Why federalism over independence?

Lib Dems support the union because we believe there is strength in unity.

We support the principle that decisions should be made at the most appropriate local level giving power to the people. We aspire to achieving mutuality and respect between the home nations and between the regions. We see fundamental flaws in the current constitutional arrangements whereby there is little or no real devolution in England and different approaches to devolution where it does exist. There is no common approach or equality in the way that power is administered across the UK and this gives rise to tensions, inconsistencies, frustration and a lack of trust. A federal system divides power between one central government and several regional governments, not just some as is the case in the UK. And built in can be a requirement for cooperation and the seeking of consensus.

This represents a real and workable alternative to Scottish independence which many see as divisive, economically challenging and uncaring of needs and aspirations in England. Scotland’s relationship with a new federal UK government would be more robust and better defined than at present with potentially much less political conflict.

The assumption must be that there would be a UK-wide parliament, with MPs elected under PR, dealing only with matters that need to handled at the UK level and not with the intricacies of running all government across England. ‘Devo max’ for Scotland would be a possibility. The parliament could also set goals where action needed transcends boundaries, and provide the funds for delivery. And I see the federal solution as an opportunity to reconstitute the House of Lords to form a second house for the nations and regions to work alongside the principal parliament. Let’s call it a senate. It could comprise an equal number of elected representatives from each, again under PR, and its responsibilities would be scrutiny, coordination and arbitration.

In England, under a federal system, the established regions would form the basis of devolved government in the form of directly elected (under PR) assemblies with similar, though not necessarily identical, powers to the Scottish Government. I see no case for an English Parliament if we want a truly federal system. I am assuming that funding would be on the same basis as with the current devolved administrations. At the local level, as in Scotland, there would be unitary authorities elected under PR – avoiding an additional tier of government.

The new system would involve a fairly major upheaval following a constitutional convention, but here is a real opportunity for change which saves the union from break up and which gives people in the whole of the UK a say in how decisions are made in their parts of the UK. In my view it would result in a better relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK than currently exists or would exist if Scotland became independent – given the traumas of separation.

* Barry Turner is a member of the East Lothian Liberal Democrats and a former East Lothian councillor. He has had a long career as a town planner in English local government and subsequently worked for the Westminster government examining structure and regional plans.

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20 Comments

  • John Marriott 28th Jul '20 - 5:54pm

    That’s more or less what I and others have been saying for years, even down to the need to divide England up into regions. I even referred to ‘devo max for Scotland’ recently. I would assume the same for Wales, Northern Ireland and tge English regions as well. However, before you do that, you need to replace the remainIng District and County Councils in England with Unitary authorities, to create the same structures as in the other ‘nations’ of the U.K.

    One other thing. Do we want a single chamber Federal Parliament or do we also want an upper chamber, often referred to as a Senate, as well to scrutinise decisions? If the answer is affirmative, then why not people it with nominees from the three nations’ parliaments and the English regional assemblies? That’s basically how it works in Germany. Surely we don’t want another election on top of the ones we already have.

    Finally, what should this new Federal Parliament and Government be responsible for? How about Defence, Foreign Affairs, Environment and EconomIc Strategy for starters?

  • Can you deliver that?

    Because if you can’t deliver it then you’re basically saying “We will block doing this other thing people want because it is not the thing we have failed to ever deliver”.

    And I can’t see people voting for that.

    Same with PR. If we had PR – or federalism – I’d be much less likely to vote for independence. But we don’t, and I can’t see a route to either of them, so I’m taking the option that I can see a route too. And I’d vote Lib Dem in Scotland if they’d support me in that, but they won’t, so I can’t.

  • It’s a ‘what if’, chicken and egg situation, Barry. If nothing changes would you merely shake your head in sorrow at the outcome ?

    What if the Johnson et al Westminster government refused to introduce PR, refused to reform the House of Lords, and couldn’t/wouldn’t introduce Regional Government in England (remember how Cummings destroyed Prescott’s North East Referendum) ?

    Have you forgotten how unmanageable Scottish regional government was before it was abandoned ? (e.g. the monolithic Strathclyde).

    How would you rejoin the EU without a sovereign Scottish Parliament…. or would you just accept that you can’t ? And would you retain (what Jo Grimond called) ‘the so called independent nuclear deterrent’, the one that our last former Leader said she wouldn’t hesitate to use ?

    Don’t forget that Professor Tom Devine, Scotland’s most eminent historian, has shown that when the old Liberal Party ruled the roost in Scotland a majority of the Scottish Liberal M.P.’s (plus the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation) supported full Home Rule for Scotland – just when events were creating Norway in 1905. TodayI know many Scottish Lib Dems privately don’t accept the official party line.

