Debating the ‘F’ Word

John Osmond and Laura McAllister challenge David Melding’s advocacy of a federal solution to the dilemmas of devolution, set out in his book published by the IWA, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?

21 September 2009

Dear David

It is an expression of how far we have travelled since the National Assembly was established ten years ago that the most developed thinking on the next phase of our constitutional journey is coming from within the Welsh Conservative Party, in the shape of your book recently published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? In it you make a powerful case for a British federation. As you put it:

“For Britishness to remain coherent it must now accommodate the explicit political character of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and perhaps sooner than we think, England. A great but dormant truth is reasserting itself. The Home Nations are sovereign entities. At the moment they choose to be part of the British state. Long may it continue. But let no one be fooled that this allegiance is inevitable. Britain might not survive beyond 2020. The best way to preserve Britain as a multinational state is to accept that the UK can no longer be based on tacit consent but requires a new settlement. That settlement will need to be federal in character so that the sovereignties of the Home Nations and the UK state can be recognised in their respective jurisdictions.”

Given the general antipathy to federalism and all its works in Britain, especially within your own party, this is a brave not to say audacious position. In the final chapter of your book you deal systematically with some of the most obvious objections to federalism in Britain, in particular the overweening dominance in terms of population that England would occupy in any federal relationship with Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Other objections include the view that federalism would be complicated, bureaucratic and lead to Britain being over-governed. It is argued further, that federalism would be against “the organic tradition of the British constitution”. Last but not least, it is held that it would be “a step towards full statehood for the Home Nations” and consequently would “undermine British national identity and lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

You deal with all these arguments in a characteristically elegant manner. Indeed, you deal with them with such a reasonableness of tone that the obstacles which stand in the way appear to subside as so many sandcastles in the face of an incoming tide. Yet surely the major objection is not so obvious. This is simply the underlying political culture of England and the English. You allow Enoch Powell to make the essential point in your account of how devolution was lost in the 1979 referendum debacle, but then won so remarkably quickly in less than two decades in 1997. You quote Powell in one of the House of Commons devolution debates in December 1976 as saying:

“All the debates … have led to the only possible logical termination, which is that we can have legislative devolution to the parts of the state only where this state is federal, where the supreme legislature has its own demarcated function and each legislature has its own entrenched functions… The reason why this ultimate device, the only one that will theoretically fit, is not practical now is not so much that parts of a federation of the UK would be disparate in strength – I see no problem in a federal House representing different parts of the Kingdom in different numbers. The reason why federation is… not a practical possibility is that we do not want it.”

If Enoch Powell was right, the question is why do the English not want a federal solution? I have no doubt, incidentally, that in these remarks Powell was referring mainly to England. The Scots might go along with a federal arrangement. We in Wales would no doubt embrace it with some enthusiasm, since it would give us greater recognition.

However, for the English it simply won’t wash. It seems to me that this is because it would require a formal distinguishing of political identity that just doesn’t fit with the English way of thinking. It can be argued that, to varying degrees, the people of the United Kingdom feel at one and the same time Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/English and also British. However, it is not so clear how these break down in terms of national or civic allegiances. I think that to separate them in relation to parallel political jurisdictions, as is required in your vision of a federal Britain, would simply be a step too far for the English.

In any event, it is not at all clear that the English do, in fact, feel a straightforward duality of identity between being both English and British. For the most part is it not the case that the English simply feel English? For them being British may simply be an expression of their essential English identity but in the wider world – as with carrying a British passport, and in relation to institutions such as the British armed services, the BBC world service, the British Council, and perhaps though less obviously the British monarchy.

Underlying all of this, too, is the absence of any significant ‘independence’ movement in England, for example for an English Parliament. Certainly, in recent times a more salient sense of Englishness has developed, and especially since the advent of Welsh and Scottish devolution. It finds expression for instance in the widespread replacement of the Union Jack by the St George’s Cross in the football stadium and lately in more civic forums as well.

However, none of this has been accompanied by any clearly articulated constitutional ambition to establish distinctive English institutions. The call for ‘English votes for English laws’ in the House of Commons seem driven more by a search for party advantage by some of your Westminster colleagues than any aspiration for fundamental constitutional change.

