Federalism and the Liberal Democrats

This week’s Economist (Bagehot column) addresses the implications of the current crisis for the UK constitution.

The Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution says:

We ….. commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Bagehot says: “High on the list of British oddities is that it is a composite of four nations—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Holding this group together was always difficult given the different sizes of the parts (England is ten times as populous as Scotland) and the history of internal colonisation. It has been made vastly more difficult by Brexit because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. Brexit increases the chance that Scotland will claim independence and, in the longer term, that Northern Ireland will join the Irish Republic. It also increases the pressure for American- or German-style federalism. The only way to prevent England from being seen to ride roughshod over the smaller nations of the United Kingdom may be to create regional assemblies or more powerful metropolitan governments” (my bold italics).

Brexit has shown up the close link between the failure of policies and the failure of our politics.

The Liberal Democrats and the UK as a whole must address constitutional reform not as a nerdy bit of Lib Dem policy-tinkering, but as the necessary central part of rebuilding trust in democratic politics. It will be top-down with policies, campaigns and leadership as well as bottom-up, demonstrating and leading in our communities to enable people to be engaged and powerfully involved. We should be a campaigning, insurgent force and not just the tame exponents of electoral tactics. Votes will be the result of our campaigning but should not be the purpose.

Our current policy is timid; tinkering with the machinery of government. Federalism, fair votes and new models of spreading power should be at the centre of our campaigning because they are necessary in order to address the big problems of poverty, inequality, climate change and powerlessness.

Are the Liberal Democrats really too timid to see the compulsive logic of this case and to pursue federalism as a critical part of a new constitutional settlement?

Let’s learn from the experience of our Scottish Lib Dems. Leading Scots Lib Dem thinker Robert Brown says:

The fall out from Brexit makes it imperative if the UK is to survive to move to a written federal constitution. That needs both federal reform at Westminster and a broad structure for English devolution. A federation of Scotland. Wales, N/Ireland and the English regions is the best solution. How do we make it happen?

A good start would be to fulfil the intention of the authors of our Party’s Constitution and move towards a more federal structure – unless we are happier to be enslaved by top-down conformity!

* Cllr Gordon Lishman is a member of the Federal Board and Acting Chair of the Social Liberal Forum, although neither body can be assumed always to agree with him,

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11 Comments

  • Well, am always on a limb here since I support the right of all peoples to self determination, and would in honesty prefer to see the U.K. dissolved. So here goes, again …

    We are moving from an era of big post-imperial blocs into one in which I think small will increasingly be seen to be beautiful. I can’t see why liberals are so timid about this – and if nothing else small states are less likely to precipitate world wars.

    To me, the logic of federal U.K. is that it will keep the union – but for what end? Has the U.K. worked so well for Scotland, Wales, NI and the English regions that it has to be preserved ‘just as’ as a result?

    What would the Scots or West Country get from a federal U.K. that makes that so much better than being independent?

    It always amuses me to hear frothing brexiters then go on to defend the ‘special union’ between the four nations … sweet irony, if not hypocrisy, if you want to talk about getting rid of unelected rulers (hereditary head of state and House of Lords, barely democratic lower house) and taking control.

    I think if we wanted to be really radical, and liberal, then we would be saying, let’s look at the medieval aspects of the kingdom which persist in this semi-democratic state today, and decide what is best for the future, not what we feel most comfortable with. If federalism means that basically England is still taking in the cash, doling it out, imposing its broken constitution and taking all of us into illegal wars – is it really worth the effort?

  • A pointless piece, too late and unworkable anyway. Scotland and Ulster have now gone past the point of no return and will have departed the UK inside 5 years.
    What is the point of federalising England and Wales alone?
    We need to wake up to the reality of post Brexit disintegration.

  • John Marriott 29th Oct '19 - 4:13pm

    @johnmc
    There are certain areas where size does matter – defence, environment, and economic development to name just three. The quote from Robert Brown says it all for me. The problem in the past has always been the sheer size of ‘England’. That’s why we need a paring down. Most of the infrastructure is already in place in the other three ‘nations’, especially at local government level (or at least it will be when the Northern Irish can get their act together). It’s England that needs to most attention.

    The problem with all of this is that it hardly stimulates the taste buds of most electors. That, of course, doesn’t make it not worth pursuing. So, how do you make it sexy?

  • John Marriott 29th Oct '19 - 4:14pm

    @johnmc
    There are certain areas where size does matter – defence, environment, and economic development to name just three. The quote from Robert Brown says it all for me. The problem in the past has always been the sheer size of ‘England’. That’s why we need a paring down. Most of the infrastructure is already in place in the other three ‘nations’, especially at local government level (or at least it will be when the Northern Irish can get their act together). It’s England that needs the most attention.

    The problem with all of this is that it hardly stimulates the taste buds of most electors. That, of course, doesn’t make it not worth pursuing. So, how do you make it sexy?

  • Rob Stephenson 29th Oct '19 - 9:00pm

    English regions should/could be considered as part of a British federation. Scotland and NI might be more inclined to remain within a reformed UK after the Brexit dust has settled. We should also not forget a written constitution to formalise the new settlement.

  • I do not think that this is an academic argument. There is a reality as far as finance is concerned. People in England outside the South East, and no doubt many inside, do not see why there should be a pecking order of London, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and then England outside London.
    It is time that we looked at the reality of the spending and creation of money.

  • A lot of people say Scotland wishes to become independent and rejoin the EU, as a result of Brexit. It’s true that in the month immediately after the referendum independence got a bounce in the opinion polls but then they fell back to more or less where they were in early 2016 – and the SNP lost seats between the 2015 and 2017 elections.

    I’d say its the opposite. They’ll leave if we remain in the EU. Up to the referendum they were on an unstoppable path towards independence, but if we leave then putting an EU hard border across the island of Great Britain is going to be impossible sell in an actual referendum campaign.

  • Jane Ann Liston 30th Oct '19 - 11:27am

    No responsible leader would want to make an irreversible change to their country with nearly half of the population opposed to it, especially if (a) they have an easy option to relocate and (b) if that half includes a disproportionate share of the country’s movers and shakers. Therefore, please do not write Scotland off yet; it is by no means certain that secession will occur. If we remain in the EU, it should take at least some wind out of the SNP’s sails, if not putting their gas at a peep!

  • Gordon Lishman 30th Oct '19 - 1:10pm

    Taken together, I’m sorry to see that the comments above mainly support my diagnosis that our Party has not understood or accepted this key concept of liberalism and its implications.

    In response to the point about political sexiness (always a bit of an oxymoron, I think), I believe that trust in politics is a major issue which concerns many people and that reforming our politics needs a package which is potentially as attractive as Chartism and suffrage.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Nov '19 - 3:05pm

    The UK is fortunate in that the nations that make it up would all agree to remaining within its remit as long as they have sufficient power to make their own laws and govern their own destiny that satisfies their citizens.

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