Federalism is an attractive idea for unionists – but past its political sell-by date
Ioan Phillips and Jac Brown
It is highly ironic that the UK has established federal political systems around the world, yet remains reluctant to embrace this form of governance for itself.
With Brexit and Covid-19 underscoring the sclerotic nature of the British state, one of the most centralised in Western Europe, the federal ideal has been resurrected – most recently by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who today promised a “wave” of decentralisation.
There is, however, the real danger that – to channel the nineteenth-century historian, Edward Freeman – advocates of a federal UK end up championing the concept without giving any meaningful though to what it actually means in practice.
Yet we should not be too hasty to condemn. The vacuity of some federalists does not mean a federal UK is necessarily an outright bad idea.
The Constitution Reform Group (CRG) proposes a new act of union that would see the four nations of the UK given beefed-up powers as part of a federal set-up in which only a core handful of responsibilities – over defence, foreign affairs, immigration, and currency, would remain at a UK level. Structurally at least, this would be a significant reshaping of the way politics in the UK is conducted, stripping power away from the centre.
Federalism also gives unionists and nationalists a chance to test their arguments. Unionists can argue that reform pacifies the nationalist yearning for independence, while bringing further autonomy. Nationalist governments could utilise new powers to diverge more from Westminster, preparing the ground for eventual independence.
The fact remains, though: federalism is an unviable pipedream.
The most immediate obstacle is that those most in favour of a federal solution – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – are in the political wilderness, and will likely be for the foreseeable future.
To obtain a majority of one, Labour needs to gain an unprecedented 120 seats – a task made more difficult by the party’s ongoing struggles in Scotland.
Furthermore, the rise of independence in Welsh and Scottish political consciousness means that the constitutional debates there have shifted beyond areas federalism would be able to address.
Foreign policy is a case in point. Federalism would not have prevented Brexit. Nor would it have any mechanism for preventing some of the more ill-judged military interventions of the past two decades.
In addition, the successful realisation of federalism requires mutual respect between the different administrations of the UK.
Would a Conservative government in England work with its Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish counterparts in that spirit? The evidence suggests otherwise. It has regularly ridden roughshod over the views of the devolved governments on Brexit, while attempting to deliver COVID policy by diktat.
The other elephant in the room is that an English parliament would make a Westminster government fairly redundant, with the preferences of England still dominating this streamlined body.
Supporters of federalism retort that federal regions would guard against England’s preponderance – although such an approach could well see power taken from councils, rather than central government.
Ultimately, the proliferation of pro-independence sentiment is not motivated by a desire for control over arcane pension policy rule. It is instead a question of identity.
Looking at UK politics today, it is hard to escape the feeling that we are on a very different path – one where the main constitutional juncture is unionism against independence.
For unionists, federalism might be a comforting if abstract panacea, but it is an idea past its political sell-by date.