Part Two: Devolution? Federalism? Why Independence is the Answer

Dr John Ball explores different constitutional options for Wales and the UK and argues that only independence enables the necessary powers for each nation.

In the first part of my essay I outlined Wales’ journey towards devolution and the current inadequacies of that settlement.

Here, I will examine the basis of federal and confederal models of the UK and explain why independence is the only logical and realistic option for Wales.

Federalism with England as a single unit

As a democratic device which brings democracy and decision making closer to the people, this has some attraction.

It explicitly recognises the existence of the four nations that currently constitute the UK, although the North of Ireland is not a distinct nation but part of another.

A federal model works well in other countries, notably in Canada and Australia.

However, although the provinces and states have considerable powers, many remain reserved to, or can be influenced by the federal government, notably matters of law, taxation and overall macroeconomic policy. 

“Any serious attempt to establish [federalism] will meet – as has so recently been clearly seen – with resistance from the centre.”

The UK would remain a unitary kingdom and it therefore follows that even with substantial federal functions, the most important levers of policy and the economy would be reserved to the centre; the central bank, fiscal and monetary policy, main sources of and rules on taxation, currency and legislation seen as relevant to the UK.

Such reserved powers would mean that the centre (London) would have, as today, an advantage over the other states.   

The idea of a four-nation federated state within the UK is sometimes seen as a way forward both to satisfy national aspirations and to decentralise government – the “devo max” idea.

The reality is, as the evidence of existing devolution clearly suggests, that any serious attempt to establish such a system will meet – as has so recently been clearly seen – with resistance from the centre.

Federalism, including the regions of England

The same arguments apply here as with the Single Unit model, although with a significant difference – it recognises the social, cultural and industrial differences within England, which can be quite stark.

There are nine “conomic regions” in England and except for London, the South East and Eastern Regions, all are relatively poor.

The option would be to recognise and devolve federal status to all nine which, in economic terms, would almost certainly continue these economic differences, one idea to amalgamate some regions to improve their economic circumstances would probably be impossible with strong local, cultural loyalties; a Yorkshireman is a Yorkshireman before anything.

“Given that the centre would retain many significant powers… this form of federalism is unlikely to be successful.”

Whatever geographic unit(s) might emerge, there would be a significant initial problem, one important responsibility would almost certainly be economic development, yet each would start from a different base, with London and the South east continuing their domination.

In practice, given that the centre would retain many significant powers as with the Single Unit model, with nine different regions that centralised power would be exacerbated.

This form of federalism is unlikely to be successful.

Confederalism and Confederalism-Federalism

These models, however titled, are similar. Each has an attraction in reflecting, in a significant way, the reality of the four nations that currently constitute the UK whilst contemporaneously retaining the UK as a unit.

Such structures assume each nation within the confederation exists on a basis of interaction between essentially sovereign states with separate governments.

Any arrangement would be through treaty and most activities of government would be within each nation’s powers although any agreement is likely to be complicated.

This system requires some form of over-arching central body made up of the four nations in parliamentary form.

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Although in theory the four nations retain some limited form of self-government, and notwithstanding significant decentralised power, the federated states remain part of the UK and it therefore follows that major policy decisions on defence, international relations the economy, monetary and exchange rate policy would apply to the entire UK.

Sovereignty remains with the UK.

All the above ways improve decision making and bring democracy closer to the people. However, whatever advantages federalism might present, there remain insurmountable, basic obstacles. 

The first is the one which supporters of federalism conveniently disregard, power is retained at the centre, the central government remains the ultimate final decision maker, able to amend or revoke powers previously decentralised.

This power can be used to change the relationship invariably in favour of the centre, which has been so clearly illustrated with the attempted power grab from the Johnson government.

The second follows the first, the centre retains control over the most important legislative and economic instruments of government; without which no decentralised federal administration is truly in control. 

“Independence would present not insurmountable challenges in establishing international recognition, trade deals and currency acceptance.”

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 single nation states

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


This model has obvious and exciting possibilities; complete control central government policy at all levels: taxation, currency, interest and exchange rates, with a separate Central Bank, judiciary and the ability to act unilaterally in all matters relevant to national sovereignty, and of course, cultural and social life.

However, such a system would – in the short term at least – present not insurmountable challenges in establishing international recognition, trade deals and currency acceptance.

These are challenges that have been successfully met by the former Soviet bloc nations which are now amongst the most prosperous economies in Europe. 

We have made our case. The Federalists have not.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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

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