A federal UK ticks all the boxes

This is an open letter to my MP, Sadiq Khan (Labour, Tooting).

Dear Sadiq, 

You may have seen my letter in the Guardian of yesterday, 1 November 2007, about the Tories' flawed proposals for a Grand Committee of English MPs to deal with matters affecting only England — ie to stop Scottish MPs, such as the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, speaking or voting on purely English matters in Parliament.  This is the Tory answer to the West Lothian Question ("why can Scottish MPs vote on matters affecting England when English MPs can't vote on Scottish affairs that have been devolved to the Scottish parliament?").  To refresh your memory, here is my Guardian letter:

Better answers to West Lothian
The Guardian, Thursday November 1, 2007

The Tories are about to propose an English grand committee in the House of Commons, a variant on their earlier idea of banning Scottish MPs from voting on English matters (Salmond's solid start, October 29). This is riddled with practical difficulties and fails either to provide England with an executive like that of the other three nations of the UK, or to address the underlying problem, just as the old Scottish grand committee failed. The Westminster parliament currently has two mutually incompatible roles, as a federal parliament for the whole of the UK on non-devolved subjects such as foreign affairs, and simultaneously as a parliament for England on everything. The UK government has the same contradictory double role. There is only one solution: a parliament and government for England, the only one of the UK's four nations still without either, and (eventually) full devolution of all domestic affairs to the four parliaments and governments, making Westminster a fully fledged federal parliament and government dealing with all non-devolved and shared subjects.

Here is Gordon Brown's golden opportunity to outflank the Tories, resolve the West Lothian question, make sense of the second chamber (a federal senate), satisfy Scottish aspirations for more devolution, rescue the union of the four nations by putting them in a durable democratic relationship, and push power further down to local people, as well as build a national consensus on a new long-term constitutional settlement for Britain.

Brian Barder

Many congratulations on your appointment as a government Whip with special responsibility for Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice.  As that department has responsibility for 'constitutional renewal', I earnestly hope that you will try to make sure that my Guardian letter is brought to the attention not only of Mr Straw but also of Gordon Brown, who I believe is seriously committed to constitutional reform and wants to leave his mark on a new constitutional dispensation for Scotland and England (and Wales and Northern Ireland).  

The suggestion of a fully fledged federation of the four UK nations may strike ministers as too radical for a naturally conservative British electorate to swallow.  Please emphasise to them that it should be regarded as very much a long-term project, requiring perhaps 20 years or more to complete.  It would entail in due course at least one Royal Commission, a national Constitutional Convention for the whole UK and another for England, and at least two referendums.  It would fall at the first fence unless a cross-party national consensus had been developed in favour of the eventual federal outcome, and it would probably take years of strong leadership and persuasion to develop that consensus — but I believe Gordon Brown, if himself convinced, has the qualities to provide that leadership and to undertake that persuasion.   It would be essential not to let the project become a party political football.  In fact it offers real benefits to all political parties, something that would need to be demonstrated.

The strange truth is that we have already stumbled three-quarters of the way into a federal system, now that three of the four nations have their own legislatures and executives (i.e. governments): only England is now without either.  So we have a largely federal system without any truly federal organs, and the biggest unit of the federation has none at all.  Hence the serious anomalies that have arisen from devolution, prompting not just the West Lothian Question but also, even more seriously, the mounting threat of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, which would be a disaster for all of us, whatever our national identities within our Britishness.   The problem is not that devolution has gone too far, but that it has not yet gone far enough:  Gordon Brown's slogan should be taken from Mastermind — "We've started, so we'll finish".

Tinkering with the present inchoate arrangements, for example with the English Grand Committee that Sir Malcolm Rifkind has persuaded the Conservative Party to propose, will solve nothing, as long as the fundamental anomaly remains unresolved:  it's simply not sustainable to continue much longer trying to reconcile the dual role of the Westminster parliament as both a federal legislature for the whole UK on non-devolved subjects, and a legislature for England on everything.  Membership of the House of Commons is suitable for the first but completely inappropriate for the second: hence West Lothian.  Growing demands in England for our own parliament and executive like those of the other three nations, and growing demands in Scotland for far more power to manage Scotland's own domestic affairs (with the growing conviction that the only way to achieve this may be by Scotland becoming fully independent) increasingly threaten to tear the United Kingdom apart.  That would be a sad legacy for the Gordon Brown administration of which you, Sadiq, are now a member. 

