Future of the United Kingdom: the case for a federation
My letter summarising the case for a federation of the four nations of the United Kingdom is published in today’s Guardian (10 February 2015):
Politicians must be bold on UK federalism
In your editorial of 4 February you once again edge gingerly towards advocacy of a federal UK. Next day David Davis (Letters, 5 February) equally cautiously tiptoes towards the same solution. The Liberal Democrats favour federation but seem too timid to spell out its advantages or to answer misguided objections to it.
England’s preponderant size is a reason for the safeguards for the smaller nations provided by a federal system, not an objection to federalism; and federalism would reduce the number of professional politicians around the UK, not increase it, even with the new English parliament and government which would eventually be an indispensable feature. It offers the only satisfactory answer to Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question; ends the gross over-centralism that still disfigures our present constitutional arrangements; permits and encourages further devolution within each of the four nations; brings government decisions closer to the people they affect; and works fine in many comparable western democracies from whom we can and should learn.
It would sharply reduce the scope and powers of the Westminster (federal) parliament and government, which may be why it’s so fiercely resisted by machine politicians. Everyone else would benefit. Labour, the party that started the still unfinished devolution process, should adopt it as a very long-term aim and promise to start the long process of consultation and research required to precede it.
In the online version, my letter is illustrated by a photograph of the Westminster Parliament building (the Palace of Westminster) with the caption: “Anachronistic? The Houses of Parliament, London”. But nothing in my letter suggests that the Westminster parliament, or the government that it generates, is anachronistic. On the contrary: that parliament is already in effect a federal parliament elected from the whole of the UK with responsibility for all matters, throughout the UK, that have not been devolved to the parliaments and governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The anomalies and contradictions that bedevil the present constitution stem from the Westminster parliament’s second and incompatible role, as a parliament for England, responsible for all subjects, since there is still no separate parliament for England to which any subjects at all can be devolved. The cure for this is obvious: sooner or later (probably later) we shall inevitably establish a parliament and government for England, probably based in the midlands or north of England, to which all domestic subjects applying only to England will be devolved. This will complete the devolution process by establishing a federal relationship between the UK’s four nations.
Another letter in today’s Guardian also persuasively argues the federal case but then concludes with the suggestion that the house of commons might become the parliament for England while the Upper House, now the house of lords, would be converted into an all-UK parliament. But this would needlessly complicate the completion of the federal project, as well as perpetuating the current confusion between the Westminster parliament as an all-UK federal legislature and the same parliament as a parliament for England. The basic federal principle will never be understood and accepted in this country as long as people, especially English people, continue to regard the Westminster parliament, and especially the house of commons, as somehow belonging to England — a misconception apparently vindicated by the current fatuous proposal by the Conservative party to create a kind of fake English parliament comprising all the English MPs at Westminster, with MPs elected from the other three nations excluded. How such a pale shadow of a parliament could possibly function without a corresponding English government drawn from its members, and completely separate from the existing federal UK government, is a question that seems not to have occurred to the advocates of this hopeless scheme.
Federation will come, because it’s the logical culmination of the unfinished business of devolution and because it’s the only way to protect the three smaller nations from the domination of their Big Brother, England — a domination which still threatens to cause the disintegration of our increasingly Disunited Kingdom, unless we set a clear course to eventual federation in the nick of time.