A federal UK: some more answers
A week or two ago, in a letter published in The Independent and in somewhat greater detail on this blog I argued the case for completing the process, on which we have embarked but stopped half-way, of making the United Kingdom a fully fledged federation of its four nations, with virtually all internal powers over domestic affairs exercised by the legislatures and governments of each of the nations (including England), the existing Westminster parliament and government becoming the federal tier bodies responsible mainly for foreign affairs and defence in respect of the whole of the UK. I contend that this is the only durable and defensible solution to the West Lothian question (which asks why Scottish MPs should be able to vote at Westminster on matters affecting only England while English MPs are prevented, since devolution, from voting on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament and executive), and the only way of resolving the anomalies inherent in our present constitutional mess — especially the unsustainable situation in which England, alone of the four nations, has no parliament or executive of its own. Even more indefensibly, the Westminster parliament tries to combine the two incompatible functions of a federal parliament for the whole of the UK (but dealing only with undevolved subjects in respect of parts of it), while simultaneously acting as a parliament for England — for which the membership of the House of Commons is manifestly inappropriate. Much the same unsustainable contradictions afflict the British government, whose members are embarrassingly unsuited to act as a government for England, while simultaneously having to function as the government of the whole of the UK. Sooner or later these nonsenses will have to be sorted out.
My letter in The Independent prompted two interesting comments, in further letters on 3 February 2007, each accepting the logic of a federal system, but in one case expressing reservations about going the whole hog in the way I had suggested. My blog post of 31 January prompted numerous comments, most of them generally positive, while many advanced various objections to the federal idea. I have promised a considered reply to the more serious of these. This is it, or at any rate Part 1.
The Campaign for an English parliament: English nationalists please sit down, you're rocking the boat
The reaction of several correspondents, both in online comments and in private snailmail, was to welcome me as a convert to the cause of English nationalism. I received literature inviting me to join 'The English Democrats' ("Putting England First! We are English patriots and we are campaigning for our liberties and our rights to live as a sovereign nation… We want a firm but fair immigration system … with 100% enforcement of Deportation Orders…", etc.), an invitation I was not in the least tempted to accept. I received a far more rigorously argued booklet from the 'Campaign for an English Parliament', presenting its case a good deal more persuasively than the slightly noisy nationalism of its website might suggest. The booklet, 'Devolution for England: a critique of the Conservative Party policy "English Votes on English Matters" ' (sadly not available online), does an admirable demolition job on that half-baked Tory policy (under which only MPs for English constituencies would vote on matters affecting only England — thus providing a poor substitute for an English parliament without the inconvenience of an English executive). It also provides conclusive answers to many of the objections commonly raised to the idea of an English parliament. The booklet's presumed author is the Chairman of the campaign, identified (with telephone number and e-mail address) in its latest newsletter for Autumn 2006 (pdf file). In the course of setting out the detailed arguments for an English parliament, the booklet also states the case, almost inadvertently, for a fully fledged federation of the whole UK. Where I respectfully part company with it is in my conviction, as a Brit as well as an Englishman, that the emphasis should be on the benefits of a full federation for the whole of the United Kingdom and all four of its nations: the arguments for an English parliament are unanswerable, but they should be subsidiary to, and always put in the context of, the federal system of which it should form a part.
Meanwhile, embarrassment at some of the excesses of the English nationalists — right-wing extremists in many cases, Europhobes and Scotophobes, xenophobes into the bargain, true Little Englanders — should not be allowed to divert the debate; nor should the noisy wavers of the England flag be permitted to hijack the argument about the need for a true federation, one which should appeal above all to small-l liberals and internationalists of all the mainstream parties.
