It seems no matter what constitutional problems the UK has, someone will always propose federalism as a solution. But federalism isn’t the benign cuddly sheep it first appears to be. It’s the nationalist wolf in disguise, ready to divide and devour the UK. Federalism, like all attempts to appease nationalism, will only further aid the fragmentation of the constitutional cohesion of our country, and should be opposed by all those who want to maintain its integrity.
Federalists generally propose two ideas: Firstly, they propose that the UK is split into smaller governmental regions. Proposals include creating an English parliament, as well as the existing Scottish, Welsh and Irish governments, or to split England into smaller regions. Scottish federalists often propose that each region has approximately five to six million people in it, to match the population of Scotland. However, this arbitrary population number does not take into account the history, geography and social ties in the regions. Just as one could say that the one-size-fits-all Scottish parliament does not take into account the many different kinds of Scottish regions.
Secondly, federalists propose that each federal unit would have a ‘parliament’ that would be responsible for all of that region’s affairs, except defence, foreign affairs, immigration and financial regulation (in theory).
The ‘mainstream’ political parties, the Conservative and ‘Unionist’ Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, now wholeheartedly support a policy of introducing federalism to the UK. By this, they mean giving the devolved legislatures as much power over purely local (Scottish, Welsh, and NI) affairs as possible, regardless of whether England has a Parliament or not, although the Conservatives would, in all likelihood, make Westminster the parliament that looks after purely English matters. They support such a policy because they think it is an alternative to separation. However, they have not thought through the consequences properly, or perhaps aren’t concerned with the possibility of it being used by anti-UK nationalists and their allies to further their agenda of breaking up the UK.
Why it doesn’t work
There are several important reasons why federalism wouldn’t produce a viable, fair constitutional arrangement for the UK:
It an extreme solution, based on fear
Federalists would like us to believe that they are offering a moderate middle-ground compromise between separation and centralisation. But federalism is an extreme solution, based on fear. It dismantles the Parliamentary Union begun in 1707 and is an extremist attack on the constitutional nature of the UK as a unitary (single) nation. Wanting to maintain the UK is not an extreme position – trying to break up the UK, or trying to change things to the benefit of those who want to break up the UK, is.
Only a paper thin wall separates federalism from separatism. Any political party which advocates ‘federalism’ sets itself up as the weaker version of a stronger brand. It hurts itself, and only benefits those who see federalism as just a stepping stone towards separation, towards the break-up of the UK.
Federalism will NOT stop Scottish, or Welsh or Northern Irish nationalism from trying to break up the UK.
Such anti-UK nationalists are monomaniacal and pathological about forcing separation on their part of the UK. It has been a constant mantra of pro-legislative devolutionists since the beginning of the devolution era 25 years ago, that giving the devolved parts of the UK more powers would negate anti-UK nationalism. The reality has been the opposite. Over the past 25 years, legislative devolution has empowered nationalism. Giving Holyrood more powers, for instance, has done nothing to negate the efforts of the SNP to force independence in Scotland. Indeed, the SNP are actively using the power and money of government to advance their agency, both overtly, in areas such as overseas offices and ‘Ministers for independence’, and covertly, through the funding of civil society.
It would destabilise the UK
Federalism actually gives nationalists more of what they want. It makes it far easier for them to assert that ‘only one more step’ is required to achieve separation. It actually empowers them to stir up division in society. The mainstream UK political parties believe such a policy is an election winner, but they fail to consider what will happen in future elections when the nationalists get back into power.
If a federal UK state was ever created, the SNP (and the other anti-UK nationalists) would simply continue on as if nothing had happened and continue to pursue their separation agenda again. They would ignore the fact of devolution and claim that the UK is still ‘centralised with real power in London’, just as they act like the Scottish parliament never happened. They would also continue on, without even recognizing what they have been given. Nothing but complete separation would satisfy them. They would just use their very substantially enhanced new federal powers to agitate with their now greatly enhanced ability (via their federal legislature and its much greater powers) for more independence referenda.
It would make the citizens of the federated regions of the UK ‘stare at their navel’ and obsess over the divisive independence agenda, rather than focus on the wider panoply of our UK unity, combined strength and shared national identity. And it would lead to extremist elements in the federated regions of the UK joining up to pool their efforts to break up the UK.
It would centralise unpopular policies, while devolving popular ones
Looking at Scotland, in a federal UK, Holyrood would be entirely responsible for health, education, social spending, and all the positive roles of government that are central to the SNP’s vision of a centre-left Scotland and so consequently, tax and spend would take place almost entirely within Scotland, thus re-orientating the pooling and sharing of resources and the sense of national and economic community to the Scottish, rather than the UK, level.
