Murdo Fraser: A Federal Future? #indyref

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There is nothing new about the idea of federalism in Britain. Early last century a Cabinet sub-committee was tasked with drafting a Bill for a federal UK, in an attempt to deal with the Irish question. Federalism has long been a Liberal, then Liberal Democrat, objective. In recent months the idea has attracted more interest, as a possible way forward should Scotland vote No in September’s independence referendum.

At its core, federalism is the belief that sovereignty is entrenched at each layer of government, as opposed to the current UK constitutional position whereby all sovereignty rests with Westminster. Whilst we do have devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, these devolved institutions derive their authority from Westminster, and technically could be abolished at any point by an act of the Westminster parliament. As Enoch Powell famously stated: “Power devolved is power retained”.

The current devolved Scottish Parliament operates more or less along the lines of a state legislator in many federal systems, the significant difference being the lack of tax varying powers (to an extent, but only that, this will be rectified when the tax varying powers in the Scotland Act come fully into force in 2015).

To create a federal system for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be comparatively straightforward. It would involve entrenching in a written constitution the existence, and sovereignty of these institutions, moving some way to equalising their powers, and providing greater financial responsibility (as proposed by the Scottish Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission).

The greatest challenge for UK federalists is what to do about England. The question of how England should be governed is a matter for the English people themselves, and there already exists a campaign for an English Parliament, and beyond that there is a vigorous lobby to deal with the West Lothian question, to which a satisfactory answer is still awaited.

It is perfectly possible in theory to create an English Parliament with powers akin to Holyrood, either as a stand-alone institution or simply by taking the existing members of the House of Commons who sit for English constituencies and constituting them into a de facto English Parliament sitting on certain days of the week. A new executive would have to be formed, with an English First Minister and Cabinet, exercising devolved powers.

Alternatively, and preferably, a way could be found to devolve powers within England: to cities, city regions, and historic counties like Yorkshire and Cornwall. Ironically, here the capital has been leading the way, with the elected Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, calling for more powers, including over legislation, for the city.

A few weeks ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, promised more local decision making and control of budgets for Northern cities. The new Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, is on record as saying that he wants to see more power devolved to nations and regions across the UK. A head of steam is building in support of a least a quasi-federal system.

The beauty of federalism within the UK, if it were workable and could be achieved, is a solution which could unite both unionists, and many nationalists, and provide a secure framework for the future. It would help deal with other thorny, and potentially irresolvable, constitutional problems: the West Lothian question and reform of the House of Lords, the latter being replaced with an elected Senate with equal representation from the constituent parts of the UK.

There are clear attractions in a federal model for unionists, as a way of providing stability and balance to a currently unstable and unbalanced set of arrangements. For nationalists, whilst federalism clearly secures Scotland’s place in the UK, it nevertheless entrenches in law the existence of the Scottish Parliament, and of course involves the devolution of substantial additional financial powers from those currently existing.

Scotland is a deeply divided country when it comes to our constitutional future, A referendum with a binary Yes/No question was always going to polarise opinion. After a No vote in September, all of us – unionist and nationalist – need to find a way to move forward together. Federalism has the potential to be the common ground on which we can unite a divided nation.

Murdo Fraser is a Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament

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  • Ernekid

    Federalism for the UK ain’t going to happen anytime soon, It’s a nice idea as its makes the UK much tidier but its a totally non starter for a variety of reasons.

  • Mr_Ominous

    Why should England have to be abolished to suit the Scots and Welsh? The fact is the UK is no longer governable as country and should come to end.

  • dougthedug

    As an MSP I thought Murdo Fraser would actually know the legislation the Scottish Parliament was created under

    The Scottish Parliament was given Tax varying powers under Section 73 of the Scotland Act 1998 to vary the basic rate by 3p so when Murdo talks about a lack of tax varying powers he’s talking mince.

    If Murdo thinks writing a new constitution for the UK solely to allow the Scottish Parliament to become “Federal” will be straightforward then he’s living in a world of his own. After a no vote Westminster will spend no time at all on entrenching Scotland’s powers but will be willing to spend a lot of time to ensure that the Scottish Parliament is cut down to size and never becomes a threat to the UK again.

    Regional Parliaments will never be enacted in England whether federal or not because there is no call for them and I simply don’t understand the line, “and of course (a federal model) involves the devolution of substantial additional financial powers from those currently existing.”

    No it doesn’t Murdo. Federalism is nothing to do with what powers a parliament has it simply means that a parliament’s powers are protected by the nation’s constitution.

    As an example, if the Welsh Assembly was constitutionally protected it would be a federal parliament even though its powers would be much less than the devolved parliament in Scotland.

    Nationalists will not be satisfied with “federalism” because by its very nature federalism is unionism. This article comes across as perhaps the most happy-clappy claptrap for a No vote that I’ve ever seen.

