by Sam Whimster

Professor Sam Whimster is Deputy Director & Head of UK Futures Programme at Global Policy Institute; he is also Editor of Max Weber Studies.


Andrew Adonis has recently argued that the present tensions disuniting Britain can be resolved by following the example of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The best thing the UK could do today, if it is going to survive as a ‘united kingdom’, is to reform itself into a federation on the model of the Federal Republic with its 16 federal states, its federal chancellor (Bundeskanzler), its elected state parliaments each with their own prime minister, plus a federal constitutional court and a second chamber (Bundesrat) representing the state governments. (“My Plan to Revive the United Kingdom”[1])

It’s a good argument and the German model is attractive but I fear it is not going to happen in the immediate future. Given the piecemeal nature of British devolution and the half-finished nature of constitutional reform by the New Labour government, it is not obvious how federation could occur at the present moment. Germany’s own experience of federation has a long history and it offers more than one model. Learning from this is instructive of the whole process: the triggering crisis, preliminary designs, constitutional convention, and democratic ratification.

Germany has always been a federation of states, which incrementally have been forged into the framework of a unitary national state. Those steps were the “Paulskirche” constitution of 1849, Bismarck’s Kaiserreich of 1871, the Weimar Republic of 1919, and the successful consummation of the Federal Republic in 1949. There is a continuity of historical memory that goes back to the 1849 constitution, which first advanced the dual institutional structure of a States House (Staatenhaus) for the federated states and a Volkshaus for a national assembly. This model was copied by Bismarck, though in a distorted fashion, and has been carried forward in different democratic ways.

The framework of the British state does not allow for this dual institutional structure. Our incremental steps are framed within a unitary centralised state and they involve devolving specific governing and administrative powers to a variety of bodies, not all of which are incorporated political bodies. The mayoralties of the northern conurbations are ad hoc arrangements between the Westminster government and whatever deal the respective mayors are able to strike. This was vividly illustrated when the executive of the Prime Minister’s Office – a de facto component of the British constitution – negotiated separately on Tier 2 and 3 relief for Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. Being able to vote for a mayor is not the same as the urban regional rights within a national constitution, say, of Madrid or Bremen. London, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are politically incorporated bodies, but they each have different powers conferred on them through separate agreements with the central state at Westminster. The German state is a Bundesverfassung, a constitutional arrangement that places all the federated states on an equal level within the framework of a unitary state.

A federal unitary state

This gives us the compound term, a federal unitary state.[2] The choice is not between a unitary and federal state, but how these are combined into a distinctive form of state. Even the Swiss Confederation of cantons operates within an agreed unitary state. The latter is often referred to as the federal level of government, but conceptually it should be thought of as a federal unitary state. Throwing in the Swiss example shows that within the category of the federal unitary state there are variants of how this is realized. The cantons agree between themselves as distinct political bodies what power they allow to the unitary state in matters of foreign policy, national budget, economic policy, and the central formulation and enforcement of standards across a wide range of administrative functions. The Germans, by contrast, have always been driven to create a national unitary state, but one built on and in agreement with the separate states of Bavaria, Baden, Bremen etc. etc.

Bismarck united the German states in 1871 but he retained the princely sovereignty of the 24 individual states each with their own government, and he created a political chamber for them at the centre of the Reich, the Bundesrat – a federal council. The British kingdoms were united by conquest, bribery and incorporation into the framework of the English parliament. Bismarck did all of these things but with the difference that the federated states continued to exist under the hegemony of Prussia. Two dominant states England and Prussia determined the course of unification but with quite different outcomes. We ended up with a centralised unitary state with some civil and cultural diversity, Germany ended up, eventually, with a stable federal unitary state.

In 1918-1919 any move towards the democratization of the constitution was threatened by right-wing putschists. Our “putsch” took the seemingly innocuous form of a referendum which asked the voters whether they wanted to leave or remain in the European Union. “Taking back control” has installed the complete dominance of the executive of No 10 and the ambition to move to a full presidential style of government by-passing Parliament as much as possible, and freeing itself from judicial oversight.

And a free trade Brexit is a deliberate act of de-stabilization of the United Kingdom on the Trotskyite logic of radical disruption. Hairline cracks become gaping fissures. Scotland now may declare its independence. Northern Ireland whose Unionist Party have been rebuffed three times by Conservative governments is set adrift through customs checks and bureaucracy, and will gravitate to its neighbour, European Ireland. The repatriation of powers from Brussels, allegedly to strengthen the Union, will be used – under the Internal Market Bill – to tighten control from No 10. The English regions under the levelling up mantra will demand greater powers. Everyone now has to fight their corner, as No 10 aggressively ramps up the hereditary rights of the unitary state.

