Kick starting a debate on the UK’s future

John Osmond queries how likely it is that we will reach for a federal answer to the problems thrown up by devolution

The Changing Union project, involving the IWA together with the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University and Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales (see here) is making a major contribution to the debate over the future of the UK. Our latest intervention has been to hold the first of six UK-wide Forums we are organising between now and the referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014.

The first Forum, held in Cardiff, debated whether there could be a federal future for the UK. Today we’re publishing the background paper prepared for the Forum here and a report on the proceedings here.

Each Forum brings together, on a Chatham House basis, around 20 key voices and opinion formers from across the UK. Participants include academics, politicians, civil servants and other practitioners. The number is being limited to facilitate genuinely rich and fruitful exchange, with every effort being made to ensure that a full range of opinions and perspectives are voiced.

The aim is to identify and break through the geographical, political and media barriers that typically constrain debates over constitutional relationships within the British Isles. Whatever the ultimate constitutional dispensation that emerges over the next decade, we will all continue live together in these islands, and to share many common interests.

In practice, however, a series of separate debates are taking place across the territories of the UK – one each in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, and perhaps half a debate in England. A truly striking – and in our view alarming – feature of all four debates is that they seem to be taking place in parallel with each other with very few attempts being made to connect them together.

This is what the Changing Union’s Forums will be addressing. Later this month a second Forum will look at the funding and taxation issues that underpin so much of the devolution debate. Next year we will be examining social protection and the future of the NHS, and also taking a close look at the one territory that, so far, has hardly been a party to discussion in the devolution story at all – England. We’ll be following these debates with an examination of how the institutions we hold in common at the centre, at Westminster and Whitehall, will need to adapt to the way devolution is developing. The final Forum will take stock of where we are soon after the Scottish referendum has been held.

Why begin with the issue of federalism? In the first place, because a federal approach as a solution to the UK’s constitutional dilemmas is being strongly advocated within Wales by First Minister Carwyn Jones (see here). Not only that, many academic commentators and experts agree that devolution is already taking the UK down a federal route. A few years ago, for example, Christopher Bryant, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Salford, judged that “Britain today is an asymmetrical union state on the threshold of a quasi-federation.” And he added, “A quasi-federation is what in practice I think we are heading towards, but without articulating it as such. It would be a typical British compromise consistent with the make-it-up-as-you-go-along character of Britain’s unwritten constitution.”

Of course, federalism – sometimes referred to as the F word – isn’t an especially popular notion in Britain, and certainly not at Westminster. In considering why we should acknowledge that there is a lot of confusion around what federalism actually means. In relation to the European Union, for instance, it is often opposed by UK politicians as implying some kind of Euro super-state – with powers being centralised in Brussels. However, within the UK itself, federalism tends to be opposed for the opposite reason, because it means a far more radical decentralisation of powers than devolution.

Opposition to federalism as somehow being alien to the British temperament goes back to the constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey in the 19th Century. As he asserted, federalism would revolutionise the constitution of the UK by undermining parliamentary sovereignty. Yet, from the perspective of the 21st Century that sovereignty that Dicey was so keen to defend has long been by breeched by Britain’s entry into the Common Market in the 1970s. And since then it has been breeched again by devolution. Will these breaks in the wall, so to speak, clear a path for a more comprehensive federal solution? That was a central question for our first Forum.

However, the perception that there has already been a revolution in the British constitution tends to be confined to the periphery of the UK. In the background paper I wrote for the inaugural Forum, which we publish today, I quote our First Minister Carwyn Jones:

“The UK has changed beyond recognition over the past 15 years and it is time that our constitution recognised this.”

And, of course, Carwyn is right. Our constitution has changed in fundamental ways. But, to what extent is this really felt, or even acknowledged, in England? On the whole, Westminster and Whitehall, and the London Press and media, simply don’t engage with the issues that Carwyn is trying to get them to take seriously.

And when they do, the note is strangely discordant. Remember during the 1997 general election campaign, John Major getting on his soap box and crying “Wake up! Wake up! The Union is in danger!” No one took any notice. I suspect most English people, if they stopped to think about this urgent warning, thought it simply eccentric.

That still seems very much their attitude today. Most polls for instance, find English people pretty relaxed about the idea of Scottish independence.  The attitude seems to be a shrug of the shoulders and, “Well, suppose we’d rather they stayed, but it’s up to them.” All this tends to suggest that the headline of my background paper – referring to ‘federalism, devolution and the breech of British sovereignty’ is perhaps a bit over-excited.

