Federalism: What the United Kingdom Can Learn from Canada

By Zach Paikin

In the wake of the Scottish referendum, many in the United Kingdom are beginning to discuss a federal future for their country. Constitutionally stable federalism has been a frequent legacy of Britain’s global history, from Canada to Australia to the United States. Canadians in particular, as a country of ten provinces and two solitudes, have had to become experts in federalism, not just by choice but by necessity.

Canadians have inherited much from their British roots: a constitutional monarchy, an electoral system, parliamentary conventions, and common law, to name a few. Today, the situation is perhaps reversed. There is now the opportunity for the United Kingdom to take useful lessons Canada’s unique constitutional history. As Britons debate the future structure of their democracy, here are three thoughts about federalism that may be of relevance.

1) It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to work. In 1982, Canada repatriated its constitution, until then just an ordinary statute of the British parliament. It was determined by the Supreme Court that, although then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had the right to ask for repatriation unilaterally, by convention he should seek “substantial provincial consent”. Eventually, nine provinces signed on to an agreed-upon amending formula for Canada’s supreme law.

Quebec, then governed by the sovereigntist Parti québécois, by contrast did not. For more than thirty years now, one of Canada’s founding members has not put its signature on the country’s basic law, a major symbol of the unresolved nature of Canada’s national unity dynamic. However, this has not stopped Quebec from electing strongly federalist governments through the bulk of this new century – governments that have been able to cooperate with the rest of Canada on a wide variety of fronts, from the economy to energy to the environment.

There may be a lesson here for British politicians: It doesn’t have to work in theory, it just has to work in practice.

2) Federalism must be flexible. This flexibility has been manifest in Canadian political culture in several ways, and it has been indispensable in the preservation of national unity. In particular, federalism doesn’t have to be always and everywhere simply about symmetry. Quebec has achieved more constitutional autonomy on several files – from immigration to education – than the other nine provinces. New Brunswick, on the other hand, has voluntarily become the only Canadian province to adopt Canada’s bilingual framework provincially.

Federalism evolves with time, often slowly. Whatever formula is eventually agreed upon in the UK, there is no need to raise the stakes by providing a sense of finality about it. Canada’s initial federal structure was much more Ottawa-centric than the decentralized federation it has become. The federal government used to spend more than the combined provinces, and would regularly use its reserve powers to reverse provincial legislation with which it disagreed. Neither of these facts is true today, and with the exception of the inclusion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian constitution in 1982, the trend has been for provincial maturation to be met with increased provincial autonomy, whether practical or constitutional.

In sum, the relationship – both practical and emotional – between a given province’s population and the country is complex and evolutionary. That is part of the federal experience. A federal country must celebrate its diversity and its differences. Its majority must, both tangibly and intangibly, take steps to protect the distinctness of its minorities. And it must give every segment of the population a stake in preserving national unity. These, when taken together, strengthen a federation and ease social tensions. It is particularly important for a country of four nations such as the United Kingdom to remember this.

3) Provide a national vision that can unite. Britain’s politics, geographically, are divided along ideological lines, with Wales and Scotland leaning left and much of England tilting to the right. One of the principal successes of Canadian federalism is the ability of the victorious federal party to build an interest-based, rather than a values-based, coalition at election time. In Canada, this is called “brokerage politics”, or building a big tent.

Values-based coalitions can create consistent polarization and destroy a common sense of belonging. Interest-based coalitions, by definition, change with time. For most of Canadian history, Quebec has been the political base of the Liberal Party, Canada’s centrist political party. But at times, Quebeckers have overwhelmingly thrown their support behind the Conservatives. Most recently, in the 2011 federal election, they elected a large majority of social democratic NDP MPs. British politicians who are serious about federalism and national unity need to propose a vision and a set of policies that can bridge ideological divides rather than exacerbate them.

From the above, it will be clear that federalism as a philosophy contains strong elements of apparent paradox within it. Under a federal political system, what appears to weaken a country can actually strengthen it. What at first glance looks like an abandonment of one’s ideological convictions in reality produces a more tolerant, welcoming, united, peaceful society. This is the genius of federalism. With both patience and a positive attitude, there is no reason why the UK should not be able to implement some of the best of what Canada has to offer.

 

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Zach Paikin is a Canadian political commentator. He holds a Master of Global Affairs degree from the University of Toronto’s Munk School.