Westminster Wednesday: Federalism in the UK

This week, we will be considering the issue of federalism in the UK. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed both local and devolved government in Britain – how they came to be and what powers they have. Here, we will look at the tensions that exist within the current set up, particularly in regards to the two largest nations in the UK; Scotland, and England. Of course, the devolution settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland both face significant challenges, and many would argue there are other nations within the UK that should be considered, such as Cornwall. But for reasons of space, and in an effort to draw out some of the bigger themes more clearly, we’ll be focusing on these two examples first and foremost.

Naturally, we need to define our key terms – here, the concept of federalism. Federal states divide their power between two key levels of organisation on an equal basis – devolution, the concept that the UK has adopted, implies an unequal power relationship between the centre (the stronger) and the regions (the weaker). Outside the UK, many states have adopted federal systems – two key examples being the United States, and Germany. This post uses federalism as the theme both to be distinct from the post on devolution, and to give indication of one possible future direction – one that has been endorsed by the Liberal Democrats themselves.


During the 1990s, the Labour MP George Robertson declared that the plan to devolve power to Scotland would “kill Nationalism stone dead”. This quote has become something of an embarrassment for Labour since; not only has the primary vehicle for Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party (SNP) thrived, but the Scottish Labour Party has imploded – whereas once it dominated Scotland, it now has a single MP, and is reduced to the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was created as a stronger body than either the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies; with a stronger mandate in the referendum that led to its creation, with the power to modify income tax to raise additional revenue. Since 1999, two further acts of Parliament have transferred additional powers to Scotland – the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. These have granted the Scottish Parliament an array of new powers over areas such as its finances, elections, and criminal law. But this is a reactive process; the UK government is constrained in some sense by the result of elections in Scotland. In 2007, the Scottish people returned a Scottish Parliament where the SNP was (just) the largest party, and they proceeded to form a government. In 2011, despite the electoral system, the SNP won a majority – and negotiations began within months on granting them the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The result of these negotiations was the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on the matter by the end of 2014 (it was eventually held in September 2014) that would be “fair, legal, and decisive”. The result was a lengthy two-year campaign on the matter of whether Scotland should become an independent country, with supporters arguing for a “Yes” vote, and opponents arguing for a “No”. The result, in the end, was that independence was defeated by 55% to 45%, in a referendum where over 80% of Scottish voters turned out.

Of course, as we are all now aware – that was not the end of the matter. In May 2016, despite losing their majority, the SNP were re-elected as the government of Scotland, and with the support of the Greens, had a majority in the Scottish Parliament to vote through a motion for another independence referendum. Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish government has been building an argument for a second referendum in the near future, preferably before the UK leaves the EU, to decide if Scotland should leave the UK. Opponents of this have been seeking to build a case against this; in some cases, by arguing that more powers should be devolved to Scotland.

The two principle reasons for the referendum, identified by supporters of Scottish independence, are the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of a majority Conservative government in Westminster. On the first matter, it is argued that, as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, it should have the right to a different Brexit to the rest of the UK – at the very least. The second matter focuses on the collapse of the Labour Party, which makes the likelihood of a length period in power for the Conservatives extremely high – a government which currently only includes 1 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The first one poses a considerable difficulty for the UK government – it is very unlikely that the UK could negotiate a deal where part of the country leaves the EU less than other parts of the country. So either the government would need to disappoint its own supporters, or risk alienating Scottish opinion further. On the second point, it is worth noting that it is by no means a fixed situation that the Conservative Party will only have 1 MP in Scotland come 2020. The Scottish Conservative Party is now the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, and are consistently polling higher than the Scottish Labour Party. The possibility that the Westminster Parliament elected in 2020 might contain more than a single Scottish Conservative MP should not be understated.

In summary, the issue here is that Scotland’s government is positioning itself to try and remove Scotland entirely from the UK; causing a considerable domestic issue for Westminster to face. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the cause, the issue here is how much the UK – traditionally a unitary state – can accommodate such a movement well enough to relieve these strains on the whole.


The ‘gap’ in devolution is England. Outside of London, the devolution process has been fitful – a series of “metro mayors”, which will first be elected this May, representing further devolution of power to local regions. But, unlike in the other nations of the UK, there is no consistent pattern of devolution across the whole nation. In 2004, the Labour government held a referendum on the creation of a devolved assembly for the North East of England – a proposal that was defeated by 77%-23%. After that, the matter went quiet for a while, but it has since re-emerged, partly due to the process of devolution elsewhere.

The key issue was succinctly posed by former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who termed it the “West Lothian Question”. This asked how it could be right that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation affecting only England, but English MPs could not do the same for Scotland. There were some efforts to try and take the edge off this question – by reducing the number of Scottish MPs in particular – but the fact remained that the question was without a satisfactory answer in Westminster. In 2015, the newly elected majority Conservative government introduced a rule called “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons decides if a bill contains provisions that only apply to England (or England and Wales). During the passage of the bill through the House of Commons, a new stage has been introduced, where only English (and perhaps Welsh MPs) may sit and consider a “motion of consent” to the legislation, and then vote on whether to grant it or not.

EVEL is, however, at best a temporary measure. As academics like John Curtice have noted, there is an emerging English identity – it is much less intense than that of Scotland or Wales, and it is often overlapped with Britishness – but there is an emerging identity within England, and an emerging discourse within that identity about England’s place in the UK, particularly with regards to devolution. As Englishness continues to grow within the UK – even if it is conflated with Britishness – the question over what to do about England will become more pressing.

What compounds this issue is that England is very unlike any other state in any federal country in the world. In none of the current federal democratic states does one state control such a large share of the landmass, or share of the population, or share of the wealth, as England does within the UK. Giving England as a whole a devolved Parliament would present considerable challenges to do with the relative power of that Parliament against the other devolved assemblies; and against Westminster itself. But breaking England into smaller units poses questions of identity and effectiveness – whilst some regions have clear identities (Yorkshire being a key example) others, like the South East, have a variety of much smaller identities and other challenges, such as a lack of a clear urban centre to take on the role of ‘capital’ of that region.

What is clear, however, is that England and the English are not going to go away. Like any nation, England is an imagined community – the English are people who imagine a story about themselves. This story covers their history, language, culture, relationship with the divine, values, and more. Nations like to have institutions that can represent and embody their story to the world; to defend their values, cherish their history, and so on. Just because these communities are imagined, however, does not make them less powerful or indeed less real to the people who live within them. If the English nation continues to expand, then the pressure for a settlement for the whole of the UK will grow. The UK government will then face a similar situation to Scotland – mounting pressures for change, and limited tools to relieve that pressure.

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