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The United Kingdom: A Federal Perspective

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Article Published November 11th, 2014

Substantial intellectual contributions to federal analysis have been made by individuals based in the UK; and the UK has participated in the development in many prominent federal constitutions throughout the world, including those of India and Germany. Yet the UK itself is traditionally a unitary state, widely regarded as one of the most centralised in the world, in which the scope for the exploration and realisation of federal concepts is seriously circumscribed. There has been no formally recognised ‘state’ tier of governance below UK level; and local government has seen its fiscal and policy autonomy progressively undermined. In place of a codified constitution allotting and limiting the different tiers and branches of the state, there exists the concept of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, according to which all legitimate authority supposedly emanates from this one central body. Moreover, in contradiction to federal principles of democratic accountability, one of the two chambers of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, is unelected.

However, the constitutional reform programme instigated by the Labour government elected in May 1997 helped bring about a challenge to this settlement. Devolved tiers of governance were established in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, which possess de facto entrenchment and can be regarded as in some senses analogous to ‘states’ within a federal constitution. Other reforms, including the Human Rights Act 1998, might be seen as amounting to an embryonic codified UK constitution. In these senses the UK can be held to be moving in a federal direction. Yet it has not become a fully federal state and such an outcome is not inevitable. Consequently there is much scope for analysis, from a federal perspective, of how the UK constitution has changed and how it might develop in future. Current proposals of the Coalition government, such as the holding of referendums on introducing directly elected mayors to the ten largest English cities, will provide more material for such consideration.

For the last decade, Federal Trust has made researching developments within the UK an important strand of its work. Our output has included reports and evidence submissions to official inquiries, which can be found on this site. Please refer to the panel on the left of this page.

Devolution policy has been a key focus for this programme throughout. In 2003 the Federal Trust convened a high-level Working Group with the remit to explore the best ways in which to involve the interests of stakeholders in the English assemblies. To mark the tenth anniversary of the election of the ‘new’ Labour government in 2007 a series of papers focussed on the norms of the new constitutional arrangements and sought to look at the extent to which the expectations for constitutional reform of 1997 were fulfilled. Since then the Trust’s work has concentrated on the general constitutional evolution of the United Kingdom.

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