At this crisis point, it is worth comparing the German experience. Rather than following the example of the 1949 German Federal constitution, I will focus on the way in which the issue of how to reconcile the federal with a unitary conception of the state was vigorously debated in the run-up to the Weimar constitution in 1919. This comparison to our situation might be considered a stretch too far. We’ve “just” made a treaty change not lost a war, but it is one that throws all the territorial bits of the UK into the air. How they then bed down becomes determinative, just as it was for the Weimar Republic.

7 days to write a constitution

In November 1918 the Kaiserreich collapsed. Later that month Max Weber accepted an invitation by the Frankfurter Zeitung to write a series of five articles outlining the future form of the German state.[3] He achieved this in a week sitting in the newspaper’s office, a rather shorter period than the Paulskirche debates that lasted 18 months. It was a remarkable feat, especially considering that armed factions were engaged in shoot-outs on the streets, revolution and putsch threatened, and the Entente powers stood ready to march in and occupy. Unfortunately, radical constitutional change tends to be triggered by serious crises, also attested by the long drawn out agony preceding the Good Friday Agreement.

Weber’s articles helped to frame the discussion that was initiated by the jurist Hugo Preuss, the main drafter of the Weimar Constitution of August 1919. The political parties agreed to maintain the rights of individual states but within a unitary state – held to be essential in the face of economic breakdown. Debate turned on the division of powers between the States House (Bundesrat) and the People’s House (the Reichstag). The final Weimar constitution erred too far in the direction of countervailing the decision-making ability of each legislative body. The chamber of federal deputies could block the decisions of the Reichstag, and the plebiscitary President could override the Reichstag’s Chancellor. These were not fatal flaws; what did for the Weimar Republic was Chancellor Papen’s emergency decree to abolish the Prussian state in July 1932. Up to that point an efficient and well run Prussia had been the main motor underpinning the Weimar Republic.[4] This was not a blunder but a deliberate and unconstitutional sabotage of the Republic.

Paradoxically, there was a strong move to break up Prussia in 1919 in order to achieve some kind of equivalence with the other German states. It was referred to as the “greater Prussia” issue. Weber argued that democratizing the suffrage would achieve the same end, and indeed it became a Social Democratic state in part negating its reactionary and autocratic heritage. Even a broken-up Prussia would not remove its inherent economic predominance in the national Reich. Working with Prussia’s strengths, however, necessitated a federal settlement through the central institution of the Bundesrat, which in 1919 was termed the States House referencing back to the 1849 constitution.

The nitty gritty of the constitutional talks revolved around taxation and expenditure and financial transfers between states, the unitary state setting overall standards in education, religious liberties, and the central control of transport and communications, also law; in all these areas the part played by federal states in the operation of these administrative functions. From these discussions the spheres of competence of the federal chamber could be worked out and, critically, which powers were vested in the Bundesrat and which in the Reichstag.

The “greater England” problem

In the United Kingdom, constitutional solutions as well as the guidelines of economic policy founder on the England problem. England has been around since the 10th century, off and on, when the kingdom of Wessex extended its rule over the other kingdoms. London and the south-east have grown wealthy through empire and proximity to Europe. It is not merely that England outweighs Scotland with 84% of the population (in 1919 Prussia had more than two thirds of the overall national population), the south east dominates the Midlands and the North, turning them into a periphery. Economic policy is governed by the interests of London and the south-east (the London region), which is centred on a highly financialized service sector and a worrying trend to rentier stasis.

In searching for an alternative solution in the United Kingdom it makes sense on pragmatic grounds to link issues of government with economic policy. The latter with its widening inequality between the London region and the rest is driving discontent. It is the local as much as the regional where economic activity has to be seeded. Lord Glasman, a champion of redistribution, writes, “There has been talk of infrastructure, but not in institutions such as British Rail and the Post Office that could be shared with Scotland and strengthen the institutions of the Union.”[5] House building should be local in design and construction and not a profit opportunity for national building firms provided by the deregulation of planning.

Regional planning agencies should not be abolished, as did Chancellor Osborne, or the Metro Mayors programme be shelved, as did PM May. They are there for the long haul. The most famous abolition of all was the Greater London Council and six Metropolitan Counties, each with their own elected council by PM Thatcher in 1986; a feat comparable to Papen’s abolition of Prussia. The unitary state at Westminster can give and take away at parliamentary will. A federal council would make this sort of discretionary politics invalid; changes could be made but within the forum of a federal chamber.

Remove the roadblock

Adonis describes the German institutional arrangements and ours:

The Bundesrat is responsible for the fair nationwide distribution of taxes and revenues. In contrast to our largely irrelevant part-nominated and part-hereditary House of Lords, it is a forum in which key national policies such as minimum nationwide standards of educational and health provision are negotiated by the leaders of the states (Länder), while allowing for substantial diversity and democratic control at state level.

