The United Kingdom almost uniquely in the world is threatened by secession. Some people such as Nick Timothy and Gordon Brown have proposed federalism as a solution. But in order to understand a solution it is first necessary to understand the problem.
Northern Ireland is threatened with secession, which some hope would lead to Irish unity, because of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998). This gives Irish nationalists a legal route to achieve their goal by means of referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland. The reason we have this agreement is because of the IRA bombing campaign that sought to achieve a united Ireland militarily. This failed, but the price of peace was that the IRA could achieve its goal electorally.
In Scotland the reason we have a threat of secession is because Scotland was granted devolution after voting for it in 1997. Prior to that the SNP was a small party with no serious prospects of success. Support for independence was low, similar to in Wales today. After devolution support for the SNP gradually increased until it was able to ask for an independence referendum that took place in 2014. The campaign for independence itself increased support for independence by giving Scottish nationalists for the first time in centuries a real prospect of success. A goal supported by a minority of 25% became one supported by 44%. Suddenly what had been impossible became possible with one more try. The SNP became the dominant force in Scotland and the threat since 2014 of another independence referendum has been constant.
Wales has perhaps the best claim to independence because it is the only part of the UK where a language other than English is widely spoken. It is easy to imagine Welsh people responding to Scottish independence or Irish unity by asking for something similar.
There is no serious secession movement in England. While English people have been accused of nationalism because of Brexit almost no one in England supports English independence and no serious party supports it.
The difficulty for the secession movements in the UK is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland depend on large financial transfers from the UK Government and most people living in these places wish to retain the rights that they have at present because they are British citizens. The British economy which benefits people living everywhere in the UK depends on maintaining the UK’s internal market and the fiscal transfers that go with us all using the pound as our currency.
If independence were shown to create hard borders between the parts of the UK, disrupt trade, prevent free movement and lead to the loss of using the pound as part of currency union then secessionists everywhere would be less likely to vote for it.
The UK is a unitary state with devolution. The devolved parliaments are subordinate to Westminster. Federalism would give the devolved parliaments parity with the federal government. The federal parliament might deal with issues that are now reserved to Westminster (macroeconomics, foreign policy, the constitution etc), while the state parliaments, including an English parliament would control everything else.
By its nature federalism would increase the powers of the state parliaments because they would no longer be subordinate. Devolution can only take place in a unitary state as to devolve logically means to give to a subordinate. But we already know that devolution has increased the demand for independence. Scottish nationalists reflected if we can run a devolved parliament why can’t we run an independent one. Well if they could run a federal parliament which is no longer subordinate, they would still more wish to take the next step. The SNP and its supporters would simply bank any new powers and ask for more.
The fundamental problem with federalism is that it does nothing in itself to stop secession. If Northern Ireland had a state parliament, Irish nationalists would still want Irish unity.
Scottish nationalists would respond to the Scottish Parliament becoming elevated by federalism by immediately asking for independence. The state parliament in Edinburgh would be on a par with the UK federal parliament and would take even less kindly to being denied a referendum on independence than it does at present.
England for the first time in centuries would have its own parliament and with the majority of the British population would consider itself more important than tiny Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The English electorate would be almost as big as the UK electorate and would immediately be a rival to the federal parliament. What right would the federal parliament have to boss England about?
England has been immune to nationalism and thoughts of secession precisely because it has not had devolution. Giving England a state parliament would almost immediately give rise to the English National Party (ENP) with perhaps a new role for Mr. Farage.
Federalism could only work in the UK if secession was made illegal in a written constitution. But unless federalism got rid of the Belfast Agreement and along with it the Northern Ireland Protocol, secession would still be legal in the UK. If Northern Ireland could leave the UK federation, why not Scotland and Wales?
As a unitary state fiscal transfers make sense, but as a federal state why should money primarily raised by taxation in the south of England be used to increase the budgets of state parliaments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? The demand from the English state parliament to keep English taxes in England would increase.
But it would do almost as much damage to the UK economy if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland failed to receive funding from the Treasury as if they voted for independence. These economies would crash, and England would get the blame. If Scotland raised all its own revenue and received nothing from the Treasury there would hardly any longer be an economic argument for being part of the UK. All that would be left would be the pound, the army, foreign policy and free movement of people to hold us together.
Worse if living standards decreased in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland meaning public spending, health and benefits declined then many people would be tempted to move to England and make it even more crowded than it already is.
The United Kingdom cannot become a federation so long as the people in its four parts think of themselves as living in countries which already have the characteristics of a sovereign nation state. It is this that destabilises the UK at present leading to demands for independence. A federal UK state would be seen as a confederation with the parts superior to the UK parliament rather than equal. But the UK has just left such a confederation (the EU) and the UK state parliaments especially the English one would view the UK federal parliament as lacking legitimacy especially if each part of the UK were given equal representation thus outnumbering England though England raised the most taxes and had the most population.
If the goal is unity, we are not going to achieve it by giving still more powers to the devolved parliaments. This is the source of the problem rather than the solution. Federalism only works where secession is forbidden, and the states are required to cease thinking of themselves as countries. But if this could be done with federalism it could equally well be done without it. Federalism by itself would not stop secession, would decrease our unity and would cause problems that even devolution has not given us such as a rise in English nationalism. Gordon Brown (devolution) and Nick Timothy (the election of 2017) might be better reflecting on their own failures before making the problem of UK unity still worse.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2021/02/federalism-plus-nationalism-equals.html