The United Kingdom (UK) is governed as a unitary state comprising England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all of which are intrinsically linked culturally and historically in modern times through shared industrial, political and international experiences.
Devolution, as introduced in the late-1990s, aimed to address a measure of perceptible disenchantment across the isles due to unease with over-centralisation whilst retaining sovereignty in the hands of the Westminster parliament. Subsequent electoral majorities in Westminster, coalitions and the present supply and confidence agreement have challenged the governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh with the twin prospects of constitutional uncertainty and political vulnerability. The latter specifically complicates power sharing at Stormont and generally raises questions about the fair distribution of funding. The finance secretaries of both Scotland and Wales wrote a letter to the UK Treasury in late-July 2017 stressing that the Barnett formula should apply to the one billion pounds of additional support now earmarked for Northern Ireland.
The extent of divergence in today’s UK is highlighted by the four nations’ differentiated politics, apprehensions about the Brexit negotiations, uncertainties regarding the post-EU Northern Ireland border, debates concerning a second Scottish independence referendum, and broad unease with the Wales Act 2017.
The Devolution and Future of the Union report (Constitution Unit: 2015), explains that: ‘the UK is hardly unique in facing challenges to its structure and integrity…though it is unique in seeking to do so without a formal written constitution.’ The report explores three models of increasing devolution as possible solutions. Heftier doses of the same medicine may appeal to some, but does not address the symptomatic ambiguity introduced by the general primacy of Westminster and the inherent challenges presented by the unitary state.
Recently, Lord Elystan Morgan highlighted that: ‘a good proportion of the reserved powers in the Wales Act reside at Brussels not Westminster.’ Gordon Brown, Baroness Randerson and Gwynoro Jones have asserted that the UK should: ‘use the repatriation of powers from the EU to establish a new federal state of equals.’ Lord David Owen advocates a federal structure based on the German model, whilst the UK’s Changing Union report (Wales Governance Centre: 2015) proposes a union state not a unitary state which: ‘consists of four national entities sharing sovereignty…and freely assenting to cooperate in a Union for their common good. This signals the end of devolution and a move to a more overtly federal or quasi-federal framework.’
Professor Jim Gallagher goes further: ‘people often talk about federalism as if it were a solution for the UK. In truth the UK is already moving beyond it, to a more confederal solution.’ Reflecting on his Britain after Brexit report (2016), Gallagher envisages: ‘a confederation of nations of radically different sizes, sharing things that matter hugely, like economic management, access to welfare services and defence.’
In a federation, sovereignty is shared between central and constituent nation governments. Each level has clearly articulated functions, with some powers pooled between them, but none has absolute authority over the others. Agreed practices and rules are confirmed through a written constitution with compliance enforced by a Supreme Court. In contrast, a confederation is a union of sovereign member nations that for reasons of efficiency and common security assign a portfolio of functions and powers by treaty to a central body.
Collective functions of a federation or confederation might typically encompass to varying degrees: the armed and security forces; border, diplomatic and international affairs; shared public services; cross-recognition of legal jurisdictions; currency and monetary policies; a single market; and select taxation, as appropriate.
Federations generally have central institutions in place to implement many taxes (e.g. USA operates the Internal Revenue Service, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the US Customs and Border Protection), and foreign policy. Confederations raise collective budgetary funds annually through each member nation’s contributions of a defined proportion of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Internally, these nations operate distinct tax regimes and act unilaterally in most fields of foreign affairs and law, unless centrally assigned.
The Federal Britain report (Institute of Economic Affairs: 2015) states that: ‘fiscal decentralisation is associated with higher national income, better school performance and higher levels of investment. The evidence suggests that increasing the local share of taxation from 5% to 20% (low by G7 standards) could raise GDP per capita by 6%. The UK is in a particularly good position to gain from transferring powers and revenue-raising’.
The constitutional choice may not be purely binary in nature. Professor John Kincaid, in his article on Confederal Federalism (Western European Politics, 1999), explains: ‘what seems to have developed in the EU is…a confederal order of government that operates in a significantly federal mode within its spheres of competence.’ Member nations have delegated, in effect, parts of their sovereignty over time to central bodies which agree laws on their behalf.
The progressively sustainable model might well rest along the continuum between a Federation and League or Union of the Isles (i.e. confederation). In crude terms, the former option has aspects of a safety net deployed with shared instruments of governance established to support the realisation of economies of scale in delivery, and greater projection of common interests across constituent nations—including the proportional redistribution of joint prosperity generated through the federal capital. The latter option allows for agreement and partnership amongst fully empowered member nations on matters of collective concern, but with competitive considerations likely to complicate interactions between them.
A League or Union of the Isles could invite participation of the Republic of Ireland if it so desired, dealing neatly with the post-Brexit issue of the border with the north. It would also address the wishes of Scotland should it vote for independence. However, we should not underestimate our shared concerns, as an island community, in defence, social mobility and trade for which an incline towards Federation would provide constitutional clarity, comfort, and confidence.
In February 2017, a Constitution Unit event on Brexit, Federalism, and Scottish independence concluded that: ‘A federal or confederal solution that works for the overwhelming majority…seems to be an effective way out of the intractable, binary divisions that are fracturing the UK. It is up to the UK government and its constituent nations to gather the will to work for such a strategic compromise…’
This article is a summary of the essay titled ‘A Federation or League of the Isles?’ which appears in full on: https://gwynorojones.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/a-federation-or-league-of-isles.html
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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