So the first, cautious, step should be to announce that the government wishes to initiate a great national consultation on the possibility of completing the project, already in practice begun, of uniting the four UK nations in a full democratic federal system over a period of several decades, with the full devolution of all domestic affairs to each of the four nations.  There would need to be early consultations with the opposition parties and the elected leaders in the three devolved legislatures about the form and timing of this national consultation, with recognition that it would need to proceed by stages over a period of many years, but that the ultimate objective should be a full federation of the four nations, drawing on (for example) the models of other federal systems in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and elsewhere. 

Once the eventual objective is proclaimed, so many other things will fall into place:  not only the West Lothian Question, but also the role of the second chamber at Westminster, the need for and content of a written constitution and a Bill of Rights, the offer of complete devolution to Scotland which should undermine the case for Scottish independence, the creation of a parliament and government for England (not in response to any right-wing nationalistic flag-of-St.-George-waving clamour but as part of a great British constitutional reform), the chance for so-called electoral reform in England, if the English electorate so wishes, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have already adopted it, and above all the real decentralisation of power away from Westminster and Whitehall which the prime minister has eloquently advocated.  It also offers a golden opportunity to move away from petty party squabbling of the kind so many of us regard as puerile and unworthy, with all the major parties collaborating critically but constructively in promoting a common national purpose.

It will take real political courage even to take that first essential step of announcing the objective and launching the great consultation.  But what a magnificent mark on British history Gordon Brown and all the members of his government, including yourself, would be making!

I am sending a copy of this to your colleague Derek Wyatt MP, whose letter in the same issue of the Guardian yesterday put forward a proposal remarkably similar to the one in mine; to Kenneth Clarke MP, as Chair of the Conservative Party "democracy task force";  and to David Heath MP as Lib Dem shadow Justice Minister.  I am also copying it to Sir Simon Jenkins, eloquent exponent of the principle of subsidiarity for Britain, with reference to his recent Guardian column "While Labour howls, the union is busy disintegrating", in the hope that he might unsheathe his sword in future columns in the Guardian, the Sunday Times and elsewhere in the cause of federalism for the UK. 

Yours ever
Your constituent
Brian Barder

PS:  I am putting a copy of this open letter on my blog, at http://www.barder.com/ephems/723.  I expect that there will be many comments on it there, some for and no doubt many against.  I believe there are good answers to all the objections that will predictably be made.  So please keep an eye on this blog and on any comments that may be appended to it:  watch this space! 

14 Responses

  1. Keith McBurney says:

    Aptly, I came via OurKingdom [see http://tinyurl.com/39b8td — BLB] and doubtless will not be alone in applauding your post.  The following comments are offered.

    Timeframe.  Tomorrow would not be too soon given the democratic deficit of our overcentralized state and disenfranchised electorate.  But 20 years !?  What is Mrs Barber's view on long engagements ?  We'd be divorced from the old before remarried in the new Union: the papers have already been served in Scotland. 

    Alternative Solution.  A fast-track, low-cost rearrangement of the deckchairs at Westminster: ie unicameral parliaments all round with a UK Senatorial HoL.

    Other Outcomes.  A Confederacy would accommodate both pro-Independence and pro-Union preferences.

    Key.  Recognition that the people are sovereign, not parliaments where their individual and collective sovereignty should be represented and upheld whilst on loan and returned undiminished.  And that a Supreme Court would be supreme.

    That said, we'd be finished before we'd started if the political elite of this above all states ratifies the  EU Constitution before us.  Such an act would lose what little trust in the faithfulness of the elected remains – not least among the 20% of electors who voted for a Labour government and manifesto pledging the Referendum (and PR): thats not a mandate, it's a warning.  

