End of the UK or a federal rebirth? (With 18 July update)
“Is this the end of the UK?” was the title of a characteristically provocative and elegant article in the London Review of Books [Vol. 32 No. 10 · 27 May 2010] by Dr David Runciman, who saw in the contradictory swings and nagging anomalies of British contemporary politics an unravelling of the constitution that might eventually make the country literally ‘more or less ungovernable’. Runciman, one of the most perceptive of political analysts, seemed to me to be missing something, most unusually for him. This letter from me appears in the current issue of the LRB — Vol. 32 No. 14 · 22 July 2010 :
The End of the UK
David Runciman’s gloomy forecast of ‘the end of the UK’, because of the political consequences of devolution, ignores a central factor: in the words of Vernon Bogdanor in The New British Constitution, devolution ‘has turned Britain from a unitary state into a quasi-federal state’ (LRB, 27 May). Allan Tanner’s reply hints at this in predicting the inevitable ‘further devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’ and expressing bafflement at England’s reluctance to consider alternatives to what he calls the ‘Westminster system’, which I take to mean our current ‘quasi-federal’ and self-evidently transitional constitutional arrangements (Letters, 24 June). I’m baffled by this, too.
When Runciman is surprised by the absence of uniform swings at the general election, and concludes that ‘seen from one perspective, devolution has now made the United Kingdom more or less ungovernable,’ he is picking out a feature of federal constitutions, even quasi-federal ones, which is quite unsurprising to voters in the US, Australia, Canada, Switzerland or Germany, who take it for granted that there’ll be swings in different directions in different federal units – the reason often being that state governments can be unpopular whichever party runs them, which will affect the swing in that state accordingly. No one in a federation would think that this makes her country ungovernable. The same thing happened in the UK, with an unpopular Labour ‘federal’ government at Westminster, a popular Conservative Party in England and anti-Conservative (so pro-Labour) sentiment under a minority SNP government in Scotland. Other inconsistent sentiments dominate Wales and Northern Ireland.
Once we have the nous to move to a fully federal system for the four nations of the UK, these apparent anomalies will be seen as commonplaces. They seem now to make the UK ungovernable only because our existing constitution is a hopeless mixture of unitary and federal elements. As long as it stays that way, there can be no answer to the West Lothian question, and the Westminster government and Parliament will continue to struggle to play two inherently incompatible roles simultaneously. On the one hand, they are federal governing bodies for the whole of the UK in matters not devolved to the three smaller nations; on the other, they govern England in all matters. The composition of the House of Commons, with its numerous non-English members, is obviously quite unsuitable for an English Parliament and the composition of the government it produces is almost equally inappropriate for an English government, as we saw when Brown and Darling of Scotland, supported by an assortment of Scottish friends, were running the show, having been democratically elected by the whole of the UK to do so.
By the same token, it’s the lack of a proper distribution of powers between the federal centre and the four constituent nations that makes it ‘very hard’ for Runciman ‘to imagine how a Conservative administration in Westminster … will be able to impose painful spending cuts on Scotland and expect to survive there as a political force’. Revenue distribution among the constituent units of any federation is invariably a difficult and controversial issue, but in a fully fledged federal system, once Scotland (say) knows what its share of the national revenue will be, and given both full internal self-government and extensive tax-raising – or tax-lowering – powers, it will be up to the autonomous Scottish government to decide where, if at all, to impose cuts, not the federal government at Westminster. Runciman’s reluctance to apply the federal principle to the many anomalies he identifies leads him to the conclusion that
underneath the uncertainty is the steady, barely perceptible unravelling of a patched-up, threadbare UK constitution.
It’s the residual unitary features of the constitution, though, that are unravelling, including most prominently the absence of devolution to an English Parliament and English government, whose eventual creation is now inevitable, and the institution of which will complete the process of federalisation that began with devolution. The political leader who spots this, picks it up and runs with it, will surely score a famous try.
London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 14 · 22 July 2010, letters.
Update, 18 July 2010: ‘Leo’ has posted a comment here with a link to a highly relevant document that includes a number of possible objections to the propositions in my LRB letter above. I have tried to reply to the principal ones in my response. I reproduce Leo’s comment and my response here:
July 17th, 2010 at 10:40 pm
Your solution is susceptible to a number of problems which Professor Bogdanor outlines in a very solid paper on the West Lothian question recently published in Parliamentary Affairs. You can download a copy here: http://www.mediafire.com/?ka1m21o5777uz1q
Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. I have read Professor Bogdanor’s paper with much interest, as I read his other constitutional writings. However, without, I hope, sounding presumptuous, I would argue that there are good answers to all his objections to the ultimate goal of a federal UK, including the objections to a parliament and government for England as a necessary part of it.
