The threat of UK disintegration: time for a federal alternative (with update 13.ix.09)
On the always stimulating Our Kingdom website (“a conversation on the future of the United Kingdom“, part of the City University‘s OpenDemocracy network) there’s an interesting if somewhat academic debate in progress about the implications for the whole of the UK of a referendum in Scotland on Scottish independence (whatever its result), and the disintegration of the United Kingdom which Scottish independence would entail. This stems from a post by Gerry Hassan, “The long march to Scotland’s independence referendum“. Gerry Hassan is a writer, researcher, policy analyst and associate at the think-tank Demos. What follows is based on my comments contributed to the debate at Our Kingdom.
For many of us the destruction by Scottish secession of the United Kingdom, or at any rate Britain, the country which for all its faults claims our loyalty and in my case, anyway, my affection, would be a tragedy for all the people of all its four constituent parts. I am English, of English, German Lutheran and Polish Jewish ancestry, but for me Scotland and Wales (and equally but in a different way Northern Ireland) are just as much part of my national heritage, ingredients in my national history and culture, as England is. Scots, Irish people and Welshmen simply aren’t foreigners in my book, and never can be, whatever constitutional changes might occur, any more than Queenslanders can be foreigners to the people of New South Wales when they are all Australians, any more than Californians can be foreigners to Vermont people when they are all Americans.
What this signifies to me is that it is now quite urgently necessary to consider possible alternatives to the break-up of the UK into its component nations, in ways that would meet most of the legitimate aspirations (and grievances) of the people of all four nations. It’s fairly clear that the distinctive identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus their common ownership of the United Kingdom, need to be translated into a new constitutional dispensation under which each of the four nations governs itself by democratic right (i.e. not by kind permission of some authority in Westminster, or anywhere else) in all their internal domestic affairs, from the criminal law to education to taxation, each – necessarily including England — with its own separate elected parliament and government (which three of the four of course already have). The four entrust to a single elected authority, comprising a separate central government and legislature, those things which they agree are best run collectively on behalf of all of them: mainly foreign affairs and defence, with collaborative arrangements for revenue allocation and some transfer of resources from the richer to the poorer areas of the kingdom. The division of powers between the four self-governing nations and the upwardly-devolved centre would be defined in a written constitution administered by a central supreme court. The dominance of England as by far the biggest and richest of the four nations, now almost unfettered except by convention, would need to be formally limited, probably by turning the House of Lords as the second chamber of the all-UK parliament into an elected ‘house of the nations’ — call it a Senate — in which all four nations have equal representation, so that English representatives on their own can never out-vote those of the other three nations.
We could call this novel arrangement “a federation“. The Australians, Germans, Americans, Canadians, Swiss and several other nationals of functioning democracies might even agree to offer us some useful tips on how to make our federation work, if we asked them nicely. It would, by the way, give Scotland virtually all the advantages of full independence with none of the disadvantages; it would answer the West Lothian question, although not in quite the way that Tam Dalyell, its distinguished author, would approve; it would cure the whole of the UK of its congenital over-centralism; it would complete the half-finished process of devolution while reversing its top-down power trajectory, and remove its present inchoate anomalies. It would take at least 20 years to complete the transformation. It would be a bumpy but exhilarating ride. It would be worth the wait and the effort.
It’s hard to be sure about the reasons for the extreme reluctance of the political and media establishments even to discuss the possibility of moving to a fully federal system, despite the fact that it would solve so many problems and that the availability of a better alternative to the disintegration of our country is daily becoming more urgent. With devolution we are half-way into a federation already, and most of the serious anomalies that have resulted (encapsulated in the West Lothian question) are due to our failure to complete the process.
I suspect that a large part of the resistance to the idea of federation stems from dislike of the idea of England having its own elected parliament and government, separate from the existing Westminster parliament and government. These would automatically become the new federal institutions, much smaller and with greatly reduced powers (mainly over foreign affairs and defence). A separate English government would inevitably wield more real power, although only in England, than the downsized federal government at Westminster, not an attractive proposition for current Westminster politicians with their romantic fantasy of a Westminster parliament and executive with unlimited ‘sovereign’ powers. Persuading politicians to give up some of their powers and status is always going to be an uphill task. They should, though, take heart from the reality that the federal governments and legislatures of existing democratic federations, such as the President and Congress of the United States, enjoy far more international and even national prestige, despite their limited powers, than those of the component states that comprise their federations.
I surmise that there are at least four other major obstacles to the required all-party consensus in favour of movement to an eventual federation: (1) It’s too radical for our timid politicos; (2) It would take at least a couple of decades to complete the process, and our political leaders’ congenital short-termism prevents them from looking that far ahead; (3) There’s a cosmic ignorance in the Westminster village and among its attendant media clowns of other democratic countries’ constitutional arrangements, and a deeply ingrained reluctance to learn from them, so every problem that crops up in the course of change requires us laboriously to re-invent the wheel; and (4) The federal idea requires a capacity for a vision of a different way for the nations of the UK to govern themselves — moreover in a new and unfamiliar democratic relationship with each other; and our politicians (with a few rare exceptions) don’t do vision.
Time to wake up before it’s too late.
 See correction in Anthony Barnett’s comment below.
 Inchoate: “Recently started but not fully formed yet; just begun; only elementary or immature.” Unconnected with ‘incoherent‘ or ‘chaotic‘, except in (frequent) error.
Update (13 September 2009): (1) This has now been re-posted at LabourList — see http://bit.ly/4a3rr9. Comments on it posted there will no doubt be more widely read than those here. (2) By coincidence Vince Cable MP, perhaps the most widely respected politician in Britain, has just published an article in the Daily Mail (at http://bit.ly/3lalbH) sounding the alarm at the possible break-up of the UK and suggesting that a federation “like the US, Canada or Germany” would be the best solution [actually Australia is probably the best model of all]. Might this be the start of something big?