    Brian writes:  Thanks.  But the processes which I envisage as certain to be necessary for the establishment of a fully federal system — including first persuading a critical mass of public opinion of the need for and benefits of it — would in my view take at least 20 years and perhaps longer.  The initial Royal Commission to set out the framework of the proposed new settlement would take two years at the minimum to complete its work.  There would then need to be protracted public debate leading up to a national constitutional convention to work out the details — another three to five years.  Following that, there would have to be a purely English constitutional convention to work out the details of the new legislature and executive for England, including the electoral system to be used:  three or four more years at least.  At some stage in all this the five parliaments would need to debate and approve the conventions' proposals and to legislate for the consequent referendums, one for the whole of the UK and the other for England, both essential to put the stamp of popular approval on the new systems.  We would also need to allow time for periodic set-backs to the processes, including time needed to recover from them and get the processes back on track.  Any attempt to short-circuit the whole enterprise would run the risk of wrecking it.  But I agree that the first steps should and could be taken tomorrow.

    The issue of unicameral versus bicameral legislatures at (a) federal and (b) national level would be just one of innumerable decisions that would need to be taken along the way, starting with proposals from the Royal Commission, then of the constitutional conventions, then of the five parliaments, then of the referendums.  But it might not be necessary to reopen this in the case of the three nations which have already decided on the kinds of legislative body they want (and now have). 

    You'll know from other posts in this blog that I don't agree with you about the need for, or desirability of, a referendum on the EU reform treaty. But that's a separate issue. 

  2. A thoroughly sensible proposal and a way to solve the riddle of our national identity.

    Those who fear federalism, either in the UK or more widely, need only look to one of the great success stories of European politics, the Swiss Confederation. Federalism does not mean loss of identity. Swiss are firstly members of their gemeinde (local communes or parishes), secondly of their cantons, thirdly of their language communities and only fourthly (but willingly) of the confederation. Similarly, being European does not mean not being British, and being British does not mean not being English, Welsh, Scottish or (northern) Irish.

  3. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Brian – you point out the need for an English Convention along side that of a UK convention, very perceptive, an English Constitutional Covention already exists not that any mps that represent English constituencies have signed up. But should your ideas come about then mps will have to engage with the existing convention for England, at least in that way the people will be represented.

    ECC http://www.englishconstitutionalconvention.com/

    Brian writes:  Thank you, Barry, for drawing attention to this interesting website.  However, I think it important, in advocating a Constitutional Convention for England leading to the establishment of an English parliament and government (as we both do), to put it squarely in the context of an overall constitutional settlement in fully federal form of the relationship between the four UK nations and their collective relationship with the UK as a whole (as I do but I think you don't).  I note that there is a picture at the foot of the website which you mention of the flag of the cross of St George, a potent symbol of English nationalism.  I think it would be a great pity if the case for a fully federal system, designed to preserve and strengthen the Union of all the four nations and to serve the interests of all four of them, were to be hi-jacked by the vocal and chauvinistic Little Englanders who seem to dominate English nationalism, often actively hostile to Scotland (and to the EU) and indifferent to the future prosperity and durability of the Union.  The case for an English constitutional convention, parliament and executive is, in my way of seeing it, strictly dependent on and secondary to the interests of the whole of the UK in moving by stages to a federal system.

  4. Keith McBurney says:

    PS to 6:03am

    Thank you for your response.  My apologies to Mrs Barder, and indeed to Mrs Barber, neither of whom might have wished to speak to you at that time of day.  It was a tad early for me too,  judging from the mis-spelling of sovereignty – twice. 

    Brian writes:  No worries, Keith.  I tend to find myself blogging away late at night into the small hours rather than first thing in the morning before the sun's up, but the pitfalls are the same! 

  5. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Methinks you are judging the ECC too early, none of the parties associated with the ECC are to my mind chauvinistic, any references to Scotland are only highlighting the democratic and economic differences between two countries of this alledged union, another point, Little Englanders you use this term like a lot of politicos and mps out of context to the original meaning which I find off putting, the original Little Englanders did not want to rule over anybody nor be ruled by anyone, just left alone to make decisions that affected thier own nation of England.

