The Politics of a Federal UK
While it’s fun to imagine structural alterations to the UK’s constitutional arrangements, there must of course be a point to this tinkering. Aside from rationalising the present devolution settlement and addressing the problem of inadequate local government accountability and provisioning, these federalising changes could go some way towards calming some of the political currents that have pulled the UK’s unitary state apart and which threaten to destroy it entirely.
It is no secret that different regions of the UK now exhibit politics that are fundamentally different. This is not to accept the claims of some Scots that their nation is inherently more left-wing than England (surveys of social attitudes do not reveal Scottish people to be significantly more progressive than their English counterparts, merely that they have a much stronger dislike of Margaret Thatcher). But it is to note that what plays well politically in one part of the country may not play well in another. Although his political image has now been irreversibly changed by the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson’s brand of cosmopolitan, socially liberal Toryism once brought him success in London, but might have been less successful in other areas where such attributes are less highly prized.
The Conservatives would by no means be permanently locked out of any devolved assembly in Yorkshire and Humber, but they would have to evolve in order to be competitive there. A federal settlement would create more space for parties to develop distinctive regional characteristics. After a few years, the Labour and Conservative parties in each of Greater London and the West Midlands might well look quite different from one another, as the Scottish and English Conservatives do from one another today. In rural South West England and Cornwall, Labour might perhaps be able to finally discover a language to talk to the (small c) conservative and libertarian instincts of small farmers and rural workers, something which it has failed to do consistently for over a century. We might end up with devolved assemblies which truly reflect the values of local communities, as well as a federal parliament which better reflects the cultural and political diversity of the UK as a whole.
But why should we limit ourselves to thinking about what these changes might mean for our current two largest parties? After all, the successes of the SNP and (to a lesser extent) Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales demonstrate the opportunities that devolution can give formerly peripheral parties. A similar prospect could also be imagined for a Celtic revivalist party such as Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall. It is also easy to imagine the Green Party making gains in a London assembly, which might then pave the way for national success. An increase in party diversity would better reflect the range of views in the country and encourage the growth of consensus politics at both a devolved and federal level. That can only be a good thing.
With the smaller constituencies promised by devolved assemblies, campaigns will not only be comparatively cheaper to run, but local issues would hopefully have greater salience. Ideally, assembly elections would take place in different years from federal general elections (and possibly on a staggered basis), to save them from being subsumed underneath a national narrative. As elections are fought on a more local basis, this creates greater scope for parties to renew themselves in response to local concerns. The Scottish Tories only began to recover from the damage done to their reputation in the 1980s and 1990s when they adopted a political platform built around explicit and uncompromising opposition to independence, something that they were able to do in part due to their relative autonomy from the UK Party hierarchy.
Smaller-scale, more localised politics also increases the scope for civil society groups and charities to effect real change on a regional level. At present, the size, complexity and remoteness of government means that too often the only people who can really have an influence are those with enough money to do so. Federalism will not in itself take big money out of politics but it would hopefully afford more influence to those without deep pockets, levelling the playing field somewhat.
In these essays, I have tried to sketch out one way in which reforming England’s political structures might improve the quality of politics and policymaking in the United Kingdom. Would a federal England be free from the iniquities of current local government provision? Not necessarily. Would a federal United Kingdom be more progressive and fairer? Again, not necessarily. But a revamped federal structure would give communities the option of going their own way. It would allow, for example, London to continue to develop a different political culture from that of, say, the West Midlands while preserving the historic links between those two regions.
The present leadership of the Labour Party has, while floating informal and formal policy proposals on a variety of matters, been so far notably incurious about the nature and future structure of the British state. However, while questions of constitutional reform can appear abstruse and foreign from the lived experiences of most people, devolution to a federal UK presents the possibility for radical change in how the UK is governed, bringing politicians closer to the governed. Such a change would not necessarily create the conditions for all of the reforms required to make the UK a fairer and more democratic society but it is in line with the current leadership’s ‘for the many, not the few’ rhetoric.
If there is one thing we have learned from recent British political developments, it is that many people feel both powerless and disconnected from national politics, resulting in popular discontent, anger towards institutions and the reemergence of unpleasant themes from our past. Federalising the UK could be a step in the right direction towards resolving these issues: in giving people more control over their own lives, it might help to combat the feelings of disaffection which can be exploited by extremists. At a time when all our other assumptions about the nature of the British state and its people seem to be coming apart, maybe it is time to give federalism a chance.