Where is the evidence for a political will amongst the English to federate? Does not the fact that it is left to you to make the case, from beyond their border so to speak, speak volumes? In my experience the English political class just do not engage with the discussion, or even the language of this debate.

Two examples stand out. One was the fall at the first referendum hurdle of the attempt at devolution within England to create an elected Assembly for the North-East. This was envisaged as the starting point for a rolling programme of devolution throughout England. Had it been successful it might have provided the basis for a British federal structure involving the English regions, although of course, it would have entailed the political dismantling of the English nation.

The other example is the on-going debate on reform of the House of Lords. You seem to assume that the Lords could be utilised, at least in part, as a chamber to represent the federal components of the state in the way that is generally common in federal systems, such as in Germany, Australia, and the United States. Yet in all the debates over the future of the Lords there has been no serious proposal for it to evolve as a regional chamber. The only recent case for a reform along these lines was made by myself, in 1998 in a Fabian pamphlet Reforming the Lords and Changing Britain. Significantly, this sank without trace.

A final point, and this from the perspective of Wales and Scotland, is that ultimately a federal solution would not satisfy Scottish or Welsh nationalist aspirations. This is because these seek international representation, at a minimum within the EU. Yet for a nation to be represented within the EU it has to be independent. Flanders is without doubt the most devolved, regionalised, or federated ‘region/nation’ within a EU member state. But it simply has no voice in the EU institutions. The position in Belgium is that all three jurisdictions – Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels – have to agree on a common position for Belgium within the Council of Ministers. If they don’t agree then Belgium simply fails to have a position, which is increasingly the case.

Can it be imagined that a similar restriction could be applied to the representation of a British federation within the EU? That is to say, could a situation be envisaged where Wales, Scotland and England (and perhaps Northern Ireland) would all have to agree before a position was adopted in the Council of Ministers? Even more improbably, could Wales have a veto on a British federation declaring war (which it would certainly have wished for in relation to the Iraq adventure, for instance)? It seems to me that to ask the question provides the answer.

But aside from any Scottish or Welsh aspirations, the fundamental question is simply this: are the English ready to face the existential choice of adding British to their English identity in a meaningful, political way, in order to embrace the Celtic periphery in a shared federal constitution? Again, on the face of it, to ask the question surely provides the answer.

Best wishes


1 October 2009

Dear John,

Thank you for your e-mail and the very cogent arguments you advance against my federal vision. I certainly agree with you that Britain faces a critical, indeed existential choice about its future. A federal Britain would need a constitutional settlement as radical as universal suffrage or the 1707 Act of Union itself. But like those great events it would not require the repudiation of British political experience, merely a creative reconfiguration of what can perhaps be called the political ‘matter’ of Britain.

As you argue, two questions must be faced squarely. Would the English be prepared to embrace federalism as a means to sustain the British state? And would Scotland and Wales (both must agree) ultimately settle for federalism rather than independence? I am happy for the debate to be encapsulated by, and assessed on, these two cardinal points.

Enoch Powell commended federalism but didn’t think it could work in Britain because the electorate – especially in England – didn’t want it. It was a classic, Edwardian view but one never put to the test. A comprehensive constitutional settlement would require a UK-wide debate and this would test the federalist option in a mature and considered way. It is this very debate that I am now calling for!

You are right that present calls for an English parliament are weak. They may not grow. This is possible and the implications for Britain would be serious. But should an English parliament be established after the constitutional debate I envisage, its popularity might quickly grow (as support for the National Assembly has grown since 1999). The English people would face a couple of federalist options. Maybe the most pure – an English parliament – is at first unlikely. But the second option, an English legislative process within Westminster is perhaps more realistic. In any event, the primary question would not be ‘would you like to have an English legislative process?’ but ‘would you permit one if necessary to preserve the British state?’ Even should the English say no to both options, they could still assent explicitly to the present (in effect quasi federal) state albeit with England enjoying fewer political privileges than Wales and Scotland. Even this would give the British state constitutional breathing space.

