Federalism: thick file of thin responses

By Professor James Mitchell

The original Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA) was established a month after Gladstone introduced his 1886 Irish Home Rule Bill. Despite its name, the SHRA was a campaign for some form of federalism. Charles Waddie, SHRA founder, claimed to have invented the term ‘home rule all round’ and a quarter of a century later he was still warning against the ‘blunder’ of ‘taking up home rule for Ireland first and only’. But the SHRA never moved beyond advocating a symmetrical solution to the Irish Question.

And so began a pattern that would be repeated down the years. As Stein Rokkan, Norwegian political scientist, noted over thirty years ago, ‘any attempt to solve one peripheral problem cannot be insulated from the rest of the state: a spillover effect is almost inevitable’. The stock response became ‘federalism’, home-rule-all-round or some variation. The problem is that this is as far as the response tends to get.

The (Kilbrandon) Royal Commission on the Constitution dismissed ‘separatism and federalism’ in one section of its report in 1973. Kilbrandon noted that there was ‘very little demand for federalism in Scotland and Wales, and practically none at all in England’ and that it ‘would probably be regarded by the British people as a strange and artificial system not suited to their present stage of constitutional development’. If it is suited to the UK today then it has yet to find a serious advocate or much popular support.

There have been occasional efforts to add substance to the slogan of federalism. In 1982, Christopher Harvie offered a blueprint for a ‘British Bundesrepublik’ in a Fabian pamphlet when he proposed eight English regions – Northumbria, Lancaster, York, Mercia, Wessex, Anglia, London and the Downs – and a reformed House of Lords along the lines of the German Bundesrat. But powerful objections emerge as soon as anyone offers to draw lines on the map.

More recently, David Melding, Tory Deputy Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, has argued for a federal UK in a couple of books. Others have repeated Melding’s arguments but with little effort to add anything. Melding’s thoughtful contributions remind us that the case for federalism remains at the stage of trying to convince people of the general principle.

Federalism or some variant was proposed when devolution was debated in the 1980s but never moved beyond slogan. In 1983, Robin Cook advocated federalism after his conversion to devolution. Over a decade later, Gordon Brown argued that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly ‘go hand in hand with the offer of greater regional democracy throughout Britain’. The party that most consistently offered federalism as a symmetrical solution to asymmetrical demands has been the Liberal (Democratic) Party. Requests for information on the party’s policies on federalism over many years created a thick file of thin responses. No advocate of federalism came close to offering a blueprint.

There are many questions that need to be resolved. Amongst these are:

  • what are the units of the UK federal state and what is to be done with England?
  • what powers are to be granted to the federal government and its components and should they be symmetrical?
  • how are the components of the state to be represented, if at all, at the centre and can UK federalism be considered separate from House of Lords reform?
  • how will this new federal state be reformed – does it require a formal written entrenched constitution and would reform require double majorities – a majority of the popular vote plus a majority (or unanimity) in each of its components?
  • how might powers be changed (extended or decreased) in any component and can further change only occur for one or all?
  • And what of Parliamentary sovereignty however mythical but still inhibiting constitutional reform in the UK?

The refusal to confront these questions may simply be because there is little point until people are convinced of the case for federalism in principle. The problem is that these questions are intimately part of this first stage.

Any modern democracy should be able to address or at least find a means to address these (and many more) questions. But federalism, home-rule-all-round and the other symmetrical responses to the UK’s current constitutional imbroglio require more than chanting federalism. There is no lack of advocates of the principle of federalism. What is absent is evidence of popular support or anything approaching a workable scheme.


James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK (Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @JamesJameswr.

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