Lib Dems pass motion calling for constitutional reform and a Federal UK

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The UK is in danger, said Wendy Chamberlain in her proposing speech for today’s motion calling for a federal UK. We’ve already seen one union disintegrate on the basis of divisive nationalism, she said, and we need a liberal offer to fix the union and give power back not just to state governments but to communities. The motion was about building a collaborative, constructive and consultative relationships between the nations of the UK and we will end the current structural inequalities of the Union.

Federalism has been a key part of our constitutional reform plans for as long as I have been involved in the party, but we haven’t been very good at showing how this would work in practice.

One of the biggest issues has been about how England would fit into a federal structure. The motion before Conference didn’t address this and it led to calls for it to be referred back for that to be resolved. They certainly do need to be resolved and the people who raised concerns were justified in doing so. The issue is that time is not on our side. WIth elections in Scotland and Wales less than 8 months away, we have to have something to counter the pro-independence argument.

In the end, Conference chose to pass the motion today by an overwhelming majority of 681-96 on the understanding that the Federal Policy Committee does the work on sorting out how this would work for England.

It was a very good debate, but only two women were called. Session Chair Geoff Payne said that reflected the balance of the cards submitted. So what is it about constitutional issues that causes that sort of imbalance and how do we talk about them in a more inclusive way?

You can read the motion passed on pages 24-27 in the agenda here.

Essentially it talks about a declaration that the UK is a federal union based on human rights and consent, with a duty on the nations to work together to “guarantee a decent quality o life for its citizens.” Tackling climate change and meeting the challenges of a global economy. It outlines a programme of constitutional reform including electoral reform, a written constitution and structures that enhance the nations working together constructively.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • The question of Federalism is also a tricky one for Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats need to engage with the Alliance Party on this.

  • Scottish people should be allowed to decide their own future, surely? If they can escape Brexit, we should rejoice for them rather than wanting to drag them down with us.

  • David Evershed 26th Sep '20 - 5:58pm

    There was a referendum in the North East for a regional government.

    The proposal was lost by 78% to 22%.

    What is it about us Lib Dems that we don’t respect referendum results?

    Ridiculous to ignore 80% of the population (England) in a constitutional proposal.

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '20 - 6:24pm

    @David Evershed
    The referendum to which you refer was, I believe, the brainchild of Lord Prescott when he was a member of the Blair government. It offered little real devolution and apparently largely ended up with an argument between Newcastle and Sunderland as who was going to be top dog. No wonder it failed.

    Rather than quote percentages you should check first of all what percentage of those eligible to vote actually did. I believe that the turnout was around 47% and guess who cut his political teeth in the ‘No’ campaign? Had your eyes tested at Barnard Castle recently?

  • Paul Barker 26th Sep '20 - 6:33pm

    I wish we could decide to oppose Referenda altogether, they are only for use in places where Democracy has failed, like Northern Ireland.

  • Matt (Bristol) 26th Sep '20 - 6:51pm

    Manfarang raises a reasonable point about engaging constructively with Northern Ireland, Paul Barker slanders an entire province which has made significant steps to use accountable democracy to resolve its difficulties, and in many ways has now one of the most sophisticated constitutions of any UK region or nation.

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '20 - 7:47pm

    @Paul Barker
    Abolish referendums (the correct plural, I believe)? Try telling that to the Swiss – they’ve got one this weekend on freedom of movement. I suppose that you would subscribe to Harry Lime’s view in ‘The Third Man’ that all the Swiss have to show for 500 years of democracy is the cuckoo clock! I know that referendums were a favourite of Hitler; but they can be very useful on specific subjects if used sparingly and honestly.

  • Paul Barker 26th Sep '20 - 9:41pm

    @ Matt
    meant to write had not has
    NI has certainly made big steps to becoming a Democracy, that was the point of the Good Friday Referendum, to establish the conditions where democracy might work.

