A federal UK: a solution that is worse than the problem

In a world where people choose facts to suit their prejudices, and dismiss challenge as the work of a sinister enemy, it is still important to seek out views that make you uncomfortable. This is how I felt when I read this article in The Times by Matthew Parris. I like Mr Parris, but I often disagree with him; I think his views on lockdowns and the virus border on irresponsible. But this article, on creating a federal UK constitution to head off the threat of Scottish independence did what reading newspaper columns should.. It made me very uncomfortable because it challenged a long-held position of mine that the UK should move to federal system of government, with regional states. It made especially uncomfortable because he is right.

The idea is that the threat of Scottish independence needs a radical constitutional answer, and that such a proposal would allow unionists to grab back the initiative. And a Federal UK is thought to be that radical answer. It would allow further powers to be devolved while ending the muddle where Scottish MPs vote on English questions. It would all be so much tidier. There is nothing inherently un-British about a federal system. The US constitution has firm Anglo-Saxon underpinnings; the ex-colonial states states of Australia and Canada were set up with federal constitutions, in systems which are otherwise modelled on the UK. And a polity with 3-10 million people is often very efficient, if other European countries are anything to go by, with strong political cohesion (usually – let’s not talk about Belgium).

The problem is England. There are two ways it can be incorporated into a federal UK. First is to set up a separate English parliament. But this would so dominate the whole federal entity that it would be at permanent loggerheads with the UK parliament. I don’t think there are any good examples out there in the world where such a lopsided federation has worked. Russia has gone down this route, both in in Soviet days and afterwards, and it hasn’t been a triumph of empowerment and democracy. I have advocated this, with a new English or UK capital in Birmingham, but even then I wasn’t convinced. Mr Parris rightly dismisses it. The second route is to turn English regions into states. This is elegant in theory, but it is a top-down solution that would be imposed on a sceptical public.

This is a hard truth for people like me to bear. I am inspired by European states, such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which operate a regional federal system. These are amongst the best-run states in Europe. Compare that to the over centralised Britain and France. France, of course, has tried to impose regional government, as has Spain (an interesting parallel because the motivation is similar: to head off separatism). Mr Parris dismisses the Spanish solution as comprising made-up states with little political purpose. I don’t know whether he is fair on that, but it certainly hasn’t solved the Catalonian question. The problem in England is that there is little or no regional culture or identity for regional government to lock into. Like one of the more singing criticisms of the European Union: there is no demos. This is unlike the situation of the USA, Australia and Canada, which were agglomerations of separate colonies, often physically far apart.

This is the end result of nearly a thousand years of English history. Ever since the Norman invasion of 1066 the national government (which quickly moved to London) has sought to undermine any serious regional political strength. The English failed to extend their rule into Scotland, and their rule in Ireland was never entirely secure. Wales came into the realm in medieval times, but its culture never quite integrated with England’s. But in England itself, this political integration was a success. This history is unlike that of Germany and Austria, where for hundreds of years the much-derided Holy Roman Empire held sway, allowing a multiplicity of local identities to coexist.

Things can change, of course. The most successful era of local government and initiative was not all that long ago, in the Victorian era. This left some wonderful civic architecture in Britain’s great cities. That followed local economic success, which depended on local natural resources (especially coal) and surplus rural labour. In the 21st Century successive governments have tried to build on this by developing “city regions” based on these old industrial centres, and led by “mayors”. These often uncover fierce local rivalries, and can’t be said to be fully rooted.

Still the city regions were better than the Whitehall-devised regions used for EU regional policy, which had almost no popular traction, except in London itself, perhaps. The city regions, and building on existing local authority structures, remain the most hopeful avenue for developing a more devolved political structure in England. It is a long, hard road. Almost everybody seems to favour more localised decision-making in theory, but in practice they undermine it at every turn, dismissing it as a “postcode lottery”. Fighting the covid-19 epidemic was a major opportunity to develop locally coordinated structures, but the government didn’t have the patience, and has not paid any discernible political price.

What is not going to work, though, is a hastily put together federal structure for UK government based on English regions, or England as a whole, for that matter. It would quickly fall into disrepute and be widely regarded s a shambles and waste of public money, at best.

Where does this lead? Well perhaps Scottish independence is not such a bad idea after all. A separation would be yet more painful and chaotic than the UK’s separation from the EU. But that other region of good governance and civic success in Europe, Scandinavia, is based one a community of independent nations not dissimilar in size to Scotland. Separation would make me very sad, but let us not try to head it off with constitutional reforms that are just going to make things worse in the longer run.

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