    Bigger is not necessarily better.

  • Sorry to disillusion you, Barry, but the English Liberal Democrats are not going to ride to the Scottish party’s rescue with a federal blueprint for England, whether that is regions or an English Parliament. It is in the drawer marked “too difficult”.
    At the December election, our sister party in Northern Ireland, APNI, thrived.
    Why? Because they cut across the Nationalist/Unionist divide and didn’t pick a side. Maybe that is route the Scottish party should take. There used to be things in politics called “matters of conscience”. Perhaps the Scottish Lib Dems should allow support for either independence or the union to be a “matter of conscience”?

  • Ross Stalker 29th Jul '20 - 3:35am

    Barry, you use the terms devolution and federalism rather interchangeably, but they are fundamentally different.

    In devolution, regional/state government is subordinate; the constitutional power exists at the top and is passed downwards.

    In federalism, state government is as sovereign as national/federal government. In the UK we would need to introduce a written constitution in order to achieve this, to end Westminster’s constitutional supremacy.

    Devo max is quite different from federalism, and it’s still a flawed model for Scotland because it still involves a block grant – just going in the other direction. Under federalism, Westminster and the Scottish Parliament would each be fully responsible for raising and spending. They could choose to pool sovereignty – for example HMRC could collect both state and federal income tax. (And also perhaps local income tax.)

    A very topical example is how Brexit has been handled. Westminster violated the Sewel convention and they will do so again when they negotiate trade deals. Under true federalism this would be impossible – we saw this with the CETA trade deal negotiations which had to be changed because a state in Belgium was blocking ratification.

    Under federalism one state could not overrule the other, but policies could offset each other – for example, if Westminster abolished a certain type of social welfare payment, Scotland could introduce a state version. Federalism lends itself better to overlapping authority than devolution does – e.g. some federal environmental law and state environmental law could both exist concurrently.

  • Ross Stalker 29th Jul '20 - 3:36am

    Asymmetrical federalism is technically possible but it’s difficult because you have to fill in the gap left by not having a level of government. English regions don’t really want/need lawmaking powers, so with no English Parliament, the constitution would have to grant Westminster extra authority over England – which maintains the EVEL problem.

    The solution is symmetrical federalism with Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish Parliaments, which are all sovereign. In practice this would mean fully splitting Welsh Law from English Law, in the same way Scots Law and Irish Law are. The English Parliament could then devolve its power downwards to cities and regions that wish to have an Assembly.

    The most common argument I’ve seen against a symmetrical federal S/E/W/NI Parliamentary system is the population disparity. However, many other countries with a federal model have similar population disparities between their federated states – for example Brazil, Canada, Austria, Argentina and of course (though far from the best example of federalism in action and not a country we should seek to emulate) the USA. Governing a populous state is very different from governing a state that’s small in population or area or both, but federalism allows for that flexibility because each state is sovereign.

    We must stop calling proposals of different forms of devolution from Westminster ‘federalism’, and actually advocate for radical reform.

  • Gordon Lishman 29th Jul '20 - 8:16am

    “many other countries with a federal model have similar population disparities between their federated states – for example Brazil, Canada, Austria, Argentina and of course (though far from the best example of federalism in action and not a country we should seek to emulate) the USA“.
    This is simply untrue. Tell me which of those countries has over 50% of the population in one federal unit – much less 87%.

  • As a party we need to accept that there is growing calls for Scottish independence, I being a unionist and with my family hailing and still living in Scotland am very pragmatic and know that the SNP will win. So if we have a credible version that is accepted by all to run with, such as the proposal outlined above and also have a good grass routes campaign going at the same time we have a chance of undoing the damage of the Tory party. The SNP have failed to acknowledge that any independent Scotland will result in some sort of physical border within the lifetime of this generation, already a mental border is going down (aided by the cyber unions and nationalists on both sides) that Scotland is different, the SNP are using this to their advantage. The union parties have been in disarray and cannot find a credible narrative to combat this. Brexit is the issue. I voted remain but also very anti EU. Which is a strange combination, we have to accept that politically any idea of rejoining the EU is dead, mind you seeing how the EU is acting in regards to Corna Virus and the arguments over money and the tiny amount that will be distributed, I think it will kill itself, the Libdem party has to find a way to got over this stumbling block. Maybe work on pro European cooperation and also hardwire commitments to full European membership with the full consent and that any handover of powers will be with consent?