    Brian writes:  I apologise if I have misjudged the English Constitutional Convention (ECC) and its website.  But at first and second glance it doesn't seem to me to display a lively interest in any part of the United Kingdom beyond England, nor in securing a parliament for England as part of a wider enterprise for the benefit of all the four nations of the United Kingdom, which is the fundamental context in which I favour it, along with the many other reforms that federalism would entail.  I respect the ECC's aims and supporters but I think we're on separate tracks, not always parallel.

  6. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Why should the ECC show any concern for the other nations within the UK, under devolution I did not see any of the other Nations having any regard to England.

    The problem lies with the fact that I and many other English nationlists who have argued for an English Palriament have constantly been ignored with exception to lip service to try and give us hope.

    All the arguments against an EP are that it will kill the union, mps that sit for English constituencies often state, 'I was elected to the British Parliament ' so in reality sod the English electorate who actually voted for them.

    Your solution is the ideal one, but you will have to forgive us Eng Nats if we have taken to the idea of English independance, because rather than take the issue seriously and come to the table and dicuss, unionists have ignored us in the hope we will go away.

    It has to be remembered we are not only fighting for politcial parity here but we are fighting for the very existance of England herself, Churchill once said "nay a forbidden word…that word is England" nothing could be further from the truth, I have yet to read or hear Gordon Brown utter the word.

    Is it really any wonder that some of us Eng Nats have become disenfranchised with the union, and are asking what benifits does England receive form being part of Union that since devolution has constantly discriminated against England.

    Brian writes:  Paradoxically, I am grateful for this comment, which explains all too clearly why I hope the arguments in favour of a full federal system for the whole of the UK, for the benefit of all the four nations of the Union and in the interests of strengthening the Union itself, can be kept completely separate from the English nationalists' campaigns for an English parliament with their quite different and in some cases disreputable aims and attitudes. 

  7. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Well Brian I suppose we will have to agree to disagree, but these disreputable aims and attitudes as you describe them are born from the constant exclusion of England from any debate about devolution, do you honestly expect us English Nats to just roll over and let the so called union get away with it, we will not put up with our country being Balkanized into 9 regions, we will not put up with not being present at the Council of Isles, we will not put up with British Govt thinking they represent England because patently they do not

    Brian writesI think the voices of English nationalism have now had their say in this discussion to a more than generous extent, and it's time to bring the debate here back to the pros and cons of moving the whole of the UK to a fully-fledged federal system, rather than constantly being diverted into the much narrower question of English grievances against the rest of the UK.  There are plenty of other places for airing that point of view.   

  8. Please save us from a Royal Commission! They are deadly for democracy. A constitutional convention which opens the process to the wider public, yes.

    PS: I take your point about a federal Britain being the key issue and an English parliament following from it, it was well made earlier this year by David Marquand

    Brian writes:  Many thanks.  (1) I'd be happy to dispense with a Royal Commission if that were possible, but the constitutional upheaval that we are envisaging here is so fundamental that I fear it would be very difficult indeed to make progress without one.  If we could proceed directly to constitutional conventions, so much the better.  (2)  I'm very grateful to have been directed to the article by David Marquand that you cite: the article and the comments appended to it are absolutely obligatory reading.   Although Marquand disagrees with Nairn about the danger (versus the desirability) of a written constitution, I think, perversely, that they are both right:  a written constitution would clearly be an essential feature of a full federal system, since the distribution of powers between the federal centre and the lower-tier nations would need to be clearly defined in a document justiciable by a supreme court and amendable only by a special procedure involving the nations as well as the federal centre.  But for Gordon Brown and Jack Straw (or anyone else) to propose a written constitution now is surely putting cart before horse, big time!  If their idea is to enshrine our existing constitutional arrangements, including the half-way stage currently reached by the devolution revolution, in a written constitution, presumably entrenched in some way that would make it especially difficult to amend, then that can only be a huge obstruction to the kind of further radical change in the direction of a full federal system which you (I assume) and I would like to see;  it would freeze the deeply unsatisfactory arrangement that we have now instead of facilitating its further development and the removal of its many anomalies.  Let's have a written constitution by all means, but (like chastity) not yet!

