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A new Act of Union

Every now and again someone in Scottish politics pops up and mentions the word federalism. This has become even more frequent since the EU referendum. Apparently the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU, while England and Wales voted to Leave has caused a problem that is so enormous that we need to have a new Act of Union, still more powers for Scotland and the other parts of the UK and we need to call this new arrangement federalism.

Various models of federalism have been proposed. Some imagine that England ends up with its own parliament others that England is divided into various regions. It strikes me that if England can be split up into regions, then so too could Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  While Scotland has received a great deal of devolution from the UK in the past decades it has also seen a great deal of centralisation within Scotland. I would much prefer to be ruled by a local assembly based somewhere in Aberdeenshire. If it is correct to devolve power to Scotland, why not devolve it to the town level within Scotland?

But it is entirely unclear to me how any of this addresses the issue of the EU. The threat to the UK comes from the SNP. As Scotland voted differently to the UK as a whole, the SNP think this justifies them threatening to leave. Would federalism alleviate this threat?

Ever since we began the process of devolution in Scotland we have been promised that giving more power to Scotland will eliminate Scottish nationalism. In fact quite the opposite has occurred. Scottish independence has gained in popularity the more power has been devolved to Scotland. A generation ago we had a constitutional convention that Labour and the Lib Dems promised would solve the problem. It didn’t solve the problem, but rather created it and then made it worse. Next Gordon Brown in response to higher than expected support for Scottish independence vowed to give the Scottish parliament still more powers. He no doubt expected that this too would see off Scottish nationalism. Now Kezia Dugdale promises a new constitutional convention giving Scotland still more powers. This too she, no doubt, hopes will diminish SNP support in Scotland and transfer it to her.

It really is time for a period of reflection by Labour. They have frankly done enough damage as it is. They were the first to play the nationalist card when the continually complained about England voting for Thatcher while Scotland voted for Labour. It was this and this alone that gave rise to the modern SNP and the loss of nearly every Labour MP in Scotland. It would be well if Dugdale, Brown and Co. first apologised for the damage that they have done before attempting to do more.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of federalism. It works well in a number of countries. But it doesn’t really address the issue. Scotland already has a similar amount of power to a state in the United States. Would giving Scotland still more power satisfy Nicola Sturgeon? Scottish nationalists greedily gobble up ever little concession of power from Mr Brown etc., but do they ever make a concession in return? They would react in exactly the same way to federalism as they reacted to devolution and “the Vow”. They would take it, bank it, complain that they hadn’t in fact been given anything and then ask for more.

Devolution and indeed federalism depends on the idea that some issues are devolved while others are decided centrally. Some people seem to forget that while each state in the United States has a great deal of state power and local devolution within each state down to the town level, there is also a strong central government. There are things that each state decides for itself and things that are decided in Washington.

Even if the UK were a federal state, there would be times when Scotland would be outvoted. This is not a problem with devolution. It is a feature of devolution. Perhaps Miss Dugdale thinks federalism would give Scotland a veto over leaving the EU or the arrangement that results from leaving. But then should London have a veto, or Yorkshire? Why should one grouping of five million people be more equal than others? Perhaps Miss Dugdale or Miss Sturgeon think that a Labour or SNP majority in Scotland should be able to rule over the whole of the UK. But all this shows is that they both have tendencies in the direction of Scottish nationalism.

It is crucial to realise that talk of federalism is to miss the point for even if the UK were a federal state matters to do with foreign relations would still be controlled by Central Government. So how would this arrangement help the present situation? Federalism just makes one more concession to the SNP without changing the fundamentals in any way whatsoever. Scotland and Northern Ireland would still have been outvoted even in a federal UK, because international issues would not and could be devolved. It is Washington that makes trade deals, peace treaties or war. Bismarck, North Dakota may find itself outvoted.

It is vital that Scottish politicians cease helping the SNP. They all, including Ruth Davidson, think that it is a problem that Scotland voted one way while the UK voted differently. It is not a problem it is a feature of us all living in a single sovereign nation state called the UK. Devolution and federalism can give the parts of such a country a degree of power, but they cannot make a part always vote the same way as the whole. In no country in the world is there such an arrangement. On certain issues parts are always going to be outvoted.

There is no level of federalism that will satisfy California if it is determined to leave the USA because it doesn’t like President Trump. Federalism does not guarantee that there is not going to be secession. The USSR was a federal state. So was Czechoslovakia. The United States itself was threatened by secession. Its federalism did not save it.  It was instead saved by the United States Army.

The crucial point is that even if the UK were federal the parts would be subordinate to the whole. No amount of devolution will change this. But it is this that Scottish nationalists will not accept. But to grant them what they wish is to grant them independence. There is only one lesson to learn in Scottish politics, but no-one seems to be able to grasp it. You can do nothing to satisfy a Scottish nationalist, so don’t try.  Give them nothing.

Devolution or federalism only works when it does not give rise to nationalism. If the parts of the federation continually think of themselves as independent then they will continually be insubordinate. This is what is happening in Britain at the moment. We do not need to have a constitutional convention. All we need is the acceptance by everyone that devolution involves the fact that certain decisions are taken centrally. It is this after all that we voted for when we voted for a Scottish parliament. When this is not accepted then logically devolution subverts. When this happens it would make more sense to take away the source of the subversion rather than allow it still more power to continue to undermine the unity of the United Kingdom.

There is no need for yet another constitution convention. The issues are already clear. But it might indeed be well to have a new Act of Parliament, call it a new Act of Union if you will. The Act should state that the United Kingdom is permanent, that its parts are subordinate to the whole and that the UK Government will not tolerate attempts to undermine our nation state from within. No power either foreign or domestic may be allowed to do this. The Act should furthermore state that the United Kingdom’s experiment with referendums has now ceased and that all future decisions will be made by Parliament. It doesn’t require federalism to pass such an Act. It only requires a majority of MPs.

This post was originally published by the author 7 January 2017: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2017/01/a-new-act-of-union.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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