This would contrast very sharply with the positive duties of the Scottish Government, as the federal UK parliament would be responsible only for things like defence, immigration and foreign intervention. These are often the unpopular and contentious issues, and the SNP could easily portray such a government as nasty, right-wing and having no mandate in Scotland. Federalism would create a situation where all Holyrood does is provide public services, while all the UK Parliament does is run Trident, detain refugees and bomb Syria. That is certainly how nationalists would frame the situation created by federalism, and it is hard to see the UK lasting under those circumstances.
It would cause a mass of conflicting laws
A major drawback to federalism would be the disparity in laws that it would create. Each federal unit would have their own laws, which creates a substantial potential to create conflict between the parts of the country, as some laws may be different from those in other parts of the federal union. Added to this, separatists in any region, would use this to agitate against the centre, just as the SNP has used Holyrood to agitate against Westminster under legislative devolution.
A good example of this is the Green Party/SNP’s bottle return scheme in Scotland (DRS). They proposed a plan to recycle used beverage bottles, where a deposit would be paid by a customer and returned when they brought the bottle back to a shop or machine after use.
However, drinks producers in Scotland and the rest of the UK were concerned about its impact on their businesses. Scottish drinks producers would see demand drop, as a 20p cost would be added to every single-use container, while any UK business that wanted to sell into Scotland would be subject to extra labelling restrictions. Wine distributors, for example, said that they would simply stop selling low-volume wines into Scotland, as it was not worth the extra costs. Due to these issues, and the Scottish Government’s inability to secure a UK Internal Market exemption, Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said the UK would not approve the scheme.
In recent days, the UK Government has now confirmed that the proposed Green/SNP deposit return scheme can go ahead, but without the inclusion of glass bottles. If the SNP Holyrood administration accepts this stipulation, the scheme would be introduced north of the border from March 2024. The deposit charge, bar codes and labelling of drinks containers would all have to be standardised across the four parts of the UK, meaning that someone buying a drink in Dumfries and Galloway would be able to get their 20p back if they returned the bottle in Carlisle.
In a letter to First Minister Humza Yousaf, the UK Government stressed that including glass in the Scotland only scheme could create a ‘permanent divergence’ in the market, as schemes planned for other parts of the UK did not include this.
Of course, that was not good enough for separatists who want to use the issue as a grievance about excessive Westminster control. Humza Yousaf has claimed it is a ‘democratic outrage’ for the UK Government to only allow the DRS to go ahead without glass. The Green Party’s Lorna Slater accused the UK Government of ‘sabotage’ and said it showed ‘utter disregard for devolution’.
Ex-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon waded in to add to the controversy, claiming : ‘You can have devolved powers, but use them only if you do exactly what we tell you’, is not devolution in any meaningful sense. Increasingly obvious that real self-government requires independence’.
This is just one small example of how anti-UK separatists would use the differences in local laws, to try to grab power they do not have, to create grievance and fuel antagonism with the rest of the UK. Now, imagine this multiplied by ten or more regions. It’s a recipe for chaos.
It would centralise power away from smaller regions
On most issues, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to the quality of the government if it is one mile away or 1,000 miles away. It can be equally good, or bad.
The experience of the Scottish parliament has shown how power and funding has been centralised in Edinburgh, instead of being spread across Scotland’s regions. Local councils funding has been cut severely so that the Scottish Government can pursue its agenda. Imagine this multiplied by ten regions across the UK.
It would end the pooling and sharing of the UK’s resources.
It would break the shared UK-wide economic community. It would damage the social desire to pool the UK’s resources with people throughout the UK. Furthermore, it is all just economic pie-in-the-sky. There is absolutely no reason why a federal political set-up would deliver ‘local and national redistribution of wealth, and collective democratic control over corporate capital’, as its proponents claim, instead of something else.
It would mean an endless stream of independence referenda, as well as the exploitation of political differences.
Crucially, it is likely to give anti-UK nationalism greatly enhanced power to hold referenda until they get the result they want. Currently, Westminster has the power to withhold consent for the devolved legislatures to hold referenda on independence, but imagine if this power had been in the hands of the SNP and if Scotland had already been in some kind of federal relationship with the rest of the UK immediately after the Brexit referendum in 2016— it is unlikely the UK would still exist.
It would have been, legislatively, much easier for the SNP to use the Scottish ‘Remain’ (in the EU) vote to argue that Scotland had an undeniable right to stay in the EU. The idea that ‘we all voted as a United Kingdom’ would sound less convincing if the UK was actually a federation of four different nations. If the central UK Government overruled the SNP, then the SNP would be in a very powerful position to create a monumental fuss, which could possibly result in separation.