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '20 - 9:21am

    Now this article might originate from Scotland; but why leave it there? The point I was making was that, if we had UK federalism, which, theoretically could include at a certain level the Republic of Ireland (after all, the Commonwealth consists of Republics and ‘Monarchies’ but nit very likely, given that the Irish Republic is in the EU), I reckon that most Scots, and Welsh and Ulsterpeople would support that.

    The fact is that ‘Teflon’ Sturgeon appears to do no wrong and don’t forget that the Scots were told back then that the best way of staying in the EU was to stay in the Union. So, if the SNP tightens it’s grip on the Scottish Parliament next year we could be in for a stand off between a pro Independence Scottish Parliament and a Westminster Government more than ever obsessed with the consequences of Brexit, and both trying to recover from the repercussions of COVID-19. What a mess.

    So, why not look at the bigger picture? Do something about England, or more precisely the parts outside south east England. Ross Stalker reckons that the English regions don’t really want or need “law making powers”. How does he know? It depends what powers they acquire. From where I sit they can’t do any worse than some of those clowns down south!

    David Raw mentionEd Lord Prescott’s attempt to get a North East Regional Assembly. Yes, it failed partly thanks to the dark arts of a certain Mr Cummings. It also failed because what it offered didn’t amount to very much. I don’t advocate a kind of ‘semi skimmed’ Federalism. I want the ‘full fat’ variety. Now that’s something worth fighting for!

  • Andrew Tampion 29th Jul '20 - 9:58am

    Like Ross Stalker I am not convinced that the regions of England want Federal status for two reasons. First I do not hear many calls for Federal status from the public at large, as distinct from some elements of the political class. Second because I do not believe that there are sufficient regional differences within England as exist between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales: although Cornwell as part of the Celtic fringe might be a special case. However I also recognise that there is little evidence one way or the other. Therefore I think that before breaking up England into regions is proposed research should be carried out. to establish whether there is sufficient public support.
    I don’t see the problem with having 1 of the constituent regions being much larger than the others. Although this might affect representation in a proposed Assembly of the Regions. One advantage of an English Parliament is that it could be based outside London, thus offsetting Londons importance.
    One specific problem with Englkish regional federation is that if, as John Marriott suggests all regions have “full fat” devolution then that would mean granting the same powers to each Parliament. Consider Education, devolved in Norhern Ireland and Scotland. Is it really a good idea to devolve education to 8 or 9 English regions and so risk having different exams in the South East and the North West of England? Or are you prepared to accept differences in competency between different parts of the UK? If not who’s going to tell the Northern Irish and Scots that you want to take education away from them? I’m sure other examples exist.
    It might be possible to divide England into 2 or 3 regions. For example everywhere north or south of the Humber as regions with Parliaments, perhaps with London also as a seperate region.

  • David Evershed 29th Jul '20 - 11:53am

    Why not continue giving more powers to local councils in England. Smaller councils are tending to merge into bigger councils to gain economies of scale and are thus becoming more regional than local anyway.

    What we don’t need is a tier of regional bodies sitting between central government and local bodies with yet more elected representatives and elections.

    Where desirable local councils can co-operate.

    Let’s build on what we already have – local councils.

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '20 - 1:26pm

    @Andrew Tampion
    Of course you don’t hear many calls for Federal status, because most people don’t really take much interest in politics at all. That’s why they like a binary choice in general elections and why so few of them bother to vote in local elections. That’s why the Tory and Labour Parties exist.

    Yes, if we had regional government in England, each assembly WOULD have the same powers as their equivalents in the other nations of the UK. It’s all about numbers. An English Parliament would always get its way in a Federal situation. We need a level playing field, not one loaded towards the English.

    @David Evershed
    Germany manages education pretty well. Each of the 16 Länder are committed to a common structure of reform through what is called the ‘ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister’, which means that all need to agree on a reform for it to proceed and then each ‘Land’ decides on the timetable for implementation. For example, when I was teaching in West Germany back in 1973, it was agreed to introduce a reform of the 6th Form by introducing amongst other things a points system for university entry. SPD ruled Länder like Niedersachsen introduced the change right away, whereas CDU/CSU Länder took longer. When, having returned to the UK, I was leading an exchange to Laudau in Rheinland/Pfalz back in the early 1980s the reforms had just taken place.

    As far as “accepting differences in competency between different parts of the UK” that appears to be happening now. You might display the Lib Dem logo before your name; but your reaction strikes me as more conservative than radical. Finally, don’t offer more powers to local councils until they themselves accept reform, which means replacing the remaining District and County Councils with Unitary Authorities – the ultimate quid pro quo.

