Federalism is never going to happen – but federacy would work for Wales
Fergus Llewelyn Turtle
It should not be news to Welsh politicos by now that both independence and the status quo have their drawbacks.
The status quo has not worked for Wales because Westminster is able to easily overrule us on devolved matters, and control the purse strings, making any improvement in Wales’ economy difficult.
But at the same time, independence carries huge risks with regards to economic stability, especially in the short term.
Those dissatisfied with both these options have suggested a middle course between them: Federalism. Federalism is where sovereignty is shared between two levels of government across an entire state.
Under this model, the entire UK would be broken up into ‘states’ with the power to raise their own revenue, borrow to invest, legislate where they have the competence to do so.
Their powers would be set out clearly in the constitution so they could operate without interference or overrule from Westminster and potentially even veto any big constitutional changes they disagreed with.
Federalism is Labour and the liberals’ preferred option (they both have in one way or another been suggesting it for over a hundred years).
There is only one problem, however – it will never realistically happen. Although it’s easy to suggest as a solution to brush aside calls for independence, no one seems to follow that up with any concrete idea of how it could actually happen.
The problem of course is England, which has 90% of the population and even more of the economy. If England was its own ‘state’ in a Federal UK, what equality could we really expect between the states in this scenario?
Would a sub-state covering the whole of England really accept Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland being able to veto federal affairs? As Brexit suggests, I think it is ‘as if’.
Advocates of federalism might argue for breaking England up into smaller states.
But how do you carve up a nation with no real history of regional government or in some cases even clearly distinct regions? It’s great fun to create maps of what we think would make good English states, but would they have any democratic legitimacy?
In Wales, we couldn’t even create rugby regions without almost 20 years of continued carping.
If you imposed states on England, they would rebel against borders and institutions being enforced on them in a top-down manner.
If you held a referendum, at least some, if not most of the new states would likely reject the idea outright. It’s worth remembering that the north-east of England – perhaps the region with the strongest autonomous identity – decisively rejected devolution by a landslide in 2004.
The Lib Dems’ ‘solution’ to this problem is that English states would be formed on the basis of local councils, or groups of councils, requesting to become states. But what if demand never develops from English councils? What if Cornwall, Yorkshire and Merseyside requested statehood but no one else? That would not by definition be federalism, it would just be a mess.
The truth is there is currently no good solution to the English question. While some recent polling suggests that there is some support for the principle of federalism, England has not really even begun to explore how it might want it to be manifested.
There is no large, serious campaign in England for federalism. Even within the federalist parties, the issue is largely ignored in England.
One can only presume therefore that ‘federalism’ is an all-too-easy easy answer when Wales and Scotland demand more powers.
That liberals and socialists have advocated it since the 19th century and are nowhere closer to delivering it despite long periods in government tells you all you need to know.
Like House of Lords reform, when they are in power it suddenly seems to disappear off the agenda.
If they were serious about offering solutions that satisfy Wales’ desire for more autonomy with the economic security of staying in the UK, they could instead offer the option of federacy.
Federacy differs from federalism because some nations or regions within the nation-states have considerably more independence than others.
One example of this close to home is the Åland Islands, a Swedish speaking region of Finland. Åland shares sovereignty with Helsinki, operating as a federal unit, but it is the only region in Finland, otherwise a unitary state, to do so. The autonomy is guaranteed in the country’s constitution.
This arrangement is usually referred to by academics as a federacy, an extreme form of asymmetrical governance where only a small part of a state has two co-sovereign levels of government.
It would mean that Wales would be semi-independent, with powers guaranteed in the constitution to act without the interference of the UK Government. Unlike under devolution, the central government in a federacy has no power to revoke the independence of the autonomous region.
Under this system, Wales could retain its autonomy while England could continue to be run directly by the UK Government as usual.
The so-called English Question would remain unsolved but quite frankly that is England’s problem to solve. If they want to seriously have a debate about regional government at that stage, they are welcome to do so but I don’t think we in Wales must wait for them to go through this.
We have serious issues in Wales with poverty, economic productivity, agriculture, erosion of communities, language, media, health, infrastructure, creating an engaged civic society and more responsive institutions, and much more.
Under a system of federacy Wales would have the power to get to grips with these problems without being undermined by the UK Government. But it would also share sovereignty on other over-arching issues and face no problems such as a border with England.
This solution has the ability to bring unionists and Welsh nationalists together. It would give Wales an autonomy that is set in stone and the clearly-delineated powers to solve its own problems, while avoiding many of the potential pitfalls of independence.
In the meantime, for unionists, it would secure Wales within the UK while allowing Wales to develop its historically neglected economy and becoming a financially stronger part of the whole.
Whether unionist or a nationalist, it would make our government and representatives far more able to move Wales towards a more prosperous future, which surely should be the end goal for us all.
The alternative, federalism, means waiting for England to decide what it wants to do – and that could mean waiting forever.