  • George Thomas 27th Sep '20 - 9:57am

    At the moment, there is an emotionally compelling argument being put together for independence – we know that if this was put into practice it would repeat difficulties of Brexit and in a much more damaging way for several reasons but perhaps most notably because of Brexit – and action being taken to attack devolution as part of English nationalism under the name of “Conservative and Unionist”. The UK is in danger of changing significantly and this change may be good or bad depending on who shapes it but think we all agree it’s not the union we would want it to be ideally.

  • George Thomas 27th Sep '20 - 10:11am

    For the record, this conference speech seems to be largely similar to Mark Drakeford’s November 2019 Kier Hardie lecture as referenced in this Irish Times article:

    “The Labour administration in Cardiff is well described as the “only devolved government wholly committed to the Union” by the constitutional lawyer Rick Rawlings, one of the foremost experts on the subject.”

    “Welsh governments led by Carwyn Jones and Drakeford advocate a quasi-federal reformed and reimagined Union which would reserve only specified powers at the centre and devolve the rest, including to a reconfigured England.”

    “Nevertheless, repeated Welsh warnings about the state of the Union and their plans for how to repair and reform it tend to fall on deaf ears in London, whether they be Conservative or Labour.”

    There is potential for a pro-union, progressive reform “coalition” if Lib Dems work with Welsh Labour.

  • Daniel Walker 27th Sep '20 - 10:45am

    @George Thomas “There is potential for a pro-union, progressive reform “coalition” if Lib Dems work with Welsh Labour.

    Well, we are currently in coalition with them in Wales, so that should be do-able 🙂

  • Thank you for posting this article Caron. Yes, it rather curious, the male domination of the topic. Is it because federalism is more “geeky”, or is it insulting of me towards men to suggest that men are naturally more geeky that women?

    It is a very sorry state of affairs that so many ardent federalists felt we had to criticise the motion on Friday. The result of a summer of machinations is that a commitment was made by FPC to form a group to work on the issue to address the English Question but, if I recall correctly, there was no promise on the time-scale of that coming back to Conference? However, that commitment only surfaced 20hrs before the debate after a long summer of wrangling. As I said in my speech directly after Wendy, that is no way to conduct policy-making.

    Anyway, let us hope we can make progress on the English Question and also develop further federalist policy to put real flesh on the bones of the rather sketchy outline we passed the other day. In my earlier Lib Dem Voice articles that preceded the debate, we were quite rightly taken to task by a few contributors criticising the lack of detail on fiscal and legislative arrangements. This motion (and our attempts to introduce the English dimension via an amendment) are rather basic and do little more than outline a few structural issues at the national level. If we can’t make more progress soon, we will look like faux-reformists spouting little but hot air. I hope we can keep up some momentum this time around, given that it was six years between Policy Paper 117 and this week’s motion.

  • David Evershed. Gosh, why do people continually bring up the NE referendum in 2004? Sixteen years ago. An awful proposal that bore absolutely no resemblence to a “regional assembly” – points the opposition were right to make at the time.

    It was a pointless, toothless talking shop (of about 30 members I believe). Not a powerful devolved or federal parliament wielding real power and increasing localism in a significant and meaningful way.

    Besides, if anyone’s idea of localism is that a failure a good sixteen years ago in the NE of England means that no-one ever again gets asked on any other proposal for the rest of eternity….well, wow.

  • It would be far more liberal to recognise the current U.K. structure as (largely) a product of the age of imperialism and support a clearly defined multi-step programme for independence for Scotland, Wales & England, together with a fifty year Hong-Kong style settlement for NI to rectify the mess created there by the decision to divide Ireland.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Sep '20 - 3:19pm

    At least we’re talking about the right subject. As the possibility of the break up of the Union increases, federalism offers a way out. We must spell out that it gives all its component parts a say and with demand devolution allows each to decide what powers it would like at this present time.

  • Thomas Robinson 28th Sep '20 - 2:17pm

    One of the concerns for Scotland (apart from the obvious total block on it ever happening because it would reduce the current de facto powers of England) is that the new arrangements would be expected to prevent Scotland from ever again having realistically the option of independence, binding them into a new UK arrangement in the way that Catalonia has been locked into Spain

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