Was A Federal UK ever possible?

Many of the Unionists opposed to Scottish independence like to hold out the prospect of devolving further powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of a No vote. Nothing of substance is ever provided, it is always vote No and then we’ll think of something, anything, possibly, perhaps, but just vote No anyway. Though there is precious little likelihood of any kind of greater powers coming our way, it is worth taking some time to explore precisely why this will never become a realistic option.

I referred to federalism in the title of this post in order to illustrate the contradictions at the heart of constitutional debate in the UK. For a Federal UK would appear to be the most logical and comprehensive way to allow the four nations that make up the UK to stay together. However federalism has never been regarded as a serious option for reforming the UK. The LibDems like to portray themselves as the champions of a Federal UK. However they have never, ever, done anything to bring it about. Though they are a bit of a joke party nowadays, once upon a time in the not too distant past they, as the Liberal party, were the dominant force in British politics. Yet, they repeatedly failed to deliver even a modicum of devolution in the form of Home Rule to Ireland. A failure which led to a bloody, messy and unwanted outcome – an independent Republic of Ireland and a rump northern Ireland remaining in the UK. This brings out a constant feature of the British establishment, its failure to think ahead and its unwillingness to compromise.

The reasons for this are not hard to find. Essentially they boil down to the power and size of England within the UK. A further influencing factor is probably the centralisation of political and financial power in London. There is just too much to give up for federalism to have ever been a serious possibility for those who rule from Westminster. For federalism means giving up power in a way that devolution does not. A Federal UK would need a proper written constitution which specified what each level of government could and could not do. It would also require an English parliament. Which is the real elephant in the room. Virtually nobody in England wants an English parliament. Why would they, when they already have one – Westminster is in the eyes of the people of England, their parliament. Which it is in practice anyway. There is simply no stomach in England for the trouble and costs of building a new Federal Parliament somewhere else just to placate a few Scots, Welsh and Irish.

With Federalism a non-starter, we are left to muddle on with the current messy and potentially unstable constitutional arrangements. They are messy and unstable precisely because there was no UK wide thinking behind the current devolution settlements. Different powers were devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with no account taken of England. Thus the UK parliament and government has at different times to act as the government of the whole of the UK, as the government of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the government of England and Wales and all of the time as the government of England. Though a bit of a mess and unliked by the voters everywhere, you can see its attractions for the likes of Cameron, Clegg and Milliband. So much power is hard to willingly give up. Which is why they will cling on to this power for as long as they can.

Rumblings about this messy state of affairs even reaches Westminster itself and from time to time half-hearted attempts are made to tidy things up a bit. The most recent came last year, when the McKay Commission published its Report on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons. The best this august commission could come up with was the suggestion of creating an English Grand Committee to give a formal voice to the views of English MPs when a bill affecting only England came before parliament. However this voice was to have no power. There would be no English votes for English laws. The Mckay Report is another example of how the British establishment continues to refuse to face up to and confront the difficult and fundamental questions that the lack of a written UK constitution poses for us all. Much better to just continue to muddle along in the hope that nobody causes a real fuss. For a detailed analysis of the Mckay Report see this article by Mark Elliott.

However the prospect of Scottish independence and the acceptance by all in Scotland that we should have a written constitution if we do vote for independence is making this muddle along approach more and more untenable. Aileen McHarg has a very good article here on the growing differences between Scotland and England in this respect. In all this what is noticeably missing is any concern whatsoever by the powers that be in Westminster, whether the Tories, Labour or even the LibDems, to concede more powers to Scotland. Such a thought only ever crosses their minds to immediately rule it out. It has never been part of the mindset of the British establishment to give up any powers. It only ever does so most reluctantly and most unwillingly. A No vote just means more Westminster control and more austerity.

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