Ahead of the upcoming Labour Hame debate on federalism in Edinburgh on 12 May – reserve your free place today – Duncan Hothersall reviews some of the history of the federalism argument in the UK and Scotland.
The idea of a federal UK is not new. Indeed it predates the formation of the Labour Party, having gained currency in Liberal circles under William Gladstone in the late 19th century.
Federalism remains a core policy of Gladstone’s modern day political heirs, the Liberal Democrats, whose long-standing commitment was set out by David, now Lord, Steel’s commission in 2006, rejuvenated by Sir Menzies, now Lord, Campbell’s report in 2012, and reaffirmed by Jeremy, now Lord, Purvis in 2017. (The House of Lords seems to be where Lib Dem federalists are sent to atone for their sins.)
The Campbell report focuses in depth on the economy of a federal UK, the intricacies of shared decision-making including the creation of “partnership powers” to bridge the gap between different national legislatures, and how localism should be a core element of any federal blueprint.
What the report skirts around is one of the central challenges of any federal plan for the UK – the motivation and make-up of England. Campbell says:
“it is for people in England to determine how they wish their own national and regional identities expressed within the constitutional structures of our United Kingdom”
thereby neatly avoiding having to set out an answer to that conundrum.
But the Lib Dems are not the only party to have considered federalism over an extended period. Within the Labour movement there has long been discussion of a federal United Kingdom, though it was subsumed in the late 1970s and 80s into the broader home rule and devolution debate championed by Scottish Labour Action and such leading lights as the late great Bob McLean.
That melting pot of ideas fed into the Scottish Constitutional Convention which eventually delivered – through the medium of the Blair government elected in 1997 – the devolution we enjoy today. But the internal debate continued, and a group which was at the time on the left fringes of the Labour Party but now controls its mainstream – the Red Paper Collective – began a debate on constitutional futures in 2011 which culminated in the publication of Progressive Federalism in 2017.
This multi-author effort, including a contribution from a little-known Central Scotland MSP called Richard Leonard, was ostensibly a response to then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s commitment of the Scottish Labour Party to federalism for the UK, which also gained the endorsement of London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones.
The Red Paper publication focused, naturally, on the idea of breaking up centralised power, and saw federalism as a route to both redistribution of wealth and a renewed co-operation and solidarity between the constituent parts of the UK. Jon Trickett MP, endorsing the idea of a federation in which English regions, rather than England as a whole, were represented, saw federalism as the next step of devolution:
“Why shouldn’t the North of England have devolved administrations? We suffer from many of the same problems as Scotland. And we have a similar sense of identity separate from our neighbours in the South of England. … We succeeded in bringing devolution to Scotland, Wales and London. And our party will do more in the future.”
Dave Watson addressed localism in the context of a federal approach, applying principles of subsidiarity and concluding that:
“A federal solution turns our traditional ‘hand me down’ approach on its head. It starts with the local, building up to the nation state.”
And Pauline Bryan identified the issue of EU powers returning to the UK – a current political hot potato – as highlighting the need for serious thinking about the structures set up by devolution and whether they are fit for purpose:
“The repatriation of powers presents us with the opportunity to review the devolution of powers to the nations and regions in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal way based on the principles of redistribution of wealth not just between the nations and regions but within them, the democratisation of our economy at UK, national, regional, and local levels and ensuring enhanced standards for workers’ rights.”
Outwith the “constitutional centre”, if one can characterise Labour and the Lib Dems in those terms, there is a healthy scepticism about federalism and, certainly among independence supporters, it is widely seen as a false flag, designed to undermine the cause of independence rather than further the cause of co-operation.
While we may disagree over the truth of that, it has led to some useful and interesting commentary, not least an excellent overview of the barriers to federalism, An Unequal Kingdom, from the independence-supporting think tank Common Weal.
As this is set out largely as a critique of federalism, it focuses quite strongly on what it perceives as the weak points in the argument. Chief among them is the vexed question of how a federal UK would be subdivided – whether England participates as a whole or as regions – and identifies the distinct lack of appetite in England for past suggestions of regional subdivision:
“Whilst there may be advantages to Federalism for Scotland, Wales and/or Northern Ireland these advantages are less clear in the case of England which may be asked to make significant concessions – up to and including the effective legal dissolution of that nation as an entity – in order to accommodate them (thought there is a strong case to be made that a much more decentralised England is a positive direction for much of the country to take). Before any attempt to ‘sell’ the idea of Federalism to the smaller nations of the UK can even begin, there must be a desire from England for this to occur.”
Many people see proposals for a federal UK as a sticking plaster, unworkable in practice and designed simply as a diversion to avoid tackling hard problems. Others say it’s the logical conclusion of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution, a way to deliver the same benefits to English regions.
Still others see it as the only way the UK can hope to function effectively in future, pointing to the constitutional mess exposed by Brexit and Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. And some even say it’s just another vehicle for supporters of Scottish independence to continue to break the ties that bind the UK.
What do you think? Come along to the Augustine United Church Centre in Edinburgh on 12 May and have your say. Reserve your free place today.