Why talk of a federal UK is fantasy politics – the choice is independence or the status quo

Lloyd George looks down at Welsh independence supporters at the Caernarfon Yes Cymru march. Lloyd George campaigned for Home Rule as part of the Cymry Fydd movement in the late 19th century. Picture: Mark Mansfield.

Gareth Ceidiog Hughes

A federal nation-state is often mooted as a pragmatic solution to addressing the UK’s horrifically unequal nature.

Even with devolution, the UK is one of the most politically centralised states in the world, and this has had a terrible impact on Wales. It has made our country poor and left us powerless to fix our problems.

It means for example that we don’t have control of our stolen water. Therefore, the profit from selling it over the border does not go to our public services such as our NHS, but into the pockets of shareholders and company bosses on astronomical wages.

It has left us with an appalling legacy of child poverty, which stands at a shameful 30 per cent. It meant we were powerless to stop the destruction of Welsh-speaking villages, the most well-known of which was Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn Valley. It led to the Welsh language being marginalised and discriminated against.

It means that in Wales we have a chronic lack of investment in our infrastructure. We are without a single decent road from north to south or any rail track either. This is not a particularly good state of affairs.

The answer of Welsh nationalists to these profound issues is of course independence.

But you also have unionists, most of them in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, who recognise full well that there is massive a problem with the current system, and can’t bring themselves to defend it.

They propose a middle way that they say would empower Wales without bringing to an end their precious union. Their answer is federalism.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater they say. Independence is a risky business. We can have the best of both words. We can have cakeism and eatism. It sounds like an alluring prospect, a combination of autonomy and security.

But is it realistic?

 

Power

If it were possible, there is no doubt that federalism has many merits. Though it is not without its issues. But that is not what I’m going to go into here.

The fact is that as well as considering what is the best answer on paper to our current predicament,  we also need to think about what is actually possible.

To turn the UK into a federal system would require a radical rewiring of the constitution. The Westminster establishment is conservative in nature. The centralisation of vast power that characterises the current system suits those who wield it. They want to do whatever they want unencumbered by the inconvenience of having to actually take heed of what we have to say in Wales and in the other devolved nations.

This is evident in the way it is treating the devolved parliaments with regards to the internal trade bill. It is in effect a power grab. It is an attack on Welsh democracy. It steals power that has already been devolved and could force us to accept things like chlorinated chicken by diktat from unelected Westminster bureaucrats.

The one thing that should have become obvious to us now after hundreds of years is that Westminster and the British establishment as a whole do not share power. Even allowing us the little powers that devolution affords us is an affront to them.

Despite their atrocious handling of everything from Covid-19 to Brexit they still believe that they have a divine right to be in charge of everything.

They will not consent to federalism, which would divide up their power and hand it to different national and regional parliaments around the UK.

The only way for us to establish any real and lasting autonomy from Westminster is to break away from them and establish our own independent state. Sharing power won’t work because they hate sharing power and will seek to undermine any agreement at every opportunity, as they’re doing now with devolution.

Dead

We also have to consider whether supporters of federalism will ever be in a position to put their wishes into practice.

The current UK Government has an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons. It has a healthy lead in the polls despite all that has happened with Covid-19. There is no incentive for it to change.

The UK Labour Party say they are in favour of federalism, but without regaining a substantial amount of ground in Scotland, they is unlikely to win the majority required in parliament to make it happen. Were it to win a general election it would most likely have to do a deal with the SNP, and that means an independence referendum that the nationalists would probably win.

In the meantime, the union looks like it could well disintegrate anyway. The Scots look like they’ve increasingly had enough, and the demography of Northern Ireland is pushing it closer and closer to reunification with the Republic.

If Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland does leave then any notion of a federal UK is dead in the water, anyway. You can’t have a federal UK between one nation of 56 million and one of 3.2 million.

But even if, against the odds, the union does survive in the long term, that does not necessarily mean that we would get a federal state. People have been talking about a version of federalism and abolishing the undemocratic House of Lords for over a century.

Lloyd George and Keir Hardie argued for Home Rule and despite being hugely successful politicians that changed the course of British politics they didn’t get a chance to implement their dream. Keir Starmer’s commitment to federalism would probably dissolve just as quickly if he ever became Prime Ministr, not least because all the Welsh Labour MPs who are very happy at Westminster would resist the notion.

The dream of a federal UK is a mirage. It is politically undeliverable. The future is independence or the status quo.

Possible

More likely than federalism is that we would end up with an independent Wales by accident, without having prepared for that eventuality. It looks like the most likely outcome at the moment, and we seriously need to wake up to that.

I’ve seen the idea of an independent Wales derided as a mere fantasy. Perhaps the 193 nation-states of the world don’t in fact exist. Perhaps someone should tell the Republic of Ireland that their independent nation is merely a figment of their imagination? No doubt it would go down well. Independence is a normal state of affairs for a country. It is Wales that is abnormal. It is an outlier.

Though it would be wrong to claim that the independence movement does not have a certain romance attached to it. It has the ability to touch the heart and stir the soul. Because of this, its detractors are keen to accuse it of a lack of pragmatism, of a dearth of practicality. To be perfectly honest there is a danger of that, and it needs to be studiously avoided.

But that does not mean that its opponents are immune from raffish notions. Sometimes it is more comforting to believe that the toxic boyfriend or girlfriend will really change this time, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. But you hold on to those occasions they did nice things because the prospect of breaking up is just too difficult to face up to. After all, how would you divvy up your belongings? Who would get to keep the dog? We think about the end of something, and not the possibility of a new beginning.

Putting our faith in the people who have repeatedly let us down carries with it many risks. It isn’t exactly clear how the unionist vision of a federal UK could realistically be achieved, whether it’s a good idea or not. I find the notion that unionists aren’t motivated by emotion rather amusing.

Politics is known as the art of the possible. The more I think about the probability of a federal UK, the closer to the art of the impossible it seems.

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