The following is the outline for a new federal UK: a modest contribution to the ongoing debate about options for the governance of England and the UK as a whole. I offer this despite thinking that the ‘federal moment’ has perhaps already passed, primarily because Scotland has embarked on its own journey of reinvigorated democracy, and is growing into an independent-minded polity, even though the cause of full independence has been lost, for the time being at least.
For this reason, any new federal model for the UK constitution would need to offer a considerable measure of autonomy to Scotland – and, similarly, to all of the UK’s nations, as all must be treated equally – in order to satisfy the powerful aspirations towards real self-government to the north of the border with England and, indeed, to its south.
My model can be stated succinctly: four national parliaments (preferably elected using the AMS proportional system presently used in Scotland and Wales) to deal with devolved matters, and a UK-wide, federal parliament, elected on a ‘regional’ basis, to deal with reserved matters. As observed above, the policy areas devolved to each national parliament would be substantial and could include – in addition to the types of matter that are already devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the majority of income tax, corporation tax and some other taxes; most of welfare and social security; all of transport policy; national infrastructure and major planning projects; energy; considerable primary-legislative powers; and all of justice and policing. Some of these powers are already enjoyed by Scotland (e.g. a separate justice system and major planning projects), so these responsibilities should be devolved consistently to all four nations.
Accordingly, the reserved policy areas would be narrowed down to: macro-economics (i.e. overall fiscal policy co-ordination and monetary policy); residual taxation and welfare responsibilities (e.g. a UK-wide state retirement pension); defence and security; immigration and citizenship; foreign policy; and possibly, science, research and development.
I imagine the regionally based federal parliament (which would also replace the House of Lords as a revising chamber for legislation passed by the national parliaments) as being elected via a similar PR system to the present European Parliament elections, with each ‘region’ forming an electoral college. However, the UK federal parliament would not necessarily adopt the Euro regions, many of which have no basis in English history or local identity. Instead, my concept is one of ‘elective regions’, which could be built up from the bottom upwards from counties, cities and unitary authorities.
In other words, individual counties, cities, etc. could decide to group together to form ‘regions’ based around shared economic, social and environmental challenges. It would be up to the people in each prospective region to approve its formation in a referendum. These regions could straddle national boundaries, e.g. there could be a ‘Borders’ region to the north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border, or a ‘South Wales and Avon’ region encompassing, say, the area including Cardiff, Newport and Bristol (just for argument’s sake). In reality, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more likely to constitute ‘regions’ in their own right for the purposes of the new federal parliament – although something like a Highlands, Islands and Lowlands split in Scotland is easily conceivable, just as is a split between South Wales and Welsh-speaking West and North Wales. Similarly, the formation of a Cornwall region would be highly likely.
This is not devolution to the regions. Indeed, any intra-national devolution down to ‘regional’ or local level would be a devolved responsibility of each of the national parliaments, in keeping with subsidiarity principles. In fact, my proposal is partly intended as a means to channel and fend off the potentially centrifugal and divisive drive towards regional devolution in England in the form of Euro regions or new ‘city regions’, as typically supported by Liberal Democrat federalists and Labourites respectively.
The new regions would have a powerful voice in the federal parliament, and would be able to forge alliances – including across borders – to help co-ordinate the economic-development plans produced by the national parliaments and, if necessary, to block legislation they felt was contrary to their interests or to those of the UK as a whole. And electing the federal parliament on a regional, rather than national, basis provides a counterbalance to the individual nations and a means to prevent England in particular from assuming a dominant position across the new federal polity – a fear which is routinely adduced to counter demands for an English parliament, i.e. that it would be too big and powerful, and would destabilise any UK federation.
The new regions could also push for more devolved powers – but as stated above, decisions about whether to grant them should be the responsibility of the national parliaments, combined with referendums in the regions concerned.
So this is my draft blueprint. I think this could be an effective way to satisfy aspirations for national self-government, and decentralisation to regions and local authorities, while preserving a strong UK-wide government. But as I say, it may already be too late, as the Scottish genie is already out of the bottle – and England, too, increasingly demands a say on its own government.