The Reformed Union: The UK as a Federation

As the Scottish Independence referendum approaches on 18 September 2014 a leading thinker on Unionism says adopting federalism is the best way to save the United Kingdom. David Melding, Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly and a former Director of Policy (2000-2011) for the Welsh Conservatives, says devolution has shown itself to be a particularly dynamic process and nationalists have used it to advance demands for greater autonomy.  He argues that without a firm constitutional settlement, where the powers of the UK state are set out and enshrined, unionism is destined to fail.

Melding warns that unless unionists indicate their thinking before the referendum, there is a danger that the Yes vote will be artificially increased. Without a clear alternative voters in the middle ground who favour more autonomy but not independence will be tempted to send the unionist parties a ‘signal’ in the referendum. And in sending the unionists a ‘signal’, the Scots may inadvertently vote for secession!

He says that for unionists federal reform is much safer than loose notions of devo-max and full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. He believes that full fiscal autonomy is potentially lethal for the Union, as Scotland would be declaring its intention never to be a net contributor to the UK and therefore unwilling to help the poorer nations and regions of the UK. This would undermine the feasibility of the economic union.

Melding’s hope is that, in a very British way, we are stumbling towards common ground that could accommodate the most constructive elements of unionist and nationalist thought. As he says, “Speaking of compromise is appropriate because federalism is best understood as a treaty relationship in which the interests of the different spheres of government are constantly being modified and negotiated. It creates a lot of space for constitutional development and allows states to adapt to challenges that cannot be easily anticipated. However, it also sets fundamental rules-of-the-game, something alarmingly lacking in devolution”.

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