British sovereignty may have been breeched, but what really matters is English sovereignty and that remains securely intact. To be sure, some English politicians, perhaps by now a majority at Westminster, are beginning to get worried by Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question. Hence, the Mackay Commission, and the injunction that it come up with some version of ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster. But as I see it, what they’re looking for is stronger protection to maintain the English position and the status quo, and not some fundamental recasting of the British constitution to create a new federal-style structure.

In all of this, as I say, there is an underlying question: what exactly is federalism anyway? Certainly, there is a lot of confusion about what it means. Alongside my background paper, at the Forum we distributed a recent speech made by Carwyn Jones in July on the case for a constitutional convention for the UK and which we published on ClickonWales (here). In the speech I was struck by the way Carwyn defined federalism, in contradistinction to devolution. This is what he said:

“If we think for a moment about how the various devolution settlements have developed, the policy conversations have tended to take place in a series of bilateral exchanges between the UK Government and the relevant devolved administration, to some degree without reference to how devolution is developing in other parts of the UK.

“Perhaps that is inherent to the nature of devolution, as compared say to a state built on federal principles.  If you are creating a federal constitution, it would be natural that representatives of all the states should come together and agree amongst themselves what limited range of powers should be conferred ‘upwards’ on the federal authority; so all states would participate in that discussion. Under devolution, however, power is handed ‘downwards’ from the centre; and there need be no assumption that the extent and scope of power devolved from the centre to one territory should necessarily be the same as that afforded to another. So it is that we have ended up with what I have called the UK’s ‘asymmetric quasi-federalism’, where the powers of the various devolved institutions differ one from another.”

It seems to me that what Carwyn is describing here is more of a confederal arrangement rather than a federal one, with his talk of a limited range of powers being conferred ‘upwards’ on the central authority.

Reference to a confederal rather than a federal approach may be a useful framework for us when we come to consider the various alternatives to Scottish independence currently being put forward by a variery of groups and parties in Scotland, encapsulated by such phrases as ‘devo-max’, ‘devo-plus’, ‘independent-lite’ and so on. To what extent would going down these various roads demand changes to the UK constitution as a whole? And to what extent could this be achieved with minimum interference to the internal constitutional architecture of England? In trying to answer these questions we could well be pushed in a confederal direction.

I shall end on our own, Welsh, dilemma, in all of this. We’re very worried about the money. Undoubtedly, injustices with the Barnet formula notwithstanding, there is a huge fiscal transfer into Wales. Whatever happens it is the Welsh Government’s priority to ensure that that continues so long as it is needed, which will probably be quite a long time.

Evidently our First Minister Carwyn Jones has clocked that some loosening of the ties that bind us across the United Kingdom is inevitable. But he doesn’t want the loosening to go so far as to threaten the financial integrity of the United Kingdom. I guess he judges that a new federal constitution, with equal representation for each of the four countries in a reformed upper chamber, would actually serve to bind us closer together. Indeed he said as much:

“An arrangement like that could help bind together the nations of the United Kingdom.”

But a question that arises is this: is Carwyn Jones being over optimistic in his ambition for a federal solution to the UK’s dilemmas?  Whether he is or not he has certainly placed the question on the agenda. And it is noteworthy, too, that his call for a constitutional convention has been taken up by none other than David Cameron.  He said the other day that we will need one to consider exactly what we do in the event that Scotland votes No in the 2014 referendum. If not a constitutional convention tomorrow, then we can look forward to one in a couple of years time.  I guess that’s some kind of progress.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

9 thoughts on “Kick starting a debate on the UK’s future

  1. Where are the views of ordinary people in all of this or don’t they count as far as the political elite is concerned? A couple of key questions immmediately spring to mind. Who decides who will be represented in this great constitutional convention? Will the represetaives be directly elected as was the case when the constitution for the Weimar Republic, for example, was established in 1919?. Or will it be by invite with the only the Great and the Good and appropriate vested interests considered worthy of the honour of deciding the Uk’s future governance? If the convention isn’t directly elected then what mechanism do the Great and the Good propose to ensure that its deliberations are approved by the plebs? Will there, for example, be a UK wide referedum? And before anyone starts talking about the USA and Rhode Island perhaps they should realise that Rhode Island was the one former colony that didn’t send delegates to the constitutional convention that agreed the US constitution.

  2. Jeff Jones makes a valid point as in the post devolution period no one seems to be listening to people any more.
    In the UK context Wales has a unique problem that sets it apart from England, Scotland and N. Ireland and that is the Welsh language.
    Before Carwyn Jones can seek any form of federalism, he needs to decide which side of language divide he represents!?
    As it stands at present, in the post-devolution Wales English speaking people are under immense pressure to either assimilate into Welsh language and its culture or leave.