    Incidentally the point in Marquand's article about the asymmetry of a federation of the four nations (because of the enormously greater size and resources of England than those of the other three nations put together) is an important one.  In my opinion, FWIW, a federal system would help to protect the three smaller nations (and the federation as a whole) from the potentially destructive consequences of asymmetry:  in other words, the asymmetry is a fact of life whatever constitutional system is in force in the UK, and inevitably presents problems (unless of course the Union disintegrates), but much the most effective way of minimising those problems would be a federal system that gave the three smaller nations the maximum possible autonomy and protection from English domination (e.g. by, among other things, preventing the federal centre from interfering in their internal affairs, and by establishing an upper house of the federal parliament, i.e. senate, with equal representation for all four nations irrespective of their populations, as in the US and Australia which also have lower-tier 'states' of widely varying sizes).  Asymmetry is an argument for federation, 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 participant (England).

  9. Toque says:

    As an English nationalist who is not a separatist*, and who is in favour of federalism, I'd just like to point out that it is the British Question that follows from the English Question.

    The pledge of the Scottish Constitutional Convention was based upon the concept that it is the people of Scotland who are sovereign (to determine the form of government best suited to their needs).  This needs to be matched with a statement of sovereignty of the people of England.  Sovereignty is then ceded upwards by the people, by the nations, to the federal parliament.  To my mind that is what federalism entails, a complete reappraisal of our idea that sovereignty is absolute and residing at the centre.

    I have no problem with an overarching UK constitutional convention but that does not absolve the Government of the need to ask England for its answer to the English Question.  A holistic approach is what is required, and that means treating the parts in order to repair the whole.

    * Nationalism to me means that the nation is the logical and most stable basis for government (not separatism).

    Brian writes:  I agree with you entirely.  Of course it's easier to establish that sovereignty resides at the level of the nation or state, and is not bestowed on the constituent units of the federation by the federal centre, when the constituent lower-tier entities exercised sovereignty first and voluntarily came together to form a federation, as in the US and Australia.  The UK has for so long been a semi-unitary state, and devolution has so obviously been 'granted' by the Westminster sovereign government and parliament to the three nations (so far!), that the concept of the sovereignty residing at the bottom and being ceded upwards won't come easily:  nor will the idea that ultimate federal authority rests with the written federal constitution and the Supreme Court which enforces and interprets it, not with the federal parliament.  There'll be a lot to learn!

  10. Ronnie says:

    I was struck the other day by Alex Salmond's suggestion that Scotland might obtain its independence by 2017, or just one year after Sinn Fein and others had achieved Irish unity to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.  Well, perhaps.  Your problem however seems to me to be to get agreement from the parts of a centrifugal kingdom that even in principle we should have, or indeed could have, a new formal federal unity.  There, I think, lies the difference between us now and the United states, Canada, Australia and Germany, to take a few  examples from the palmier days of federalism.  Yes, of course, every federal system faces the possibility, as A. Lincoln knew or discovered, that bits may want to leave, but our problem is that the bits may want the federal constitution to signpost the exit routes, that the Scots for example, because Scotland for example, because Ulster will be loyal until it totally isn't, may want for example to depart from the usual arrangement that the federal body is responsible for the currency or for defence: I refer to Euro and nukes.   We need, I think, something before the Royal Commission, something to lay down ground rules, whatever that means.  We need a political proposal followed by a constitutional conference before we dare ask a Royal Commission to put the pieces together. 

    The problems inherent in creating a federal conbstitution at this stage of our history will continue into the arrangements for resolving problems of jurisdiction: a constitutionmal court possible but how constituted, how acceptable.  And now I ask you if the West Lothian Question is more of a problem than the prospect of federal, chaos.   