That the case for federalism comes mainly from outside England is not quite true. Historically and particularly in the 1970s Conservative politicians have looked at federalism. The most notable advocates were Lord Hailsham, Francis Pym and Leon Brittan, but there were others. Today, federalism is being discussed in Conservative Party circles again although it remains a minority pursuit. Perhaps a Conservative government in Westminster would generate more sympathetic consideration of federalism as some of the contentious but to date largely latent aspects of devolution become apparent.

I doubt that you will find any of this convincing. But let me make a prediction, one that you might have cause to recall in future years. If Conservative opinion – or indeed unionist opinion in general – shifts on the need for a general constitutional settlement, things may develop very quickly on the federalist front. It is because federalism offers an elegant solution once the division of sovereignty is accepted that, eventually, unionists might take the plunge. Even the House of Lords may then at last be reformed and on a federal basis that leaves the ultimate authority of the House of Commons in tact. Your paper on House of Lords reform may yet have the readership it deserves!

The second point you raise is equally tricky. Would Wales and Scotland accept federalism and abjure full independence? Another way of framing this question is to ask whether the people of Wales and Scotland really want to abolish the British state? I honestly don’t think they do. Evidence from opinion polls in Wales and Scotland hardly points to a rush for independence. Power over domestic national affairs could be combined with a strong British state. Of course I can offer no compromise on defence and foreign affairs. Belgium is not a model for a happy federation of nations. The people of Wales and Scotland would influence reserved issues through British institutions – nothing more, but nothing less. If this is not enough, then calls for independence will grow in Wales and Scotland. Nothing could stop this. It would never be my intention to frustrate the settled will of the Welsh or Scots (and yes, I do believe we have the right to leave the UK should we wish to do so). What I want is a lucid, liberal and considered debate on the future of Britain and the Home Nations. It is a privilege and a great responsibility to be active in politics at this critical time.

John, you are right, it comes down to a matter of will. Do we want a new, invigorated Union? Or should we acknowledge that the British state is a political association that has run its course? Judgement should be based on evidence gathered in a UK wide debate and a constitutional convention. We should not lack courage or confidence in reaching a decisive judgement. But let us remember that what we decide we bequeath to our descendants.

Yours ever,


7 October 2009

Dear David and John,

I’m delighted to join in this exchange about Wales and the UK’s political futures. It’s about time we engaged in some real, cogent debate around constitutional status, especially federalism – a concept so alien that it became Thatcher’s and Major’s ‘F word’ long before the advent of foul mouthed TV chefs. Proper discussion around Wales’s constitutional future is long overdue.

Setting aside the substantial improvement in our nation’s governance this past decade, nothing disappoints me more than the ‘make do and mend’ approach to taking the sting out of the so-called ‘national question’. David has done us a great service by reigniting debate through his thoughtful and hugely readable book.

You’re both right. How we organise our political affairs should be a matter that exercises all in the UK. But it doesn’t of course, and there are some fairly obvious and well-rehearsed reasons for this. The modern national identities of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been defined largely in opposition, getting their most significant reconfigurations when under threat and always mindful of their geographical juxtaposition with a larger and more powerful neighbour. Nothing concentrates the mind more than a threat to one’s very survival. In the absence of this, England has been able to dip in and out of identity politics with chameleon-like qualities.  John is absolutely right to say that political identity scarcely touches the political classes around London and its environs. Meanwhile, Labour’s Green Paper, ‘The Governance of Britain’ is damned by its title as there is scarcely any mention of the key underlying issue of distribution of power between the nations.

Still, we may just be facing a small, but unique, window of opportunity for initiating bigger political change. Public distaste for the world of politics (or, more accurately, the politicians who inhabit it) was brewing long before the Daily Telegraph gleefully exposed moats, flipping and duck houses. As Gordon Brown and David Cameron quarrel over cosmetic tinkering with the ridiculously anachronistic first-past-the-post voting system and reform of the Lords, there is at least a sliver of hope that they’ll see the benefits of more substantive political change. Who knows, it just might be possible to force the hand of the next Prime Minister as he is likely to face few alternatives once the new cohabitation rhythms with devolved governments of different political hues starts to reverberate.

