by Dr Andrew Blick Reader in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London; Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust
14th February 2020
Criticism of the European Union in United Kingdom (UK)
political discourse has often focused upon the proposition that as a project it
is federal in nature. For this reason, according to such theses, membership has
always been incompatible with UK constitutional traditions, and poses an
unwelcome threat to the integrity of the UK as an autonomous ‘sovereign’ state.
It is in its response to such assertions that the supposed pro-European
movement committed what was perhaps its fundamental error. Representatives of
the mainstream integrationist side of the argument allowed themselves to be
imprisoned by the logic that flowed from acceptance of the premise that, from a
UK perspective, the undesirability of federalism was axiomatic. Rather than
challenge this presumption, the typical retort was to claim that the European
Union (EU) (or its predecessors) was not federal in nature; or that any
tendencies in this direction could be diluted or mitigated, and that UK
membership was therefore – at least on balance – desirable.
London is the UK’s undiscovered country and it is time we recognised it as the UK’s fifth constituent part by granting it the devolved political powers it deserves. As Tim Oliver argues, London’s size, unique population, economy, politics, identity, society, place in the UK, Europe and the world all add up to make it stand apart from any other part of the Union. A devolved government for London would more than any other constitutional change help to rebalance the UK towards a federal union. It would give the metropolis the freedom to develop as it needs and be a big step towards reforming an unsustainable and unhealthily centralised UK and English state.
There is a perception among many politicians and commentators in the United Kingdom that federalism is an entirely prescriptive and rule-bound system, in which all contingencies are precisely described and defined in advance. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
An examination of the history of federalism in Canada will show us that federalism is in fact a flexible, evolving system. But perhaps even more importantly, it will demonstrate that that very flexibility allows a diverse country with a federal structure to face up to critical – sometimes even existential – strategic challenges.
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.
It might be expected that the Federal Trust would welcome the willingness of politicians and commentators after the Scottish referendum to consider seriously what they describe as “federal” structures for the United Kingdom. There is however a strong possibility of entirely the “wrong sort” of federalism’s now commending itself to British policy-makers, particularly in England. Simply to label proposals as “federalist” in inspiration does not of itself guarantee either their correspondence with federalist values or their sustainability in the long term.