Mckay Commission points way to confederal UK

John Osmond looks ahead to the choices being lined up in the wake of next year’s Scottish independence referendum

By far the most interesting aspect of yesterday’s report from the Mckay Commission on the consequences of devolution for the future of the House of Commons (here) is its outright rejection of a federal solution for the constitutional dilemmas of the United Kingdom.

The Commission, chaired by Sir William McKay, a former clerk of the House of Commons, and with representatives from all parts of the UK – including Sir Emyr Jones-Parry from Wales – recommended a mild version of ‘English votes for English  laws’ as an answer to procedural problems at Westminster arising from devolution. Its main proposal was that Commons decisions with a “separate and distinct effect” for England should “normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs sitting for constituencies in England”.

This is put forward as an answer to the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’. Named after the constituency of the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, this arises from the devolution anomaly whereby Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish MP are able to vote on English domestic matters, whereas English MPs cannot do so in relation to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

But from the point of view of what future constitutional arrangements for the UK might emerge in the wake of next year’s Scottish independence referendum, it is the Commission’s discussion of federalism and English dissatisfaction with the present set-up that is of most relevance.

The Commission considered five potential solutions to the West Lothian question and rejected all of them in the following terms:

Abolishing devolution is not on the political agenda.

Maintaining the status quo is a long-term risk.

Strengthening local government in England does not tackle the governance of England.

Federalism, both England-wide with an English parliament or with English regions, has compelling objections.

Electoral reform, including proportional representation and reduction in the number of MPs returned for seats outside England, is not realistic and fails to tackle the underlying issue.

In surveys the Commission undertook into English attitudes on how they should be governed, strong preferences were found for some version of separate treatment. A total of 81 per cent agreed with the proposition that ‘Scottish MPs should not vote on English laws’. In a further survey respondents were given three options when answering a question about possible arrangements for making laws for England. The first choice, favoured by 30 per cent, was for England to be governed with laws made solely by English MPs in the UK Parliament. This came just ahead of an English parliament, at 29 per cent, and keeping “things as they are at present”, at 25 per cent.

As the Commissions report says, “These are extremely significant findings”, with only a quarter of the respondents favouring the status quo. And it adds:

“If support for law-making by English MPs in the UK Parliament and support for an English parliament are added together, support for some form of England-specific procedure for making laws for England has the support of over half of the survey respondents.”

Yet in its rejection of a federal solution and a clear-cut version of ‘English votes for English laws’ in the House of Commons, the Commission denies this aspiration. In its rejection of federal approach to the UK, as has been advocated by First Minister Carwyn Jones in a series of speeches over the past year, the Commission rehearses what, by now, are a familiar set of arguments, but ones which it finds “compelling”:

  1. There are no precedents of federal systems in which one component makes up over five-sixths of the overall population of a state. There is a wide view26 that such a big unit would destabilise the state as a whole, both in relation to the three much smaller units in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also in relation to the federal UK parliament and government, to which an English parliament would be likely to be a powerful rival.
  2. Any federal system requires a delineation of competences, which are usually arbitrated by a supreme court that would be able to overrule the UK parliament, as well as binding the devolved institutions. This would be a radical departure from UK constitutional practice. In this and in other respects, the “massive upheaval in governmental arrangements that would be needed to create a new Parliament for 50 million people” would not appear a proportionate response to the current sense of disadvantage in England.
  3. It seems unlikely in the current climate that citizens would favour having more politicians than now, or the costs associated with establishing a new institution.

What do these conclusions point to when we come to consider the future of the UK in the wake of the Scotland’s independence referendum, now to be held in September 2014? We are likely to be faced with three propositions:

  1. Either Scotland will become independent or there will be a move towards greater powers for Scotland – and also Wales and Northern Ireland in its wake – within a looser UK.
  2. There is no appetite for a federal solution.
  3. The electorate within England will want stronger guarantees that their distinctive voice be acknowledged.

The only way that I can see that these requirements can be reconciled is if the component parts of the UK moves towards a confederal relationship in which certain, limited and defined functions continue to be exercised at the UK level – for instance defence, foreign affairs, and some social protection measures such as pensions. Everything else would be retained by Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the House of Commons for England, with the House of Lords evolving into a chamber for the confederation. Conventions might emerge whereby all nations represented in the confederal chamber would need to provide majorities for highly controversial issues such as a declaration of war.

I’m sure this is not what Carwyn Jones has in mind when he talks about a federal or quasi-federal solution to the devolution dilemmas of the UK. But how else are we going to reconcile the desires of England, let alone those of Scotland? As ever, the risk to Wales  (and Northern Ireland) will be financial.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

7 thoughts on “Mckay Commission points way to confederal UK

  1. How about another option – independence in the EU for each of the constituent nations of the UK?

    Surely this option should have at least been considered by the Commission.

    Not for the short term, but in medium to long term it has to be the way forward. We need to start having the debate.

  2. McKay is essentially a fudge, as were the differential devolution settlements of 1997. The latter have proved unworkable. The Scottish public wants independence or far greater devolution of powers, and the Labour party in Wales is torn between a desire for more powers and the self-interest of UK Labour, and its MPs from Wales, who want to retain power at the centre. The LibDems and Plaid Cymru want more devolution or independence, respectively.

    McKay’s fudge, if it is adopted, will inevitably cause constitutional problems, especially if and when there is a Labour government lacking a majority among English MPs. The West Lothian question cannot be addressed short of a constitutional upheaval – the creation of a federation. That would be anathema to the Tories, and to many in Labour. I’m sure that these two parties would prefer the break-up of the Union to the overthrow of parliamentary sovereignty in England which guarantees them periods of power in perpetuity regardless of monumental failure and incompetence.

    I believe that the Westminster system is in terminal decline. The tensions within the UK are growing. Sooner or later something has to give. Whether that happens in September 2014 remains to be seen, but I’m sure it will happen in the medium term in any case. Unfortunately Wales is at the bottom of the pile as far as Westminster is concerned, and we will have to await the verdict of our Scottish cousins. If the Scots exit, then the status quo will not be an option for Wales.

    Confederations are rare, and I can’t in all honesty see such a loose solution working in Britain as it would suffer from all the disadvantages of an asymmetric federation on the shared issues such as defence. It would also entail the constitutional revolution which would be politically unacceptable in England.

  3. Fine interventions from Richard and Dave. Not sure people realise the fact that the UK could be facing its end after September 2014. I’m still hearing people on the Left and Right in Wales talking of a constitutional debate “in a few years time”. By that stage, it may well be too late for politicians and public alike to influence matters. As England awakes so Wales will have to respond – robustly – or face being swallowed up (once again!)

  4. I don’t see why independence in Europe shouldn’t be on the table as an option. However, I’m almost certain that people in Wales, Scotland and England would simply prefer confederalism over it, any day of the week. In terms of public opinion, Wales and Scotland would slot very nicely and comfortably into a confederation. England is more challenging.

  5. Fantasy, all fantasy. The McKay Commission was the most futile exercise that misplaced ingenuity ever devised. The chattering classes may go on and on persuading themselves there is a ‘West Lothian’ question. In fact it is an insignificant trivial anomaly in a legislature where 6 members of every 7 are English. The great majority of English people are too sensible to worry about it and could not care less. This is not the irritant that will lead to the dissolution of the UK that John Osmond and some correspondents evidently want. You’ll have to find another causus belli.

  6. The UK is finished.

    We’re just arguing over the date for the funeral.

    We ought to be discussing replacing it with a democracy in Wales.

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