This did not happen, as the UK is still held together as a unitary nation. The Scottish vote was part of the wider UK vote on which the vote was predicated, not the results in each individual part of the UK, and so Scotland had to go along with the overall UK vote. It would have been harder to make that point if the UK had already been a federal union, or if Scotland already had the powers of a quasi-independent federal state. It would destroy the concept of the UK being a unitary state and focus everything on the four separate nations to the point where the parts of the UK would be constantly at each other’s throats. In essence, federalism would make it easier for the SNP to exploit political differences in order to promote the break-up of the UK.
Putting all these together, and looking at the disaster of Scottish devolution, it can only be concluded that Federalism would, in fact, make breaking up the UK far easier, not more difficult.
Federalism hasn’t stopped separatist movements
Federalism’s proponents point to other countries in the world as examples of success that the UK should emulate. However, they tend to emphasise the obvious successes, while ignoring the glaring failures. Countries like the US, Canada and Germany, though constitutionally cohesive at the moment, have growing popular separatist movements. ‘Calexit’ (taken from the UK’s ‘Brexit’ movement) is a thriving separatist movement in California that has substantial popular support on the ground. Indeed, California is, arguably, the most likely state to secede from the US Union. Added to this, there are at least 16 separatist movements all over America, and their number and popularity is only growing. It is easy to see one, or more of them, becoming so popular and influential that it becomes a real threat to the constitutional integrity of the US. Just as the SNP was very insignificant for decades until they suddenly became a real threat to the UK, enabled by legislative devolution.
Like legislative devolution, federalism may seem like a great idea, but it doesn’t work in practice. Some people assert that federalism ‘works in other countries and so would also work in the UK’ but this isn’t the case when the real facts are ascertained and examined. Federalism can only work in the absence of separatist agitation, yet, as noted above, it emboldens exactly what it aims to neutralise. A federal unit with a significant separatist movement (like the SNP in Scotland) will constantly be at risk of its institutions being taken over, or co-opted, to promote a separatist agenda. Added to this, any country which has a significant separatist movement will see its federal parliament eventually dominated by separatists who will use it to push for full separation.
In Canada, a federal union, the Quebecois, who have managed to seize power in the Quebec federal legislature and have held two referenda on seceding from Canada in the last forty-three years, are still active and a clear and present threat to the constitutional integrity of that country. There are 11 other separatist movements across Canada.
In Europe, Catalonia has been trying to break away from the rest of Spain for decades, culminating in the 2017 referendum in which 92.1% of Catalonians voted ‘yes’ to separation. Then there’s the Basque separatist question. The Spanish federal union has spawned extremist nationalism that has employed terrorism in order to achieve its political aims, in the form of the ETA Basque separatists (Spain’s IRA). Hardly a ringing endorsement for a successful federal union. The Basque conflict, also known as the Spain–ETA conflict, was an armed and political conflict from 1959 to 2011, between Spain and the Basque National Liberation Movement, a group of social and political Basque organisations which sought independence from Spain and France.
Germany has many popular separatist movements that are steadily growing in number and have the ominous potential to grow into a genuine threat to that country’s constitutional integrity in time, just like the SNP in Scotland.
Far from producing a cohesive nation, the real-world experience of federal unions in Europe, the US, and Canada has been that it does no such thing. It holds no solutions for the UK’s constitutional crisis that legislative devolution has produced.
Would it work if secession was banned?
The only way that federalism could, perhaps, be made to work is if secession from the UK was actually banned by law. This approach is fraught with danger, however.
If secession was banned by law, then separatists would only be prevented from breaking up the UK in theory. While implementing such a law would be attacked by, for example, the SNP, as ‘anti-democratic’, and would be used as propaganda, the larger issue is that there would still be nothing to stop separatists in any region using the power of that region’s government to break away from the UK. If enough support was garnered, through amplified separatist grievance, then the UK would not stand in the way.
This is because the UK would have made itself remote. Instead of being woven through every region’s life, identity and social fabric, the central government will be seen as an even more remote overlord, not in touch with local people. It is then easy for separatists to prise themselves away.
Federalism would merely be an extension of the disastrous devolution process that has been leading the UK down the path to separation since its introduction in the late 1990s. All the dangers laid out above also apply to the present situation under legislative devolution, only to a slightly lesser degree. That every mainstream political party in the UK is intent on going even further down this path is deeply concerning for anybody who wants to maintain the integrity of the UK.
Federalism and quasi-federalism are extremist attacks on the nature of the UK as primarily a unitary nation, which it has been since its inception 316 years ago. The proposals coming from the mainstream UK parties are barely less dangerous to the continuation of our country than those of the SNP, and show little commitment to defending it. To defeat separatism in the long term, the ongoing breakup of the UK must be reversed and Scotland must be reintegrated into the UK’s political life. This will only be achieved through closer union, not further degrees of separation. Beware the wolf.
Stephen Bailey is a pro-UK author who has written over 150 articles on the Constitution, especially as it concerns Scotland and the abolition of legislative devolution. His website is here.
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