    Brian writes:  Gosh.  That goes to the heart of too many questions to be adequately answered in a single response to a comment.  I would just make three rather general points.  First, the United States is not the only functioning and successful federation to have faced a major challenge from would-be secessionists:  at least twice in the much more recent past Canada has faced a major threat of disintegration with Quebec's demand for independence, which on at least one of those two occasions came within a hair's-breadth of being approved in a referendum.  Yet at present Canada works well in a federal system that makes Canadians relatively comfortable about their multicultural, multilingual diversity.  Secondly, the opportunities for challenges to the survival of the UK as a single sovereign state of four constituent nations (challenges mainly from northern Ireland because of pressure from Irish nationalists for unification with the Republic, and from Scotland because of resentment of England's domination of the Union) are going to arise, if at all, whether we retain our quasi-federal, quasi-unitary system or whether we complete the three-quarters-accomplished journey into a full federal system.  The question is whether the existing constitution with all its anomalies, generating mounting dissatisfaction in Scotland and now increasingly also in England, is likelier than a full federal system to be able to satisfy or even merely contain these dissatisfactions and thus preserve the Union from disintegrating.  It seems to me that the protections and safeguards inherent in a proper federal system, with very extensive internal self-government formally guaranteed to each of the four nations and the guarantee against interference by England in the internal affairs of the other three nations, is almost by definition better equipped to cope with centrifugal, secessionist pressures than the dog's dinner that we have now.  Of course even a federal system could well fail in the end;  but if it does, it will show that no other system could have succeeded either.  Thirdly, the problems you foresee in reaching agreement on the federal arrangements would indeed be extremely difficult to resolve, as all existing federations have found and continue to find: certainly a supreme court to enforce and interpret the written federal constitution would be required and there would be intense argument about how and by whom it should be constituted; there would be long debates on the precise division of powers between the federation and the nations and some overlapping would be inevitable;  it would be difficult to agree on a mechanism for consultation and possibly harmonisation of policy on some subjects devolved to the nations but requiring a degree of uniformity throughout the UK;  provision for secession, if included, would be controversial, especially in view of the Irish problem;  revenue allocation and equalisation measures to prevent growing inequalities as between the richer and the poorer nations would be equally tricky.  But other federations have faced and resolved all these and countless other equally difficult problems, and in most cases continue to wrestle with them:  there seems no reason to think that the UK, with its long experience of democratic politics, won't be able to do the same, especially as it will have the advantage of the experience of so many others to draw on.  The object, after all, is to preserve our existence as a state, not merely to answer the West Lothian Question, which is in effect not much more than a symptom of our existing constitutional muddle that is not just unsatisfactory, but literally unsustainable, because its anomalies actually fuel the dissatisfaction that may lead to disintegration.  The prize of our survival as a country is surely worth the effort of resolving some difficult issues on the road to a durable, democratic solution.  Anyway, what's the alternative?

  1. 2 November, 2007

    […] UPDATE: You can read a fuller summary of Brian’s views on his website here. […]

    Brian writes:  I am grateful to the interesting 'ourkingdom' website for reproducing my letter in the Guardian, for which all publicity is good publicity.  But as the fuller exposition of my views in this Ephems piece will show, my Guardian letter was not primarily "on England and parliament" as ourkingdom describes it:  it was about a federal system for the whole of the UK as an essential means of strengthening democracy in all parts of our country and the system that unites us.  The case for an English parliament springs from and is strictly secondary to those much wider aims, and is only one of its many necessary (but not sufficient) conditions. 

  2. 4 November, 2007

    […] If, as Brian Barder suggests, a federal system will take 20 years to set up, the UK will have to limp on in a quasi-federal form. Personally I wouldn’t put my mortgage on it lasting that long. […]

    Brian writes: Once the process starts and the destination is proclaimed and agreed, the time will pass very quickly — there'll be plenty to do.  It should be an invigorating shot in the arm for the poor old ailing Union! 

  3. 19 February, 2009

    […] for a fully-fledged federal system for the UK (if you have a sense of déja vu, please re-read this, from November 2007).  As always, some of what I originally wrote has got lost in the […]

  4. 2 September, 2014

    […] for needing federalism, not an obstacle to it. Please see (for example) http://www.barder.com/4106, http://www.barder.com/723, http://www.barder.com/647, http://www.barder.com/2702, http://www.barder.com/2066, […]

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