  • Given Barry Turner’s article was about Scotland, Federalism and the Union, rather than on Little Piddlecome Parish Council somewhere in deepest Home Counties, readers wishing to study the issues and history of the Debate on Scottish Home Rule (when the Liberal Party used to elect 58 M.P.’s in Scotland) might find it useful to download Dr Nathan Kane’s doctoral thesis on the subject, It’s downloadable for free on Google :

    Kane2015.pdf (1.566Mb) – Edinburgh Research Archive – The …era.ed.ac.uk › bitstream › handle › Kane2015PDF
    8 Jul 2015 – A Study of the Debate on Scottish Home. Rule, 1886-1914. Nathan Kane. PhD Scottish History. The University of Edinburgh 2015 …
    by NP Kane – ‎2015

  • Andrew Tampion 29th Jul '20 - 5:11pm

    John Marriott
    “An English Parliament would always get its way in a Federal situation. We need a level playing field, not one loaded towards the English.”
    Why would an English Parliament always get it’s way in a Federal situation? And if that is true how would having Regional English Parliaments not make that make that worse if they saw themselves as primarily English rather than British (for want of a better term) and so acted together to out vote the Nothern Irish, Scots and Welsh?

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '20 - 6:08pm

    @Andrew Tampion
    IF (a massive ‘if’) we had a Federal Parliament, it would be dominated by Members representing English areas whatever happens. Having members exclusively representing an English Parliament or an English dimension would make that dominance even greater. It all depends whether or not you have direct Federal elections or not. You could make an argument either way, however, if you have a second chamber, a strong case could be made for it to have nominees from the existing parliaments like the Bundesrat in Germany.

    You could, of course, insist that each ‘nation’ sends or elects the same number of Federal MPs; but is that really fair? Look at the US Senate, for example, where each state elects two senators, so a state such as California with over 40 million inhabitants has the same representation as, say, Wyoming with just over 500,000 people. Just remind me, what is the population of England compared with that of, say, Scotland?

    Under a federal system most responsibilities would be devolved away from any central federal institution, so regional or national factors might not be as vital as you seem to imply. I would doubt whether, when it came to the defence of the realm, there would be that much parochialism on display. Foreign affairs could and probably would offer scope for a united approach as would environmental protection.

    The really important decisions that would affect people’s everyday lives, such as health, education/training and employment, to give just a few examples, should be, as far as possible, made as locally as possible. From whether I live, I would rather these kinds of decisions were made in places like Leicester, Nottingham or Derby rather than in far off London or even in some new ‘Brasilia’ created somewhere between Birmingham or Coventry.

  • For information it would be a mistake to think that the SNP is the only party in Scotland campaigning for Scottish independence. The Scottish Greens also support it. They are the fourth party at Holyrood with more MSP’s (six) than the Lib Dems (5).

  • Andrew Tampion 30th Jul '20 - 7:03am

    John Marriott
    I suggest to you that at present MPs tend to vote in blocs for party reasons not national ones. If we adopt a Federal model with both Federal and Regional Parliaments then we have to decide how to elect the Federal Parlianent and whether it is bi or uni cameral. For the purpose of this debate let’s assume a unicameral Parliament. If you allocate seats purely based on population then you are in the same position as now because of the disparity in population you refer to. If you adopt the US Senate model and have an equal number of MPs for each constituent nation then you have the Northern Irish, Scots and Welsh vastly over-represented. If you break england into regions, say 7 then with NI, Scotland and Wales you have 10 regions: assuming equal representation then the English are still dominanti f they choose to vote as a bloc.

  • John Marriott 30th Jul '20 - 9:01am

    @Andrew Tampion
    I’m afraid that you are slipping into the usual Lib Dem trap of arguing about detail first rather than agreeing that change is necessary. I really don’t want to waste your or my or the LDV readers’ time in arguing the equivalent of how many angels can sit on the head of a pin.

    Suffice it to say that I believe that a federal UK and a restructured England with a fairer voting system would be a worthwhile blueprint for our future. It appears to work in Germany, Canada and Australia, to give just three similar examples. Quite clearly what we have at the moment is not fit for purpose and certainly isn’t democracy as I understand it. Unfortunately, as I wrote earlier, most people don’t seem to care.

    That’s were I stand and nothing that you might feel inclined to say will make me want to change my mind.

  • Peter Hirst 30th Jul '20 - 3:29pm

    I agree. The world needs more collaborating not dividing. Also, logistics agrees to at least Scotland and Wales having a relationship with England. We just need to get used to sharing power and being more interested in the common good.

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