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What do we do we do about the United Kingdom? And why federalism isn’t the answer

Federalism may sound like a nice idea, but it isn't the answer.

Gerry Hassan
8 July 2014

In the last few weeks political debate has become filled with talk of the possibility of a federal United Kingdom.

This has come not surprisingly exclusively from pro-union voices. There was Tory MSP Murdo Fraser’s recent thoughtful speech, David Torrance’s short book on British wide federalism, and even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown mulling over the subject.

Murdo Fraser in his Reform Scotland talk said that ‘federalism within the UK, if it were workable and could be achieved, is a solution which could unite both unionists and nationalists, and provide a secure framework for the future’. David Torrance in a ‘Herald’ piece after Fraser’s intervention, cited former Labour MP and academic David Marquand commenting, ‘Does the UK become a federal state, or does it break up?’. Even Gordon Brown has refound his sense of radical constitutionalism, contemplating a written constitution and federalism in all but name.

These developments should be applauded and welcomed as they are trying to deal with some of the challenges of the modern world and the UK, and show a degree of open-mindedness and people being prepared to reconsider previous positions. They should be taken seriously and examined, asking what issues and concerns are they addressing, what are they not addressing, and what are their over-riding motivations?

What such federalism is attempting to engage with is the over-concentration of political power in the centre of the British political system, the ad hoc relationships with the new devolved institutions, and a palpable sense that something is amiss with the state of British democracy and politics.

It seems in many accounts that the first and last of these is significantly under-developed or only acknowledged in passing, and the bigger motivation comes from a worry that the unwritten British constitution has become a bit unbalanced, messy and in urgent need of tidying up. In whose interests such a tidying up and making more rational and orderly the current arrangements would be made, is never quite clear.

Yet what such federalist interest does not explicitly engage with is the long-term crisis of what passes for British democracy and politics. Neither is in a good state, but while the political elite pay passing reference to the need for ‘renewal’ and ‘re-engagement’ they have little interest or understanding of how serious this crisis is. The same is true of most federalist propositions.

More seriously federalist advocates do not take account of the inter-relationship between the character of the political centre and the rise of ‘the divided kingdom’ whereby the UK has become one of the most unequal, uneven developed countries in the world. Federalism, sadly, isn’t an answer to this; only a very different kind of politics and a very different kind of state – promoting radically changed economic and social priorities – can begin to address this.

There is history here. From Macmillan’s experiments with tripartite bodies in the early 1960s as Britain tried to emulate French and German planning, to Wilson’s National Plan attempting to break the economic stranglehold of the Treasury in 1964-66, Benn’s idea for a powerful National Enterprise Board in 1974-75, New Labour’s brief flirtation with ‘stakeholder capitalism’, and most recently Michael Heseltine’s report for the current UK government on the need for a developmental state, there is a distinct pattern which can be discerned.

The above represent a series of aborted attempts to develop a different economic and social state. In fact, as the urgency for such an approach has grown, the actual substance and implementation of reform has grown weaker: Macmillan, Wilson and Benn all tried and failed at reform, whereas New Labour only talked about such ideas and Heseltine’s report remains unimplemented gathering dust. Federalist advocates don’t deal with any of this, and instead offer a complete diversion from how the institutional blockages and forces of reaction in UK Government, and in particular the Treasury, can be taken on and defeated.

The motivations behind many of the federalist boats that are being floated are honourable ones. These are constructive contributions to a debate about the state of Britain, its democracy, politics and society. However, crucially, it is all a bit late in the day – driven by pro-union anxieties which have arisen due to the Scottish independence debate.

Federalism is in the present context an elite liberal constitutionalism divorced from public opinion, popular pressure and with no real push or demand from any body or group. It does not in the perspectives cited draw on the rich political intelligence of the new constitutionalism around the world, which has swept across several of the nations of South America in the last twenty years, and linked political with economic and social rights, the position of women and minorities in society, and articulated a progressive idea of citizenship and the public.

