Director's Blog

Federalism’s flexibility reveals its true genius

By Zach Paikin

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.

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The only certainty is uncertainty

by Brendan Donnelly

This article first appeared on euroblog, the Blog of the European Movement:


During the referendum on voting reform in 2011, it was sometimes claimed by advocates of the present British electoral system, misleadingly known as “first past the post,” that it tended to produce definite outcomes, with clear Parliamentary majorities for the winning party. This claim may well have been true in the days when the Conservative and Labour Parties between them accounted for three quarters or more of the total votes cast. The growing fragmentation of British political allegiances has now however turned our electoral system into a statistical lottery, which will be painfully demonstrated in the General Election. No party is likely to have a majority, and the overall result will be disfigured by a range of anomalies. The Liberal Democrats will almost certainly obtain many more seats than will the Greens or UKIP, although they may well receive fewer votes nationally than each of these other parties, perhaps significantly fewer in the case of UKIP. Although  the SNP will receive a substantially smaller share of the national vote than either the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or UKIP, it may well end up with as many seats in Parliament as those three parties combined. All observers of British elections know that for any given percentage of the national vote accruing to Labour or the Conservatives, Labour will obtain more seats from that percentage than will the Conservatives.   If by any chance Labour or the Conservatives did achieve an absolute majority, it would be with the support of just over one third of those voting.

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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.

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Federalism, what Federalism?

Contribution by Brendan Donnelly to the LSE project “Hacking the UK Constitution”,

Federalism, what federalism?

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.

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Blair and Cameron: Two Peas in a European Pod

A Personal View from Brendan Donnelly

It is sometimes said that David Cameron regards Tony Blair as his political model. The European policies of the two Prime Ministers may appear superficially very different. Mr. Blair presented himself as fundamentally favourable to the European Union, and Mr. Cameron is at best unenthusiastically and conditionally acquiescent in continued British membership of the Union. But the underlying similarities of their approach to the Union, both in public presentation and in long term outcomes are undeniable. Both have framed their European policies almost exclusively in terms of a tactically convenient “triangulation” between two rejected extremes of European policy. In both cases this contentless “triangulation” led to an inevitably unstable European policy, tending remorselessly towards greater British hostility towards the European Union.

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Book Review: “Is the EU Doomed?” by Jan Zielonka

Review by Brendan Donnelly

Much of this short book by Professor Jan Zielonka of Oxford University is rightly devoted to the euro. It is on the success or failure of the single European currency that the answer to the question of the book’s title “Is the EU doomed?” will essentially depend. Zielonka’s belief that the EU may well be doomed is summarized in the words “interdependence no longer generates integration but instead prompts disintegration.” On this analysis, the single European currency will prove to have been an error of historic proportions, achieving precisely the opposite of what its founders intended.

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Learning Through Suffering: European Lessons for the British Government

by Brendan Donnelly

A number of lessons can be learned from the diplomatic reverse suffered by the British government in its attempts to prevent Mr. Juncker from becoming President of the European Commission.

1. British governments are prone grossly to exaggerate the extent of support they enjoy for their political attitudes and choices within the European Union. In this respect, Mr. Cameron’s attempt to thwart Mr. Juncker’s candidature was entirely similar to his unsuccessful attempt to prevent the adoption of the Fiscal Compact in 2011. British diplomats and politicians are altogether too willing to interpret vague expressions of goodwill from their European colleagues as firm endorsement of idiosyncratic British views about the Union and its future. This over-interpretation of what is often little more than conventional politeness leads British officials and politicians to misperception of the real alignment of forces within the Union and unseemly petulance toward their colleagues when this misperception is later revealed in its full futility.

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Three Cheers for European Democracy

by Brendan Donnelly

If Jean-Claude Juncker becomes the next President of the European Commission, it will mark an important development in the democratic life of the European Union. Millions of voters in the recent European Elections will see their favoured candidate take on one of the most important posts in the Union. Millions of other voters who preferred unsuccessful candidates such as Mr. Schulz and Mr. Verhofstadt will be aware that they have participated in a transparent and democratic election, in which their views have not prevailed on this occasion, but may well do so at the next European Elections. It is a strange paradox that precisely in this country, where criticism of the European Union’s supposed democratic inadequacies is widespread, politicians and commentators have been so reluctant to recognize this qualitative change for the democratic betterment of the Union. It has long been a reasonable complaint about the European Elections that the electors did not know for what they were voting. The linking of the European Elections of 2014 to the Presidency of the Commission was a powerful response to this criticism.

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What do the European Election results really mean?

by Brendan Donnelly
First published on the European Movement Blog
Predictably, many commentaries in the British mass media have gloatingly presented the European Elections as a continent-wide reject ion of the process of European integration, as the long-ignored peoples of Europe rising up in democratic wrath against their oppressors in Brussels. The results of the European Elections are however much more ambiguous and mixed than that. It is true that just over a quarter of the French and British electorates voted respectively for the Front National and UKIP and extremist parties of right and left did well in Greece, while Denmark saw success  for the anti-immigrant party of Mr. Messerschmidt. But against this must be set the 93% of the German electorate who voted for pro-EU parties, the victories for pro-EU governing parties in Italy, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic and the poor result of the Eurosceptic Mr. Wilders in the Netherlands. The European Elections certainly demonstrate that there are deep-rooted economic problems within a number of European countries.  But these problems are essentially national rather than European problems. France and the United Kingdom well illustrate this point.

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There may be trouble ahead

by Brendan Donnelly

First published on the European Movement Blog

The European Elections are sometimes described by academics and other observers as “secondary” elections, in which the electorate take little notice of the European policies or claimed achievements of those standing for election, but simply express their (often unfavourable) judgements on the domestic policies of the parties contesting the European Elections. That may well be an accurate description of the frame of mind in which many British electors approach the Elections. But this year’s European Elections will nevertheless have considerable implications for the way in which the European Union will be governed over the next five years; and similarly important implications for British domestic politics.

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