THE FAILURE OF FEDERALISM
Those of us who heaved a sigh of relief following the solid rejection of independence in the 2014 referendum, may have hoped for a few years of respite from the separatists. But it wasn’t to be. Almost immediately, the SNP and their Green collaborators began a clamour for Indyref2. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a group of senior politicians from the main pro-union parties, together with former First Ministers and officials from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, set up the ‘Constitution Reform Group’ (CRG), to examine ways of refashioning the constitution to make it fit for purpose in modern Britain.
Alarmed that the debate had been reduced to two options, the breakup of the United Kingdom or the status quo, the steering committee, under the chairmanship of Robert Salisbury, former Leader of the House of Lords, undertook six years of intensive work to provide a new paradigm for a sustainable future. Convinced that the breakup of the UK would be a “tragic and fundamental strategic blunder”, the CRG invited leading constitutional lawyers and experts to draw up draft legislation for a new constitutional settlement. In the words of Robert Salisbury, “breaking up the union would subject its citizens to an unknowable number of years of uncertainty and disruption, destabilising their lives and the governance of their nations.” In his letter to the leaders of all of the UK’s political parties, Robert Salisbury described the union as “astonishingly successful, culturally and economically, which has stood as a powerful defence of its people’s values and liberties in a dangerous world.”
The CRG’s warnings are timely, although their solution may be less so. With the hundreth anniversary of the partition of Ireland on 3rd May this year, an event which left us with the United Kingdom we know today, and seething anger in Northern Ireland where many unionists believe they were bretayed by Brexit, the union flag is dangling on a shoogly peg. The election, once again, of a pro-independence majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament has increased the tension. The CRG believe that these stresses and strains can only be resolved by introducing new structures under a new federal system of governance.
The CRG’s steering committee contains some notable members including Jack McConnell (former First Minister of Scotland), Menzies Campbell (former Leader of the Liberal Democrats), David Trimble (former First Minister of Northern Ireland), Carwyn Jones (former First Minister of Wales), Gisela Stuart (former Labour MP and minister) and other leading political, legal, constitutional and fiscal experts. Their radical plans include options to replace the House of Commons with a United Kingdom Parliament, to create in addition a directly elected English parliament, to abolish the House of Lords or replace it with a much slimmed down elected upper house and to create a UK Central Bank.
The CRG say the UK Parliament will continue to be elected with representatives from across the United Kingdom. These MPs will have exclusive competence over “central areas” including succession to the crown, elections to the UK Parliament, foreign affairs, international treaties and conventions, EU affairs, defence, NATO, human rights, the function of the Central Bank, monetary policy and financial stability, government borrowing and currency, certain taxes, social security, the Supreme Court, national security, immigration and the civil service. However, the powers of the devolved governments will be strengthened under the revised system. Therein lies the problem.
The proposals would have to win the approval from referenda held in each of the four constituent parts of the union. Any single part could exercise a veto, but the agreement of all four parts would signal an acceptance of the pooling of sovereignty for specified purposes, with universal citizenship guaranteeing certain social and economic rights. The approval of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a federal system of governance, in a nationwide referendum, would almost certainly be doomed to failure. Federalism may work in a country like Germany, where everyone acknowledges themselves as German. But it can never be used as a means of accommodating nationalism within a unitary state. That is an irreconcilable dichotomy. Scotland would almost certainly veto the proposition in any referndum, as might Wales and even Northern Ireland.
One of the chief political theorists during the French Revolution was a man called Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, a clergyman. Abbé Sieyès published a pamphlet in 1789 entitled Qu'est-ce que le Tiers-État? (What is the Third Estate?), which became the manifesto for the revolution, the opening line of which stated: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something.” There is an eerie confluence between Abbé Sieyès pamphlet and the CRG’s Act of Union Bill, which Robert Salisbury describes, in his letter to the UK political leaders, as “A ‘Third Way’ for the future of the United Kingdom”. The CRG should perhaps examine what became of Abbé Sieyès. As the French Revolution began to turn towards Empire he spent his time writing complicated constitutional schemes and presenting them to Napoleon, who listened politely before chucking them in the bin as soon as Sieyès left the room. I fear the same fate awaits the Act of Union Bill 2021. Federalism has rarely been taken seriously in Scotland, where it is regarded as something akin to Devo Max, itself now a discredited proposition, hated by unionists as a way of salami-slicing power away from Westminster and hated by nationalists as never going far enough.
The CRG believe that a federalist UK is a clever alternative to outright separation, but it won’t stop the nationalists from trying to breakup Britain. Repeated attempts to stymie the SNP by devolving more and more powers to Holyrood have always failed; in fact, they have had the opposite effect. The more powers we devolve to Scotland, the more the demands for independence have increased. Winston Churchill said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.” Robert Salisbury and the CRG must understand that their attempts to feed the crocodile by appeasing the nationalists will take us down the slippery slope to independence.