The lack of plausibility and clarity in today’s federalism

There is a lack of plausibility and clarity in today’s federalism. Thus, Murdo Fraser says that ‘To create a federal system for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be comparatively straightforward.’ The task of rewiring an entirely new constitutional settlement and making a written constitution is rarely ‘straightforward’. David Torrance in his short book ‘Britain Rebooted’ dismisses briskly the arguments that ‘Federalism is ‘alien’ to the UK constitutional tradition’ and that ‘Federalism would need support from the rest of the UK’.

At least on the former, he is on stronger ground as UK constitutional practice, while not being pro-federalist, has a tradition of adaptability and morphing to survive. The example Torrance doesn’t acknowledge is the increasing use of referenda on constitutional issues from the mid-1970s onwards – on Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe and electoral reform. There is also an emergent use of them for local Mayors and local democracy. Previously, referendums were dismissed as the actions of ‘dictators’, ‘populists’ and worse, ‘continentals’ – all with that British condescending attitude of we know best!

Then there is the lack of clarity. Torrance dismisses the ‘England is too big’ argument in one paragraph. What he doesn’t examine is that no asymmetrical federation as unbalanced as one with a democratic English voice has ever succeeded and survived. All previous such federal unions have broken up: the West Indies Federation, the first Nigerian federation, and Pakistan pre-1971.

There is if one goes down the road of English regionalism, the problem of defining regions, locales and creating political territories which people have an affinity and ownership of.

The above problems have their root in a deep set of issues. This is namely that there is no such thing as a democratic English political space. And similarly there is not a set of such regional political spaces in England (with the obvious exception of London).

This means that the challenge is much bigger than merely drawing lines in maps or dreaming of federalism. Without pushing the analogy too far the British practice of drawing arbitrary lines on maps around the world has not exactly created stable, prosperous communities anywhere it has been tried.

Instead, of suggesting ill-defined, vague or implausible ideas of federalism – Linda Colley’s idea of an English Parliament based in York being a good example – there needs to be an awareness of where the UK is politically, democratically, economically and socially. What passes for Westminster political discussion barely seems to have any real understanding of this, or the mess British elites have created of politics and society.

Rather than talk of federalist solutions it would be more constructive to ask a series of questions about the character and nature of the UK. These would include:

What can be done about the character of the British political centre? Is its capture by corporate interests permanent, or can it be remade, and if so, how can this be done?

  • How do we link a UK/rUK constitutional politics to challenging the dynamics of the increasing concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of an ever more unrepresentative, self-interested elite?
  • What role can the Scottish independence and self-government debate and referendum play in this?

  • How can people begin to imagine and create a distinct English political space? Can ‘England’ begin to name, define and imagine itself – because that is the first step in becoming a democratic space?

  • Finally, in what way can an England of the regions be nurtured? One which is not like the top down New Labour Regional Development Agencies or John Prescott’s talking shop North East regional assembly?

These are not easy questions. But they are more illuminating and relevant to a wider political canvas than this sudden fashion in places for talking about a vague federalism.

A UK/rUK future which draws from the experience of the new constitutionalism around the world, which creates new practices and principles, and which imagines even new languages and concepts, is something which is a worthy, bold and radical political project.

Such a set of ideas could of course draw from federalist, confederalist and quasi-federalist thinking, but would be something both uniquely British and post-British at the same time. It would be a hybrid, creatively messy and pluralist, and try to finally move Britain out of still living in the shadow of imperialist overhang and traditions, which so distorts British politics and the state.

What this would be about rather than elite constitutionalism is creating a set of self-governing arrangements for the peoples of the UK/rUK, and in so doing directly connect this to a new social contract of these isles – to replace the one torn down and trashed by the market fundamentalists who have captured the British political class these last thirty years.

This is not just a debate about whether the UK breaks up or embraces federalism as David Marquand poses, but about what kind of society people across these isles want to live in, and how we make sense of the immense changes we have lived through these last few decades. The Scottish independence debate has acted as a catalyst to such considerations north of the border; it is time to aid, encourage and support the people of the rUK to have a similar debate.

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