A UK Federation and another Guardian letter
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Today’s Guardian publishes yet another letter from me calling 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 Guardian‘s compulsive ‘editing’, but the main thrust has survived, not terminally scathed. For the record, and for those who may be interested to read my ipsissima verba, here’s what I wrote before the Guardian‘s letters people got their hands on it (actually, I love them all dearly, and gladly acknowledge my debt to them):
George Monbiot (England, that great colonising land, has itself become a colony, February 17) is right to high-light a glaring defect in our present constitution: England alone of the UK’s four nations has no separate legislature (and, he might have added, no national government). Another equally untenable defect, flowing from the first, is that the Westminster parliament attempts to play two separate and incompatible roles: first, as a legislature for the whole UK dealing with all subjects not devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, such as foreign affairs and defence; and secondly, as a parliament for England dealing with all the subjects devolved to the other three nations.
The injustices and anomalies noted by Monbiot result from the composition of the House of Commons being wholly unsuitable for that second role. Tory proposals for an ‘English Grand Committee’ (only English MPs voting on purely English matters) are half-baked and unworkable, not least as completely failing to remedy England’s lack of its own executive. The only workable (and inherently desirable) solution is a separate legislature and government for England plus full devolution of all remaining internal matters to all the four nations. The Westminster parliament and government, with much reduced powers, should become the federal organs for all-UK matters on the federal models of (e.g.) Australia, the US, Germany and many other successful western democracies.
If the Tories genuinely seek to push real power downwards and away from the centre, as David Cameron asserts in the same issue, why do they not accept the logic of federalism, which does exactly that? Only a federal system can resolve the West Lothian Question, give a democratic role to the Westminster second chamber as a federal Senate, and cure the distinctively English disease of gross over-centralism.
A parliament for England should not be just an issue for English nationalists, but one part of a long-term, comprehensive constitutional reform which everyone, of whatever party, who wants a durable relationship between the nations of the UK should be working for.
Several relatively small omissions from this in the published version seem to me mildly regrettable, but the omission of the hyphen between “all” and “UK” is especially mortifying (“The Westminster parliament and government, with much reduced powers, should become the federal organs for all UK matters…”). For want of a hyphen, the sense was lost, etc.
The letter immediately following mine in today’s Guardian, from the Director of the Federal Union, argues that England is so much bigger than the other three UK nations that a UK federation would work only if England were split into regions for federal purposes. I tried to deal with this argument back in 2007 in my response to an interesting comment by Anthony Barnett:
….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).
I hope that those who are bothered by the asymmetry point will, if they have the time and inclination, also have a look at the fuller exposition of the argument from an even earlier response to a comment, here.
I’m glad that the Guardian is airing discussion of federalism again in its main letters section, and I hope it will prompt further vigorous debate. I’m baffled and frustrated by the fact that this is not a live issue in our overall national political conversation. The problems and anomalies arising from our halfway-house semi-federal system are pretty widely debated and agonised over, yet their obvious cause is rarely identified, still less discussed. For politicians it goes straight into the Too Difficult tray: the urgent, as always, is the enemy of the important. For much of the media, ‘federal’ is a dirty f-word, signifying (perversely and ignorantly) the crafty attempts of the European Union to lure Britain into a single unitary European state and to destroy its national identity. For English nationalists, it’s a diversion from the chauvinist campaign for an English parliament for its own sake, as a means of allowing England to go its own way without having to accept the authority of a lot of Scottish politicians in Whitehall and Westminster — the opposite of the federal cause, which seeks to bind the four UK nations together in a durable, equitable and democratic system: something we don’t yet have.
Update (later on 19 Feb 09): Following an amicable exchange of e-mails with the Guardian’s letters department and Readers Editor, the missing hyphen has been graciously restored to its proper place on the online version of my letter. Much appreciated!