  3. To be frank, I can’t see the two perpetual governing parties ever releasing their grip on parliamentary sovereignty. It’s their guaranteed ticket to power, no matter how badly they do it. Euroscepticism is also a symptom of that desire, manifested by a little Englander mentality.

    The UK is a mess by just about every conceivable measure, mainly through incompetent government and administration down the years, in the monstrosity that is Westminster and Whitehall. It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a revolution long since to have swept it all away so that we could start with a clean sheet.

    Parliamentary sovereignty has been a curse. England will be stuck with it in perpetuity, and good luck to them. The Scots have a hope of escape in 2014 if they have the good sense to take it. Wales has been served particularly badly by the system – which also created the daft, weak, asymmetric devolution which is the Assembly, instead of devolving real power. I hope enough of us wake up to the fact that we will never prosper as long as the levers of power remain outside of Wales.

    I can’t see a federal UK working given the basic asymmetry of the nations, whatever residual powers are given to its federal parliament. Can one honestly see the people of Scotland and Wales paying for the renewal and upkeep of a nuclear deterrent, or for illegal and immoral American sponsored conflicts worldwide? Wales is in dire need of investment in infrastructure, not nuclear weapons, huge aircraft carriers or nuclear power stations to generate power for England’s conurbations.

    The determination of the unionists to retain the bankrupt Westminster system can be seen in the incessant barrage of attacks on Salmond and the SNP, in the press and the media, particularly in BBC Scotland’s biased pro-unionist coverage, which is a scandal. It is also one reason why the people of England have been ignored in the devolution debate thus far.

    The question will not be settled, even if the Scots vote No in 2014. The writing is on the wall for the UK – its days are numbered.

  4. “I shall end on our own, Welsh, dilemma, in all of this. We’re very worried about the money. Undoubtedly, injustices with the Barnett formula notwithstanding, there is a huge fiscal transfer into Wales. Whatever happens it is the Welsh Government’s priority to ensure that that continues so long as it is needed, which will probably be quite a long time.”

    I would like to make two points regarding what you’ve written above. Firstly, we do not know how much the fiscal transfer into Wales is because unlike Scotland, the politicians in power here do not want us to know the scale of it. Their reasons may be admirable or otherwise. As with so much in Wales, we simply do not know. Secondly, the UK’s deficit is increasing by about 150 billion pounds each year. So, we are hardly receiving this money from somewhere else whose books are balanced. So, basically, we send our taxes to London (how much we don’t quite know?) and they then give it back to us along with money the treasury has newly printed and then loaned to the UK government… which is what makes its way down the M4. Clever innit?

  5. Dave apparently thinks we’re living in somewhere akin to Greece. Sorry Dave, but I just don’t recognise your caricature – the UK is the world’s eighth largest economy, and has historically been a highly stable and successful state, by global standards. Everyone knows about our current economic problems and ongoing constitutional debate, but show me a country where everyone believes that the economy and the political system is perfect?

    What’s more, I simply don’t understand how you’re going to pay for all that infrastructure you say that Wales needs without addressing the fiscal deficit that John mentions in his article. Speaking of which, David queried the size of the deficit. Didn’t Holtham provide us with a decent estimate? £6.3bn.

  6. What would Wales’ total tax receipts be if they went to Cardiff and not the London treasury? And how would they be broken down?

  7. Two things to say about the estimate of 6.3 billion pounds as the transfer to Wales from the rest of the UK. One, that takes account only of public expenditure in Wales, not considering Wales’ share of UK national expenditures on things like defence, aid, foreign embassies and debt servicing. On the basis of population Wales’ share of that would be a good 5 billion which takes the deficit to 11 billion. Two, the Holtham figures relate to 2007-8, I think. Since then things have got much worse owing to the recession and the drop in tax receipts. The deficit is now nearer 18 billion as Holtham himself acknowledged on the Syniadau website some time ago. That is over 40 percent of Welsh GDP. There is no point in quibbling over a billion here or there. The current Welsh economy cannot support the people of Wales in a modern civilized lifestyle. We depend on the good will of our neighbour. We need to get off our backsides and regain some self respect. Abolishing our own government and going back to nursery, as Howell wants, is the last thing we should do.

  8. No Federal State. We need a Free Wales. No more U.K. idiots like Blair getting us into stupid pointless wars like Iraq.

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