"England is too much bigger than the others for a federation to work"
This is much the commonest objection to the federal proposal. It seems to me to be based on a misconception. England more or less consistently constitutes 84% of the total population, Wales around 5%, Scotland about 8.5 %, and Northern Ireland less than 3% (yes, I know, they don't add up to 100). The figures alone demonstrate that England is on any reckoning by far the biggest and most weighty of the four nations. But this is a fact of UK life, which no constitutional arrangement can negate. The question is: what kind of UK constitution is best equipped to minimise the negative consequences of England's dominance for the rest of the Kingdom? Put this way, the answer must be that the existing unitary system (i.e. that which existed before devolution went some way to modifying it) does nothing at all to protect the other nations from English dominance: if anything, it magnifies it. The parliament of the whole country, enjoying theoretically unlimited power over every aspect of national life in every constituent nation, was and remains dominated by English MPs. A Conservative majority at Westminster with its accompanying Conservative government could (and did!) impose policies on Scotland (and could still impose a wide range of policies on Wales and Northern Ireland) regardless of the fact that Scotland and Wales usually return a majority of Labour MPs along with their respective nationalist party MPs. It was English dominance that nourished the demand for Scottish self-government, echoed in differing ways by similar demands and aspirations in Wales and Northern Ireland. This is and was the case for devolution: self-government for the three small nations so that they could get out from under the shadow of those 84 per cent of English. Yet even devolution to Scotland of far more autonomy and powers than to the other two (and none at all to England) has failed to quench the Scots' appetite for yet more control of their own affairs, either by further devolution of yet more powers, or else by full independence, spelling the end of the Union. The reality is that full federation, with almost all powers exercised by the individual nations, is the best and only system for protecting the small against domination by the big. So far from disqualifying the UK from conversion to full federation, the overwhelming dominance of England positively demands it. Complete domestic self-government for Scotland within a UK federation would offer us the best of all possible worlds: the benefits of virtual autonomy for the Scots while still giving us all, throughout the UK, the benefits of membership of a single, sovereign, internationally recognised United Kingdom.
Nor is a huge discrepancy between big and small units in a federation unprecedented. There are huge discrepancies between the population sizes of (e.g.) California (36 million) and Wyoming (509,000), and between New South Wales (6.5 million) and Tasmania (470,000 and shrinking), yet their federations work remarkably well. One significant protection for the smaller states, apart from their enjoyment of full control of their internal affairs, lies in equal representation in the federal upper house regardless of population size, as in the US and Australia and elsewhere. As the Wikipedia entry for the Australian Senate says, admitting that the Senate is not strictly numerically 'representative', —
"But the proportional election system within each state ensures that [the] Senate incorporates much more political diversity than the lower house, which is basically a two party body. Consequently, the Senate frequently functions as a house of review, intended not to match party political strength in the lower chamber but to bring in different people, in terms of geography, age and interests, who can contribute in a less politicised manner to the process of legislative enactment."
The UK would need similar provisions, including PR for the federal upper house to ensure that no one party would win an overall majority in it and to enable independents and persons of experience who belong to no party to win election to it. The precise form of the electoral systems for the two federal chambers, including whether we should continue with First Past the Post in the lower, government-creating house, would need to be settled at the all-UK Constitutional Convention tasked to draw up the draft constitution for the whole of the UK for subsequent endorsement in a country-wide referendum. Each of the four nations will similarly hold a national Constitutional Convention to draw up its own national constitutional provisions, including the form and electoral system of each of its parliaments, again to be legitimised and sanctified in four national referendums.
The sole remaining objection in the context of England's relative size is that there's no obvious example of a federation in which a single federal unit is so much bigger than any of the others. So what? It remains a truism that only full federation provides the mechanisms for protecting small against large and weak against strong, regardless of the number of the weak or the number of the strong.
Other problems raised
In a further post here in Ephems (what, yet another one?) I shall deal, perhaps more briefly, with some of the other points that have been raised both in comments on my earlier post and also in the letters published in the Independent: why not content ourselves with setting up an English parliament and then devolving to England, Northern Ireland and Wales the same extensive powers already devolved to Scotland, thus removing the inequalities of the present situation while leaving the Westminster parliament with its full, theoretically unlimited powers and avoiding the need for all the panoply of a formal federation? Why should England continue to subsidise the other nations in a full federation — and how would the others survive without their subsidies from the English? What would be the implications for EU membership? Why should we scrap our centuries-old tradition of managing without a written constitution in a single document, with all the flexibility that this entails, but which a federal system would require us to abandon? Why not abolish England's dominance by splitting it up into smaller geographical units? What would be the consequences for England of doing so, and would they be acceptable? What if the party forming a government in England was of the opposite political persuasion from the majority party at federal (Westminster) level so that they would be permanently in conflict with one another – a real possibility as long as the Tories might well win an England-only election, while Labour might continue to win at the federal level? Why not make the Westminster parliament and government the parliament and government for England, and set up the federal bodies somewhere else — Lancaster has been suggested? More generally, would a federal UK divided into four incomparably stronger self-governing nations mean the end of our British identity: even the end of the Union? You can probably guess the answers I shall be offering to all these questions. They aren't very difficult, really.