Why federalism could be the solution to Wales’ woes – and what its opponents get wrong
Those of us in the bubble of Welsh politics have heard a lot about the ‘F’ word in the last few months.
The ‘F’ word has been condemned by Welsh independence campaign group YesCymru and Tory unionist journalist Matthew Parris alike.
Meanwhile, Labour have turned to it as they scramble to find a middle way on the constitution between over-centralisation of powers at Westminster and full independence.
By the ‘F’ word I mean, of course – federalism. That much-maligned concept. But if you look a little closer, many of the negative assumptions about federalism are quite frankly straight-up wrong, and in my opinion, it is an option that deserves another look.
So, allow me to deal with the misapprehensions one by one while arguing that there is still some merit to the federal ideal, despite its flaws.
1.) Federalism would lock Wales into the Union
Yes, federalism does ‘lock in’ the constitution and ensure that constitutional change has to reach some kind of high threshold. This would also apply to secession from the union.
However, this is mainly to stop one of the two layers being able to roll over the other whenever they please.
But opposition to this idea ignores the fact that at the moment, all the power to grant a binding independence referendum lies with Westminster.
So federalism would require that the national and federal governments agree that secession can go ahead, but that is legally needed for it to happen now, anyway.
However, negotiations for Federalism would likely mean winning the consent of the smaller nations so I doubt a strong ‘lock-in’ clause would be included.
So creating a federal union could see a deal where, as part of a new constitution, it is made clear that a referendum on independence can be called unilaterally.
The flip side of that might be some constraints on turnout, winning margin and how often one could be called, but it would represent de-centralising considerably more power on this issue than the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments have now.
So, could independence be made harder under federalism? Yes, but that could more easily be done now, it’s just considered that doing so would cause too much backlash in Wales and Scotland (let alone the implications for Northern Ireland).
2.) England would completely dominate a federal union
This one is largely true; it probably would, given it constitutes 84% of the UKs population and even more of its GDP (currently). I don’t see there being any satisfactory solution to this though.
Even if independence were achieved, you can’t escape geography – we would still have England as a next door neighbour and they would continue to hold a large amount of economic sway over us.
We have seen this in the Brexit process where the UK, despite its ‘sovreignity’, essentially had to agree to follow the EU’s rules to get access to trade. It is the simple realpolitik of having a much larger neighbour.
And the EU was far more divided than England. The UK was able to ask for a thin deal, realistically threaten to walk away with no deal and one member state of the EU, Ireland, was very reliant on open trade with the UK.
Wales would have considerably less leverage in the same scenario. We would need freedom of movement and no customs checks for a start.
So, we’d likely have to simply accept English hegemony to some extent or else do ourselves immense economic damage.
Compare this to a federal situation where, as part of giving England some of what it wants – staying in the Union – we’d likely have some sort of limited veto power (even if England would probably still get its way most of the time).
3.) England won’t ever agree to federalise itself anyway
Okay, strictly speaking, federalism usually means symmetry across all of a country, and would require that England undergoes major constitutional change and possibly breaks up into a number of smaller states.
It doesn’t look likely that England would agree to that just to keep Wales and Scotland in the union.
As I have written before though, Federacy may well be a more realistic and acceptable solution.
Federacy differs from federalism because some nations or regions within the nation-states have considerably more independence than others.
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.
This route would give Wales the benefit of government that could readily assert itself and govern creatively without us having to rely on our friends to the east choosing to plunge themselves into a constitutional quagmire and successfully wading to the other side.
Ultimately, federal solutions have the ability to be a lot more flexible than people give it credit for. Perhaps it is the federalists that are at fault for failing to really explore these options, instead either keeping things deliberately vague or imagining an overly elegant constitutional design.
Either way there is a whole load of middle ground between independence and the status quo, and there is really no need for us to box ourselves in by seeking a solution to last forever.
With opinion polls showing people in Wales both keen on staying in the union but also wanting more powers, federalism is also a solution that could realistically be attained at a referendum, even now.
A gradual evolution from devolution towards a more autonomous Wales seems a much more realistic and sensible prospect that the radical surgery of independence. After all the winning argument for devolution was that it was a process, not an event.
Why not the same for federalism?