Federalism, what Federalism?

Contribution by Brendan Donnelly to the LSE project “Hacking the UK Constitution” https://constitutionuk.com

6th January 2015

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.

The Trust is particularly concerned by proposals that in one form or another would take “England” as a single, united building-block for new constitutional structures. Federalism is a political philosophy of the rational allocation and dispersal of powers between various levels of government.  The construction within the United Kingdom of a purely English level of decision-making is difficult to reconcile with these principles. England constitutes within the UK such a preponderant demographic and economic block that inevitably its decisions would have a decisive impact on the rest of the United Kingdom. The current controversy about deciding which British laws can properly be regarded as “English” laws well illustrates the point.  More local powers for Scotland can reasonably be regarded as a desirable dispersal of powers within the United Kingdom. The concentration of powers in purely English hands cannot.

A number of models exist for more appropriately federalist structures within the United Kingdom. Elected regional assemblies and radically greater powers for local government are two frequently canvassed options.  A genuinely federalist structure of the United King is probably the only way of allowing the Union to strike the right balance between central and decentralized decision-making. Moves towards the creation of an English “super-state” within the UK run by contrast the risk of destroying the Union. More devolved power to English voters is a commendably federalist concept. More power to “England” is not.  It is vital that any written constitution for the United Kingdom should reflect this distinction.