Let’s all agree on a federal plan

The Liberal Democrats may favour a federal Britain, but it would be so much more persuasive if all the Unionist parties could come together to agree on a specific proposal to put before the Scottish electorate in any independence referendum. There are moves afoot to achieve this, with Conservative and Labour heavyweights Michael Gove and Gordon Brown cautiously circling around the issue like two Sumo wrestlers.

They might come up with a plan for more devolution to stem the tide of support for independence in Scotland. Or, if Gordon Brown gets his way, they might go further and consider some sort of federal arrangement. Moreover, if all this seems to be just a “Scottish problem” to people living in England or Wales or Northern Ireland, think what we are missing: the chance to reform our centralised British state and build a modern democracy.

Now I know most Liberal Democrats don’t want a second independence referendum and constitutional reform is not a top priority at a time of pandemic and economic disaster. But we are all capable of thinking of more than one thing at a time and getting our governing system right may help us tackle the next pandemic and economic disaster. And whether we like it or not, the referendum issue is going to stay with us for the foreseeable future.

So can we harden up this idea of “federalism”? There was a useful article in The Scotsman this week by the Cambridge professor Marc Weller (you can see it by clicking HERE). He argues that a “federacy” could be formed in which Scotland becomes a federal state or nation and the rest of Britain could carry on as it is. The other nations could then come to their own federal arrangements later, as they saw fit. This he suggests would give Scotland the feeling of independence without losing the advantages – a pooled defence force, a larger currency, a common market for goods and services and special help in times of trouble.

Scotland would have complete powers over taxation, spending and borrowing, as well as the powers it already has over health and education and other local council services. Of course, Scotland would have to make a block grant to Westminster to pay for federal services (or allow a federal tax to be levied) and Scottish MPs and Lords at Westminster would only be allowed to vote on federal matters.

If all the Unionist parties could agree on such a plan and guarantee to put it into effect after a referendum, this might persuade most Scots to vote No to independence. Right now, unless there is such a plan, the opinion polls suggest the Union is going to break up.

This is largely due to the disaster of Brexit, but it’s also due to the habit in recent years of England voting for right-wing governments. Neither of these is popular in Scotland and perhaps mark a distinct difference in a political culture which needs to be accommodated.

I admit the debate over federalism can seem like watching bureaucratic angels dancing on the head of a pin. But we could make it about the type of country we want to live in democratic, decentralised, decent, facing up properly to the big issues of the time: jobs, poverty, housing and caring for the planet.

But here’s the rub. For federalism to work as an issue in a Scottish referendum, it would need to be spelt out in a Federal Act (with an SNP style 600 pages “white paper”). It would have to be accompanied by a long-term plan to get back into the European Union. I wonder if Michael Gove and Gordon Brown can agree on that! If not, the Liberal Democrats will have to press on alone.

* John Knox is a member of Edinburgh South Liberal Democrats, a retired journalist and a recent council candidate.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Feb '21 - 7:58pm

    Thank you for an interesting article!
    Might some of the pressures harmful to the unity of the U. K. be socio-economic and so need socio-economic inputs in order to address them?
    Are we experiencing a crisis of the current models and instruments of socio-economic development aka government?
    Socio-economic stratification is increasing in individual countries and globally.
    Might this cause sharp polarisation of private and public views, the growth of populism, political extremism, civil tensions, obsessive behaviours, aggressive nationalism etc.?
    Might you find the attached relevant?

  • Richard Lowe 4th Feb '21 - 6:49am

    Also, I read this rather interesting article: https://nation.cymru/opinion/why-federalism-could-be-the-solution-to-wales-woes-and-what-its-opponents-get-wrong/

    Federacy or independence are the only true, realistic options I think.

  • Paul Barker 4th Feb '21 - 10:25am

    The Federacy idea could work, its a solution to the timing problem of Scotland having spent seven Years talking about issues which have hardly surfaced in England yet.

    I cant imagine The tories coming on board but a joint Lab/Lib position seems possible.

  • Geoffrey Dron 4th Feb '21 - 11:58am

    The imbalance of populations (England 83.5%; Scotland 8.5%; Wales 5%, and NI 3%) will make a federal solution problematic, to say the least. England would need to be broken up and I see no appetite for this.

    I suggest a ten year period of extended devolution, once the extended powers have been agreed and sanctioned in referenda (where independence will also be on the ballot). In the last two years a constitutional commission (of experts) will review the workings of this devo-max system) and report its findings.

    I doubt that federalism will ever be the solution.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Feb '21 - 12:24pm

    I like the idea of a Scotland only federal arrangement that allows for other parts of the UK to join as they wish. The precise wording would determine whether there would be Scottish MPs at Westminster. This should be distinct from Brexit or like electoral reform it suggests that we are imposing conditions that make the best the enemy of the good.

  • William Wallace 4th Feb '21 - 2:48pm

    We have to get an active public debate going on this before Scotland drifts further towards independence. But England also needs federal reform: it’s FAR to centralised, So the UK constitution as a whole needs to be reconsidered.
    John Knox, I’m longing to ask: when I was a student, I used to be offered free whiskies on the strength of my name. Were you offered free sermons?

  • George Thomas 4th Feb '21 - 10:58pm

    ” constitutional reform is not a top priority at a time of pandemic and economic disaster.”

    The UK is based on devolved powers to four nations but this is being undone by the current government with the UK Internal Market Bill. Independence is nearly impossible but it would be so much better if it was unwanted too, and not just because it’s nearly impossible but because a federal solution means there is the option of staying together but unpunished by this increasingly authoritarian, increasingly right wing, anti-devolution, anti-EU UK government.

  • Paul Fisher 5th Feb '21 - 4:36am

    Why fight independence if one espouses liberalism? Why not promote people’s right to be governed as they wish if one espouses democracy? Or is the LibDem Party both illiberal and undemocratic? An existential question methinks?

  • Helen Dudden 5th Feb '21 - 9:38am

    I have for several months, been following the news feed of Neale Hanvey MP. It’s interesting how he is actively supporting the Aviation Industry and the subject of Mental Health. He also is supporting, the many voluntary helpers who are so valuable at this time.
    It seemed a good idea, to learn about the real workings of a Scottish MP. Personally, I’m impressed by the constant effort, to improve the present situation.

  • Helen Dudden 7th Feb '21 - 9:09am

    I was saddened to see that Neale Hanvey has lost his position this morning.

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