    Murdo doesn’t know the existing Scottish Parliament can vary taxes. He thinks that creating a written constitution for the UK simply to accommodate a No voting Scotland will be “straightforward”, he repeats the old tall tale that the word “federalism” automatically means more powers for Scotland without a need for those powers to be defined and the binary yes/no question was because the unionists and especially his party leader David Cameron didn’t want federalism.

    If federalism is such a vote winner for both unionist and nationalist why wasn’t it on the ballot paper? Because it will never happen and it will never happen because no UK party wants anything to do with it, the Lib-Dems included. If it didn’t go on the ballot paper as an independence killer the idea that it will be all smiles and federalism after a No vote is self-delusion of the highest order.

  • Mister_Joe

    I live in a federalised country and, although the provinces really have the main power to levy extra taxes, the rest is the power to tinker around the edges of some legislation. Doug is quite right when he says that the main reason for the federal system is to protect the power(s) of the central government, not to give away some of it, well any significant part of it, to the regions.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The Scottish Parliament was given Tax varying powers under Section 73 of the Scotland Act 1998 to vary the basic rate by 3p so when Murdo talks about a lack of tax varying powers he’s talking mince.

    Murdo is probably talking about the Scotland Act 2012 which significantly expands Scotland’s tax powers.

    Murdo doesn’t know the existing Scottish Parliament can vary taxes

    He said “a lack of tax varying powers”. “lack” = insufficient or in short supply.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Federalism is the trajectory that the UK is currently on.

    But fundamentally a written constitution which limits the authority of Parliament to, for example, abolish regional governments or restrict their powers is difficult to accomplish in a constitutional monarchy.

  • dougthedug

    1. He’s certainly does refer to the Scotland 2012 Act in his article but only as a comparison to the current 1998 Act.

    2. He said “the lack of tax varying powers” by which he meant none.

    Someone called Comrade Stalin defending a Tory. It’s just like being on a Scottish blog.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I dunno, we have both a constitutional monarchy and a federal system in Belgium, and while the implementation has been known to stutter a bit, one could describe it as a fait accompli!

  • Comrade Stalin

    1. He’s certainly does refer to the Scotland 2012 Act in his article but only as a comparison to the current 1998 Act.

    The article above makes no such comparison.

    2. He said “the lack of tax varying powers” by which he meant none.

    I perpetually have a lack of money. It doesn’t mean I don’t have any.

    Someone called Comrade Stalin defending a Tory. It’s just like being on a Scottish blog.

    I prefer to look at the rights or wrongs of the argument rather than the person making it. You see differently. That’s fine.

  • dougthedug

    No comparison? What does he say again? Tax varying powers of Scotland Act 1998 vs. Scotland Act 2012.

    The current devolved Scottish Parliament operates more or less along the lines of a state legislator in many federal systems, the significant difference being the lack of tax varying powers (to an extent, but only that, this will be rectified when the tax varying powers in the Scotland Act come fully into force in 2015).

    Oxford English Dictionary
    lack: he state of being without or not having enough of something

    I lack a second income. That means I don’t have one.

    I make no judgement about you. Just the irony of defending a Tory with a name like Comrade Stalin

  • Comrade Stalin

    I can’t do much with a chap who insists on reading in an article whatever he wants to read rather than trying to honestly determine the author’s meaning.

  • dougthedug

    Please point out the misquote or where I’m incorrect. If you read the article wrong admit it.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’ve already made my point and I’m sticking to it. I’ll not bore the rest of the people here by having pointless arguments with you.

  • dougthedug

    I’m not having an argument. I’m just pointing out I’m right.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Interesting.

    I had it in my head that it would be a fundamental change in the UK, and perhaps a bridge too far, to formally abolish the monarch’s theoretical right to veto legislation (which would be necessary to grant regional governments the autonomy being discussed here) and to codify the UK constitution to explicitly delineate the monarch’s role and the limitations on Parliament.

    Not things I have a problem with, of course, but I can see there being resistance. Some might say that weakening the monarch’s constitutional role would move the UK closer to a republic.

  • Cheshire Caveman

    There is an Elephant in the room that no-one has discussed yet. England is more than area bounded by a set of geographical and legislative boundaries. When Cameron, Farage and increasingly Miliband speak of England they are addressing the English home county heartlands. They are addressing the church-and-state English nationalist. They are addressing those who think that England is created by those who wear the blazer and boater of Harrow, or that it is forged on the playing-fields of Eton. They are ignoring those who remember and are part of the English radical tradition. They are writing out of history the Chartists, the Tollpuddle Martyrs, The Suffragettes, Peterloo and Tom Paine. Any English Parliament that is simply the continuation of the Westminster Village sitting on a part-time basis on English only issues will not be accepted. The Westminster Village has been shown by the Scottish Referendum for what it really is, the UK’s own Tammany Hall. The three main parties need to stop and remember that England is not just the playing-fields of Eton.