticism of PR when as I pointed out it is merely an administrative cock-up and nothing to do with PR.

    Brian writes:  You can see the Scottish ballot papers here.  They seem perfectly clear and straightforward to me.  I have no objection to PR per se and I'm in favour of it for, e.g., the second chamber at Westminster and for other deliberative assemblies which don't have the primary function of producing, sustaining and if necessary dismissing a government. So long as PR ballot papers are clear and carry intelligible instructions, they are fine by me.

  19. Neil Harding says:

    Thanks for the link and your reply.

    Looking at the ballot paper examples, I do think the instructions could have been in larger print – especially on the second paper. Generally a lot of people do not read instructions or only read instructions on one paper. Having two different ways of voting on the same day is always going to lead to spoilt ballots.

    So from your reply, is it correct to assume that you think that decision making is more difficult under PR systems?

    If you think that, how do we explain that countries that have had PR systems the longest, (e.g Germany, Scandanavia etc) have higher economic growth, better funded public services and infrastructure, better environmental protection, better business environments, higher political engagement and turnouts, lower inequality and altogether seem better run countries? In the case of Scandanavia, they even seem to punch above their weight on the international scene (Germany has been curtailed by its historical baggage).

    Why the need for England as one political unit? Don’t people in the North of England have more in common with the Scots than people in the South East and wouldn’t it be better if people in the North West or North East etc. run their own affairs rather than being run from London? PR for an EP would alleviate some of my fears – but FPTP would mean Labour running the affairs of people in the South East despite getting just 24% of the vote there compared to the Tories 45%, or the Tories running the North East with 19% compared to Labour’s 52% of the vote. Rather than unify England surely this is bound to foster the same sort of resentments that led to Scotland and Wales demanding their own parliaments?

  1. 19 February, 2009

    […] 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 […]

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