Professor Bogdanor raises three main objections: (1) that the English don’t want, and are not interested in having, their own parliament, whether or not as part of a federal system; (2) that England would be bound to dominate a federal system by reason of its size, for example because the other three nations would not be able to combine to outvote it; and (3) that it would be contrary to a basic principle of the constitution as people in Britain understand it that different areas of the UK should be free to adopt different standards of social services and other benefits, thus depriving the central government and parliament of the power to enforce basic uniformity of standards throughout the UK.
This is not the place to debate these objections in detail, but, very briefly:
(1) If no reform were to be adopted until there was widespread desire for it, we would still be living in caves. There was initially very little desire for devolution in Scotland and Wales, but experience of it has greatly increased enthusiasm for it and indeed produced pressure for more. I sense that there is increasing uneasiness in England about the ability of the Scots to follow a different path from that decreed at Westminster (most noticeably over university tuition fees: but it may well explode over National Health Service “reforms” imposed by the Tory-LibDem coalition in England [and Wales]), when England has no such option. In any case, this is a question of political leadership. A political party led by a good communicator could create an understanding of the benefits of federalism which would lead to a growing demand for it, including federal organs for England.
(2) English dominance of the UK by reason of size, and the inability of the rest of the UK to balance England by combining together, are a fact of life now, in a unitary (or union) state. A main purpose of devolution is somewhat to limit England’s ability to dominate the other nations, but England still necessarily dominates the ‘federal’ parliament and government at Westminster. A full federal system would minimise England’s dominance (a) by ensuring that all four nations would enjoy separate but complete internal self-government, so that (e.g.) English MPs at both national and federal levels would be debarred from interfering in education policy in Scotland or in local government in Wales; and (b) by instituting a federal upper house, or Senate, on the US and Australian model, with an equal number of elected members from each nation, regardless of population, thus preventing England from outvoting the other three put together (and conversely enabling any two of the smaller nations’ senators to outvote England’s). England’s dominance, already reduced by devolution, would thus be much further reined in by a federal system, rather than representing an obstacle to it.
(3) The principle of uniform standards throughout the UK has already been breached as a result of devolution. Differences will grow and expand as more powers are devolved to Scotland and Wales before long, and probably to Northern Ireland too, as part of the price of having a predominantly Conservative government in Westminster when the Conservatives are almost unrepresented in Scotland. (Professor Bogdanor suggests that this could be resolved by adopting PR for elections to the house of commons, but since this is strongly opposed by both the Conservatives and most Labour MPs, it seems unlikely to provide a solution any time soon.) The British under federalism, as already under quasi-federal devolution, will have to get used to the idea of differing standards and systems in the different nations, which will be perfectly defensible so long as the differences reflect differing local wishes and interests as expressed in the three, or eventually four, national legislatures and assemblies. Serious imbalance would be prevented, as now, by equitable redistribution of all-UK financial resources: negotiated in a federal system through a mechanism involving all five governments and parliaments. So long as all four nations had access to roughly equal amounts of money per head of population, but, significantly, weighted to take account of need, each of the four could then decide separately how they wished to spend it, augmented according to local wishes by more or less revenue from local taxes. Screams of ‘post-code lottery’ would have to be answered by patient explanation of the basic principles of federalism. In any case, as indeed Professor Bogdanor acknowledges, that dam has already been breached with devolution, as even a baffled Tony Blair was forced by Paddy Ashdown to begin to realise (in a telling quotation near the end of Bogdanor’s paper).
Professor Bogdanor also argues that an English parliament would be regarded by many English people as no less remote from them than the Westminster parliament is now. Actually it would be bound to feel somewhat less remote, since it would be a purely English body which the Westminster parliament obviously is not. Anyway, so what? People in northern Queensland regard the state government down in Brisbane as remote and uncaring — and the federal (Commonwealth) government in Canberra as even more so. But life goes on and the Australian federation works pretty well, even though New South Wales and Victoria overwhelmingly dominate the other states.
Of course other problems will arise on the long and rocky road to federation, a journey that will take several decades and involve many stops and starts and setbacks. But I don’t believe any of the problems will be found to be insurmountable. The journey has already begun, and to try to halt it now at the present uncomfortable half-way house entails too many contradictions and anomalies to be sustainable. Having rejected all the possible answers to the West Lothian question, Professor Bogdanor is forced to conclude that it can’t be answered, and to argue that it doesn’t really matter. I contend that on the contrary it does matter and that there is one, but only one, answer to it. Once there’s a critical mass of understanding of the logic and the benefits of federalism, the thing will develop a surprising momentum. But to get the old cart moving again will require inspired leadership, a commodity that’s currently in rather short supply.
 I was wrong to say that the Con-LibDem NHS ‘reforms’ would apply to Wales as well as England: please see Hendre’s comment below.
18 July 2010