It is not unfair to say that we live in interesting times in our Union. We have seen a referendum in Scotland in 2014, a Nationalist executive there since, and, according to some polls, a rise in separatism in Wales (although support remains low at around 11%). With this there are calls from some to divide our Union into its constituent Nations and, in some cases, further down than that. To me, this is not the answer.
But the solution to these problems has existed since 1912 – a federal UK. There are a number of arguments in favour of this, here I shall focus on two; how it would stifle separatism and how it could benefit all nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
First, separatism, such as that spouted by the Scottish National Party, would be diminished by this constitutional move. Chief amongst these arguments is that the powers of the constituent Provinces – my preferred term and the one used for the Redcliffe-Maud report – could expand. This, in particular, applies to Wales, with support for more powers for the Assembly stable. This would clear the sense that devolution is a “slippery slope”.
Second, a federal model protects and preserves regional identities. Whilst more important to some places than others, a federation would protect local identities whilst maintaining the Union. This dual existence is the case in other federations, such as Albertan and Canadian, Bavarian and German or Victorian and Australian. Whilst nothing prevents this to any great degree at present, federalising our political institutions would help create an area for this to flourish.
A third aspect would be the creation of a “Council of the Federation” as it is known in Canada. The core function of this body, and others of its type, is to foster cooperation amongst the Provinces and, in some ways, provide another forms of accountability to central government. Bodies like this enhanse cooperation within Canada and underpin the Canadian federal system. Should the UK adopt a similar model, these strengths could benefit our union as well.
Ultimately, a more decentralised, federal structure would maintain the unity of the United Kingdom, whilst alleviating the concerns of some within the regions and Nations.
Advantages for the Provinces:
The second argument is economic. Let’s take Yorkshire and the Humber. Within Yorkshire at present, there is a limited degree of devolution, with Metro Mayors, such as Dan Jarvis, representing the largest degree of devolution within the region. There have been proposals for a “One Yorkshire” devolution deal, that being one Assembly for all of Yorkshire, often taken to be Yorkshire and the Humber, rather than specific deals for each Riding and County.
A key advantage here, and one that extends beyond the Yorkshire and Humber region, is transport – specifically rail. Through the establishment of a federal system, intra-provincial transport, could be given to the Provinces to manage as they see fit, with central government still managing national transport links to ensure a continuous and connected nation. Greater efficiency could also improve the economic performance of these areas, with increased connectivity leading to improved economic output as well as allowing for greater travel within a Province. Thus the principle of subsidiarity comes into effect here.
The same could be said for other economic decisions, such as limited powers over taxation. On this issue, I believe the Canadian model is a good model to base the UK’s future financial settlement. This would ease the burden on Westminster and Whitehall as well as allowing for more tailored solutions.
A reform to the House of Lords would also allow the Provinces’ interests to be potected as political entities. This is the case in the Canadian Senate. Here, the Lords becomes a Chamber not only of scrutiny and expertise, but also where the Provinces can ensure that their interests are protected and where smaller areas, such as the North East, are able to ensure that they are not ignored or passed over. Reform of the Upper chamber could include a reduction in size and imposition of a permanent cap.
Ultimately, this reform would allow for areas of the UK to better adapt to, and solve, their unique problems and promote economic growth.
The “Question of England”:
One of the main points of contention within the federalism debate is the status of England. England is responsible for around 90% of UK GDP and roughly 85% of the population.
It is clear that England holds a central position within the UK. This is the heart of the “Question of England”. How do you reconcile these demographic imbalances with a more balanced federation? Fortunately, a number of solutions to this tension have been rasied: have England as a single Province, create Provinces out of the regions of England and some other areas and/or a two-tier system with an English Parliament and regional Assemblies.
First, having England as a single Province within the UK ensures the country that has existed since the 900s continues to do so, with a number of people, including myself, identifying with the nation to some extent. Going with this option will ensure that this is protected to its fullest extent whilst still proceeding into a federal structure. This method would ensure the new federal settlement mirrors our current settlement as much as possible, reducing the negative impacts of these reforms.
There are however, a series of errors with this approach. Chief amongst them is that this would create an incredibly imbalanced federation, with one Province holding a vast majority of both population and economic influence. This means that despite the potential advantages, the system may not be as transformative.
Second, is to create Provinces out of the existing regions within England and some other areas like Cornwall. This would create a more balanced federation, with most prospective Provinces having similar populations. But whilst regional identities such as Yorkshire are preserved, the identity of England and the English people may be damaged, with some referring to this as the “abolition of England”. Thus, whilst effective on an economic and political level, at the more personal and emotional level it runs into major problems.
The third option is one of compromise: Combine an English Parliament with a number of regional and territorial devolved bodies. This would resolve issues regarding the status of England, with the nation being preserved as a political entity, whilst the advantages of Provincial Parliaments in the Regions kept too. Despite this, the key weakness here are competing legislative powers and increased costs and bureaucracy of federation.
This is a key aspect to be discussed and, ultimately, solved.
To me, a federal UK would strengthen the Union, aid economic growth and lower the threat of separatism.
Luke Binney is a member of the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Reform. Originally from Barnsley, he is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Hull. Luke co-founded “Lib Dems for CANZUK” (@CanzukLib) and writes for Lib Dem Voice.