Adonis’s solution to the “greater England” problem is to create four regional parliaments, situated according to the quadrants of the compass. There is a far simpler solution available, that of  turning the House of Lords into a federal council. One of the more disturbing sights of parliamentary debates prior to the Withdrawal Act was Scottish and some Welsh MPs passionately and eloquently arguing their case for their nations not to be brexited by a slim majority of Conservative MPs. It was impossible however for them to make any headway in a national parliament with first-past-the- post voting system. Maybe with proportional voting they could have formed coalitions against Brexit. But the function of a second chamber is a) to revise and amend legislation from the lower chamber – and this does not require 790 peers, b) to determine legislation directly concerned with local government, the regions, and the nations, c) to be the decision-making forum for major constitutional changes that effect their interests. In short, we require a Federal House to take the place of the House of Lords. Its membership would be smaller than the number of MPs, considerably so, and its actual powers would be greater though directed to matters of federation.

Should there be an English parliament? I don’t see the English taking to the idea of four regional parliaments, they tend not to like intermediation and prefer keeping their representatives close to home. Prussia does, however, throw up unexpected parallels. Its repartition was considered only achievable by creating new states carved out of it, as did happen with the restoration of Saxony and Hanover after 1945. A parliament requires its own state – a consideration that leads down many possible paths. A single English parliament overwhelms the federation, just as Prussia did in part because it was so successful.

The electoral system and constituency boundaries instead offer a range of options. The States House of the Paulskirche 1849 constitution was a hybrid construction. State governments would appoint half of the deputies, the other half by direct election of local candidates. English local government has been so disempowered by centralizing Labour and Conservative governments that the political entities that would send delegates to the federal council would have to be re-incorporated as political bodies restored on an imaginative mix of the local, the county, and the city basis. Scotland, Wales, and Norther Ireland already have their assemblies in place for sending delegates. Direct voting of half the members of the federal council introduces a provincial interest with popular electoral agency.

Where would the Federal House be located? My first (argumentative) answer was at Westminster. Devolved bodies are weakened because they don’t have voice, power or influence at the centre of government. A chamber with real power, and a forum for parliamentary debate would attract almost equal attention in the media as the Commons, with which it would interaction more closely. But London-centrism speaks against that. Once lodged in London the rest of the world tends to be forgotten, and it’s a bad look from the off for any persuasive federal solution. London accretes power and resources not least because it is the administrative city. The great provincial cities need urgent revival and spreading the administrative city across the country is to speak and act for locality. The Bank of England should move to Leeds and its financial centre, for setting an interest rate can be done anywhere. Liverpool would be a prime location for a Federal House – closest to Wales and Northern Ireland and overlapping with the North. Birmingham should house the Treasury and learn to become a normal finance ministry, not the controlling arm of the civil service and government.

As for transport links, Maurice Glasman has given us the answer, British Rail – not franchises and construction contracts run from Westminster and Euston Road. Indeed the Department of Transport should try locating in Newcastle, British Rail to Crewe. With a modern effective rail network the country is re-united, one hopes to the standards ministers might expect for themselves. As for communications, Open Reach and 5G would be taken in hand in order that Zoom meetings, document transfer and broadband are universally available at the same high standard.

The road to change is through the House of Lords. It is the roadblock to federation. The Prussians abolished their Herrenhaus in 1919. For over 150 years our House of Lords has required reform but with no endpoint being clearly specified. A federal chamber supplies the answer informed by the comparative examples of States Houses. Now we have left a confederal union that conferred some validity to UK devolutions, it is time to put in place our own federation that gives the local, the regional and the nations their own democratic legislature – and to avoid falling into a new compression centred on Downing Street.



[1] Andrew Adonis, The New European, 20 Nov 2020.

[2] A past Federal German President, Theodor Heuss, coined this term which he derived from Max Weber’s writings on federalism and the state. It is argued that it is singular to the current German Federal Republic, but there is no reason why it cannot be applied more generally, for example Australia and Switzerland today. It would not be applied to the United States, because the underlying idea is to create coordination not competition between the legislative chambers. See Andreas Anter, “Max Weber et la Loi Fondamentale de la République Fédérale d’Allemagne”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 2019, 57.1.

[3] Max Weber, ‘Germany’s Future Form of State,’ trans. S. Whimster, Max Weber Studies (forthcoming Jan 2021).

[4] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich. Allen Lane, 2003, p. 285.

[5] Maurice Glasman, “How the fates abandoned Boris”, Unherd, 11 Dec, 2020.