Jeremy Corbyn’s been back in Scotland and that can only mean a renewed debate about federalism in the UK. Where there’s been talk of a new Act of Union and maximum devolution it is federalism that can always be relied upon to be brought out when something needs said about Scotland and the UK’s constitutional future. Only ever referred to in the vaguest of possible terms very few people actually seem to know what Labour mean when they use the F word.
What we do know is that they want a UK wide constitutional convention which will consider ‘federalism’ along with the other big intractables of House of Lords and voting reform. What this constitutional convention lacks in detail it certainly doesn’t lack in ambition but as yet there are no terms of reference about what it would actually consider.
But can Labour deliver a federal UK, would this be a good thing and what would it possibly look like? Labour are certainly feeling encouraged just now with what they see as the success of the modest amount of devolution that has taken place in the English regions. They also seem to have recovered from their last disastrous dalliance with English constitutional change when the North East decisively rejected their plans for an assembly by 77.9% to 22.1% in 2004.
But maybe we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves because any federal solution for the UK would have to take into account the fact that we are a union of nations. There are four nations of the UK and any federation would have to start with them. This leads to the first very obvious problem in that England dwarves all the other nations combined with 53 million people out of the UK’s total population of 65 million.
However, even with this in-balance it isn’t impossible to achieve and the realities of scale are what they are. That great example of symmetrical federalism, the United States of America, secures equal representation on its senate for tiny Rhode Island with giant California. A trans national ’Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ would certainly be the easiest and most elegant way to secure a ‘federal’ UK. The House of Commons would become the English Parliament and powers other than foreign affairs, defence, international treaties and macro-economic matters would be transferred to the new state Parliaments. We would then all send representatives to the UK Senate (occupying the House of Lords) to look after the federal powers. Where this would be a positive progression from the asymmetric devolution of the current UK I get the impression that this sort of trans national federal solution is not what Labour are intending.
What they really seem to hanker for is more ‘devolution’ particularly for England. I’m suspecting that what Labour are looking for is some sort of solution that creates regional assemblies in England to then send representatives to a new UK wide senate (along with the devolved assemblies) that would replace the House of Lords. I also suspect that they pretty much want to leave the House of Commons as the UK’s sovereign Parliament. This may be lots of things but federalism it ain’t. If this ‘federalism’ is just Labour getting confused with devolution we can forgive them and let them get on with it, wishing the very best of luck. But if they are actually serious about creating ‘federalism’ and intending that new ‘regional assemblies’ should have parity of status with the nations of the UK, then we do have a real problem.
That would mean that Scotland as a nation would be given the same status as a ‘region’ of England and would have equal clout with (and with no disrespect to them) the West Midlands. This would have an enormous impact on our place in the world. And how is this to be done? ‘The West Midlands’ would have to be practically re-invented, with institutions replacing Whitehall departments created from scratch. Again, not impossible, but realising the West Midland-ian Parliament as a legislative body would not be ‘issue free’. Now, it might just be me, but I’m also not detecting a huge enthusiasm in England for any sort of constitutional reform far less one that would deliver the equivalent of the German Lander.
Not for the first time I suspect that Labour are just getting a little confused with all this constitutional lexicon and have absolutely no intention of creating the ‘British Federation’. Yes Labour, get on with reforming the House of Lords (it would help if you didn’t take places in it) and by all means let’s see your plans to transform it into an ‘assembly of the nations and regions’. But please stop all this talk of federalism. It really isn’t helping anyone.
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