I hesitate to talk about constitutional ‘solutions’, since that suggests a teleology that rarely exists in politics. Do any of us know what Wales will or should look like in the future? Surely that will depend on how the rest of the world changes? As Charles Stuart Parnell said, “No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.” The ‘answer’ for England might not be a single English national parliament but regional parliaments more in keeping with European notions of dynamic regionalism and subsidiarity. I firmly believe that the principal reason that north east England rejected regional devolution so emphatically in 2004 was not the spectre of bureaucracy and over-governance but because there was insufficient threat of assimilation and inconsistent perceptions of inequalities with the wealthy south east. Back to my point about the oppositional requirements for cementing identity…

I tend to disagree with David’s articulation of the choice we now face. Yes, we need a new settlement but is the choice really between sparking ‘a new, invigorated Union’ and acknowledging that ‘the British state…has run its course’? I think, David, you understate the far more interesting, but potentially problematic option which is to try to redefine Britain less by its national characteristics and rather as a good, solid, technocratic state. The lexicon of ‘state’ and ‘nation’ has been deliberately muddled in political debates around nationalism, devolution and the future of Britain.

Britain in the twenty first century is a far better state than it is a nation. Few can identify, never mind display, any distinctive or instinctive characteristics of Britishness, unless negatively in opposition to something, be it the USA, the EU, or immigration. Whilst that’s not unusual in itself, the pretence is. The nonsense of the UK Government’s citizenship challenges means its tests for new immigrants are pared back to civic tick-lists, rather than social and civil values. Attempts to clothe the bare skeleton of the state in the more luxurious robes of nationhood were always bound to come a cropper, in my view.

I agree that most people in Wales are not exercised or excited by independence. And that fact should not be regarded as a slight on Welsh nationhood or the strength and depth of our identity. No-one can challenge Wales’s status as a historic, vibrant and viable nation, but independence in its purest form is an anachronism in the 21st Century. The British state through its size, reach and power has constructed institutions with which most Welsh people not only feel comfortable and familiar but would probably wish to retain as the glue that connects us with our closest neighbours, not just in England, but in Scotland and Ireland too. Many of these are based as much on popular culture – the BBC, Premier League football, the British Lions and Coronation Street, for example–as politics, but they are important none the less.

There’s plenty to think about and the process of debating these issues might just flush out some better answers. Given that we’re talking at last about sharing sovereignty as partners in these Isles, why don’t we throw confederal status into the mix? Moving beyond Canada and the Constitution Act of 1867 and the old Swiss Confederacy, there is real potential for exploring a long continuum of confederal status, from minimal intergovernmental co-operation to something resembling a formal, legal federation. It has the advantage of fluidity, allowing for potential movements together and apart over time and does not have to be based on pure and outdated notions of ‘independence’. Might this just allow for a more equal and mature ‘solution’ for Britain?



10 October 2009

Dear Laura and David,

This is getting interesting. The fact that we now have a Welsh Conservative acknowledging the essential sovereignty of the people of Wales is something of a breakthrough. And it may be that your suggestion Laura that we should be exploring a confederal approach offers a point where we might reach some kind of consensus, to which I’ll return.

But first, let me take your analysis of North East England’s rejection of devolution a little further Laura. It seems to me that essentially, you’re arguing that there wasn’t a nationalist dimension to the debate. That is to say, there was no national movement in the North East claiming a distinctiveness for that territory, standing up for the sovereignty of its people and thereby presenting an electoral threat to the British parties.

There is a further, perhaps even more important point to make, and that is the North-East was not actually presented with devolution along Welsh lines in their referendum in November 2004 (in which 78 per cent voted No against 22 per cent yes on a 48 per cent turn-out). Instead, what they were offered was essentially a reorganisation of local government. There would have been a regional tier of government, but it would not have had a budget equivalent to that deployed by the Welsh Government. It would have taken over the role of the North-East Development Agency and added planning and a few other powers. But the big budget functions, including health and education, would have remained firmly with Whitehall. And below the North East Assembly – essentially a regional local authority – the counties and districts would have been merged into a single tier of local government.

