by Dr Andrew Blick Reader in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London; Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust
22nd January 2020
In February 2018, when serving as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson was reported telling journalists that ‘the particular problems around the Irish border are being used to drive the whole Brexit argument and effectively to try to frustrate Brexit’. The following year, he rose to the Conservative leadership and office of Prime Minister. In bidding for this role, a central part of the Johnson campaign was his claim that he could overcome the ‘Irish border’ obstacle to UK departure from the EU, without the need for difficult concessions or compromise on the part of the UK. The course of events that followed, and the arrangement eventually arrived at to enable Brexit, suggest that there was more substance to ‘problems around the Irish border’ than his earlier assertion allowed. Indeed (and given the exclusion of the option of revocation of Brexit) there was no solution entirely satisfactory to any of the parties on offer, though the greatest difficulties were always likely to befall the UK. An issue that Johnson previously sought to dismiss may yet cause substantial difficulties for him and his government, as well as the UK and wider world.
Much concern has already been expressed by some British commentators about the possible implications for Scotland of a vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on 23rd June. Less comment has until now been directed, at least on the British mainland, to the implications of such a vote for Northern Ireland. Commentators and politicians in both halves of Ireland have been less reticent. The former Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, recently warned that a British decision to leave the Union would be “negative in every way” for Anglo-Irish relations, in particular for exchanges between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour. Continue reading BREXIT: The Northern Irish dimension→
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.
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.