CAN anything stop the independence juggernaut? Those who want to keep the UK together think there is something. It’s called federalism. Lord Steel, the veteran Liberal politician and former Holyrood presiding officer, is the latest to pitch in.

Steel proposes the House of Lords be replaced by 400 members elected by proportional representation, with allocations from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Lord Steel seems to suggest the electors should be MPs and members of the devolved parliament and assemblies (not the general public, so as not to turn the Senate into a rival to the Commons), with each nation’s senators elected only by representatives from that nation. England’s senators would be sub-divided into regional blocs.

Having an appointed chamber of parliament called the House of Lords, stuffed with political appointees, in 2020, is a national embarrassment. It should have been abolished along with top hats and replaced by something democratic. Nobody seriously disagrees with that.

What’s really interesting about Lord Steel’s speech, though, is what it says about giving more of a voice to the nations and regions of the UK. For the last 50 years, a politician making a speech like this would barely have left a ripple, being quietly filed by journalists into the box marked “nerdy”, but there is now a palpable sense of momentum around the idea, especially among those looking for an alternative to independence.

Little has been heard from Lord Steel since he left his party earlier this year after a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse criticised him for failing to act while Liberal Party leader on allegations of child sex abuse relating to the MP Cyril Smith.

He says this is likely to be his last political speech; if so, it comes at a moment when federalism has never been more relevant.

There’s a debate to be had about Steel’s ideas, but you can see how, in general, having a senate of boisterous regional reps from Manchester, Sunderland and Birmingham would boost the profile of the UK regions and make Westminster more responsive to local concerns.

But would a revising chamber representing the nations and regions be enough?

Lord Steel does not deal with arrangements within England, recognising that that is for English voters to decide. But building an argument for federalism that is convincing to Scottish people really depends on what those arrangements are. England accounts for 84 per cent of the UK population. Without the English regions having beefy political assemblies of their own, sceptics argue, then England would continue to operate as one entity in a federal system and its interests would continue to dominate.

Lopsided federations exist elsewhere in the world, but it’s debatable whether one would work here, given the history of strife between Holyrood and Westminster.

As a basic prerequisite, England needs its own parliament. The symbolism of Westminster doubling as the English parliament undermines the idea of the devolved nations as equal partners.

But for a real federalist, ideally England would have greater regional devolution too, because only stronger English regions can change the current balance of power within the UK.

Up until relatively recently there has been limited enthusiasm for ambitious devolution within England, but the growing stature of mayors like Andy Burnham in Manchester or Steve Rotherham in Liverpool, is changing the debate.

And, critically, politicians in England have started to see political advantage in advocating for devolution to the regions, now that a bidding war exists between Labour and the Tories over which cares most about the north. Keir Starmer, who looks more Prime Ministerial with each week that passes, has already backed federalism, proposing taking power away from Westminster and handing it to regional authorities as well as the devolved nations.

Federalism truly has come out of the Lib Dem fringe meeting and onto the national main stage.

It is not a simple idea and has many possible guises; any form of it that looked like a figleaf to cover up continued Westminster dominance would quickly, and rightly, be pulled apart. And you can’t impose federalism on England: English voters have to want it and politicians have to believe voters want it if they are going to make it meaningful.

But the tide of opinion seems to be flowing in that direction.

There is recognition on both sides of the independence debate, in private at least, that in a future referendum federalism would be a harder proposition than the status quo for the pro-independence campaign to face.

Some form of ongoing entanglement between the nations of the UK is realistic in any setting. In 2014, after all, Alex Salmond proposed a shared currency and keeping the monarchy. Total separation isn’t realistic and many SNP thinkers know it.

Prof James Mitchell noted recently that Labour has an opportunity in the constitutional debate as the Tories move to the right. An SNP stroke of genius in 2014, albeit laced with cynicism, was to brand Labour as Tory lapdogs because they opposed independence like the Conservatives. It helped the SNP win over Labour supporters by the barrel-load.

What Labour need this time round, notes Mitchell, is a distinct position from the Tories, a “positive alternative” to offer while the Tories are peddling what the former SNP depute leader Jim Sillars terms “more union”. Federalism gives them that.

Of course independence supporters will laugh at the idea that federalism offers a counter argument to independence. For them it is nowhere near enough to answer their desire for full, unfettered statehood. Federalism does not allow for an independent defence or foreign policy. Nor can it take Scots back into the EU. You stay in a federal UK, you’re stuck with Brexit for the forseeable.

But this is politics and it won’t be full-throated SNP supporters who decide the next referendum: it will be floating voters who believe Scotland is better run from Holyrood but don’t necessarily want the upheaval and uncertainty of independence coming on top of the pandemic recession and Brexit.

Federalism has always been constitutional anorak territory. It isn’t sexy. But pro-UK campaigners believe it could be reassuring to voters who dislike Boris Johnson but may feel unsure about independence come a referendum. It looks like we’re starting to see the battle lines form.

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