From a decentralist point of view regional parliaments across England would certainly be “more in keeping with European notions of dynamic regionalism and subsidiarity’, as you put it Laura, but it seems to me the centralised English Whitehall culture will never countenance it. It would mean the end of Whitehall as we know it. So I think you’re right David that in the constitutional relationships we’re struggling with, it is England as a whole with which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have to come to terms.

One reason why, despite its anomalies and asymmetry, devolution has bedded down so relatively easily so far is that England has largely remained unaffected. The political game in Westminster, and the bureaucracy in Whitehall have sailed on as though nothing has happened.  This is because the Parliament in Scotland and the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland simply took over an existing structure and array of functions that were already administratively devolved to the respective Secretaries of State. Indeed, the impression I get is that the Westminster village bothers less about the Celtic fringe today than it did before the devolution process started a decade ago.

All this would change if Scotland takes a further significant step in ratcheting up its powers. This may not need full independence. If Scotland were to embark on extensive fiscal devolution , making extensive inroads into income taxation as recommended by the Calman Commission, then England and certainly the Treasury will start to be discomforted.  The kind of distinctive policy differences that have so far characterised devolution – whether it be an early introduction of the smoking ban, free car park at hospitals, or even moves towards free personal care for the elderly in Scotland – have been changes around the edge. However, significant variations in income tax across the Scottish border or if Wales, say, began to demand significant royalty payments for water exported to England, would cause the Treasury to sit up.

At that point I think the English political system would begin to demand a constitutional adjustment to keep the devolution process at the arms length to which it has grown accustomed. And for that reason, short of independence for Scotland, a confederation might begin to look attractive. This would entail little changes to English arrangements of the kind that a federal constitution would require. England could continue to run its affairs much as it liked, probably much as it does at the moment. However, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could be allowed to develop their structures in a much more autonomous and differentiated way.

This would be a consequence of a confederal constitutional relationship starting from the position that you, David have adopted, which is that sovereignty in the British Isles rests with their respective peoples – the Welsh, Scottish, English, and Irish (whether north or south or together). They may join in a confederal arrangement, but this entails powers, functions and money being handed up to the confederal level in an agreed way, and with the caveat that they can always be withheld or withdrawn. A federation works in the opposite direction. It starts  from the position that sovereignty lies at the centre, at the level of the state – in this case Britain and the capital London – with powers, functions and money handed down in ways decided by the centre.

I know which arrangement I would prefer.



12 October 2009

Dear Laura and John,

I find this process both gratifying and a little daunting! My own ideas are not fixed and final, of course, but I must make a few defensive comments.

Laura, you are absolutely right to say that Britain survives more comfortably as a state than a nation. I address this conundrum in my book. Where we differ is on the need to regenerate a sense of British national identity. This was once strong but has become weaker or at least an identity that has reinvigorated competition. I do not believe that Britain can endure merely as a state. For me it is dual identity or, if not bust, ongoing existential angst. However, I do think it distinctly possible that the Home Nations will settle down and accept a constitutional amalgam that is more nation than state. And the converse would be true for Britain.

You both seem interested in the possibilities offered by a British confederation. I believe that Gwynfor Evans was once smitten by this idea. I am not. Confederation is not a state structure. It is a structure that unites to some degree states. The EU is a classic if weak confederation. For Britain it would necessitate the independence of the Home Nations which I don’t want. What model do you have in mind!? Switzerland? This is the only liberal democratic example I can think of at the moment. I will concede that federalism is a spectrum running from fairly centralised to rather confederal arrangements. The USA has moved about quite a bit on this spectrum. But there is no neat system that can be called confederalism in my view.

John, I agree with you that Scotland could push Britain to the brink. This is why I do not share Laura’s view that Britain could survive mainly as a state and not much of a nation. However, I do not agree with you that federalism does not divide sovereignty – it does! Wales would be sovereign over certain issues for ever or until the dissolution of a federal Britain.

I sign off with sincere thanks. You have both taken my ideas seriously and subjected them to valid criticism. Now what of the future? Let’s be frank, nothing is certain and several outcomes are possible. This is a journey, and the Union I seek to preserve a great adventure!



David Melding AM

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