Forget Federation

Dr John Ball writes that proponents of a federalist solution to the United Kingdom forget that power devolved is power retained.

It’s said at every election; the next will prove a watershed for the future of Wales; this time it may well be. 

With at least two new political parties (WNP and Gwlad) and potentially more, friction within Plaid Cymru, a Labour party with one eye fixed on London HQ, irrelevant Lib Dems and an incompetent Tory opposition, the choice will be greater than ever, and interesting. 

Perhaps more than any other election to date there is an elephant in the room: independence. New parties committed to the idea, Plaid Cymru grudgingly accepting it, a growing faction within the Labour party thinking about it and an increasingly stronger independence movement building momentum.

To offset this growing movement there have been calls for a fundamental re-think of the UK’s political structure to recognise the differences and challenges presented by the UK’s constituent nations; a federal structure. Some more enlightened Welsh Tories have come round to the idea while for some in the Labour party Devo Max is the flavour of the month.

As a democratic device to bring democracy and decision making closer to the people, federalism has some attraction. Many substantial powers would be handed to the federal states; services such as local government, health and social services, education, housing, some limited financial powers together with other functions seen as better and more efficiently delivered at the point of use.

There are many different forms of federalism, all of which differ with the amount of power handed over to the federal states. However, there is a major drawback invariably missed by supporters of a federal UK; such a system requires a central over-arching government. 

The UK would remain a unitary state and even with substantial federalised powers, the real instruments of power and functions of government will be retained by the centre: the Central Bank, macroeconomic policy, rules on taxation, currency, the judiciary and any legislation seen as applicable to the entire UK.

These powers would mean that the centre – invariably London – would have a distinct advantage over the federal states. 

The existing, piecemeal devolution settlement clearly shows any serious attempt to establish a federal system will meet with resistance from the centre. The British political system is unshakeably centrist and will always remain so.

Whatever advantages federalism might present, there will always remain a number of inter-connected and insurmountable basic failings. 

The first is the one which supporters of federalism quietly ignore. Power is retained at the centre and that a central government ultimately remains the final decision maker, able to amend or revoke powers previously devolved.

This power can be used to change the relationship, invariably in favour of the centre, strikingly illustrated by the current crisis – confusion between governments giving contradictory advice together with instructions and bumbling interference from the centre

The second follows the first. The centre retains control over the most important instruments of government: macroeconomic policy, taxation, currency, interest and exchange rates, without which no decentralised federal administration is truly in control. 

Thirdly, notwithstanding each federal state having much the same powers, there may well be competition between them for resources: the current crisis again being a case in point.

There is however an irrefutable and fundamental weakness behind the argument for a UK federal structure. Countries with a federal structure such as Australia, Canada and Germany are by definition single nations

The UK state is not: it is made up of four (for the moment including Northern Ireland) constituent nations with their own distinct cultures, social values and language, all of which would be of lesser importance in any form of federalism. 

It may also be the case – reserved central powers notwithstanding – that a federal state requires a written constitution, a document that stipulates powers, responsibilities and relationship between the federated states and the centre.

Although in theory once that document is written it is unalterable, substantial retained central power might try to amend or change it; stirrings from English MPs about current devolution makes the point. If changes are needed by one of the states – a response to a serious crisis such as the current pandemic or a serious economic downturn – the ability for individual states to respond could well be limited or indeed impossible.

For Wales to truly prosper we must have the ability to make our own decisions (and mistakes) without meddling from elsewhere, and that can mean only one thing: independence.


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Dr. John Ball is former lecturer in economics at Swansea University.

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