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
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs