By Isobel Lindsay

AFTER Liberal prime minister William Gladstone's two failed attempts to introduce Irish Home Rule, discussion of federalism became quite common in political circles in the late 19th century until the beginning of the First World War.

A contemporary historian, Edward Freeman, commented that the difficulties “may not have come into the heads of some who have glibly used the words 'federal' and 'federation' without stopping to think what they meant”. Not much has changed. While there are some who have given serious thought to the possibilities of turning the UK into a federation, there are too many others for whom the claim of supporting federalism has been something of a political escape route for those wishing to maintain the British state while projecting a reformist image in Scotland.

Just as interest in UK federalism was triggered over a century ago by the Irish problem, so today it is triggered by the Scottish problem. Crucially, it has never been because of the English problem.

The Liberal Party continued to have nominal support for federalism after Gladstone, and this continued when the party became the Liberal Democrats. More recently, former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale expressed an interest in federalism and wanted specific proposals to be considered by a UK constitutional convention.

Individuals like Henry McLeish, former Scottish Labour first minister, have said this is his preferred option (although the Sunday Herald recently reported his developing view that it may be “too late” for federalism). Unfortunately, supporters of federalism are seldom asked what exactly they mean by a federal UK. It is often seen as just a version of devo-max - an increase in powers devolved to UK parliaments. However, federalism would actually represent a far more radical change, and it’s imperative to ask what people really mean when they throw the word “federalism” around.

Federalism is a long-established constitutional system. The United States, Germany, Canada and Australia all provide examples of it in action. Central to federalism is a written constitution which separates powers between a central federal government and state governments.

A federal parliament has the authority within its defined powers to make policy for all of the states. The state legislatures have the authority within their defined powers to make policy for the citizens within them. In the case of a dispute arriving over who holds power, a constitutional court is brought in to settle it.

Different federal systems may have stronger or weaker powers at the centre: there is no fixed formula, but usually foreign policy, defence and monetary policy is at federal level, including significant taxation powers. However, with the growth in the 20th century of welfare systems, there has been a tendency for power in federal systems to drift more towards to the centre.

In confederations, like Switzerland, the model focuses more power on the states, which in turn decide which powers are held at a central, confederate level.

In a federal system, the written constitutions must hold within them legal mechanisms to change the distribution of powers - referendums or majorities of state legislatures, for example. And, of course, there is the sensitive issue of what procedures exist, if any, for states to leave a federation (the Liberal Democrats in their discussion of federalism have described the right to unilateral self-determination as “constitutional nonsense”, for example).

There is no doubt that federal models are common among many successful and stable countries, but would this model be fit for the modern United Kingdom?

At its core, the UK is a single state which has been modified in recent years by varying and uneven degrees of devolution. The powers held by parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differ, leaving the distribution of power in the UK in a somewhat confusing state.

The devolved parliaments have some power to make laws, but those powers could be removed by the Westminster parliament and, given that there is no written UK constitution, a significantly different relationship exists between the parliaments to the kind promoted in federal models.

Nothing has thrust the conflict between parliaments into the limelight as much as Brexit. Basically, when working out the legal detail of devolution, Westminster highlighted all of the powers which it would keep, and anything that wasn’t on the list was thereby put in the hands of devolved parliaments. The problem is that nobody expected the UK to leave the European Union, and no provisions were made for the powers currently under Brussels control.

Now that Brexit is on the horizon, those powers are coming back from Europe and the UK Government wants them, but the devolved parliaments argue that if they weren’t on the original list of the powers Westminster wanted, then they should go straight to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has prompted not only a constitutional crisis, but a political one.

Westminster could amend the 1998 devolution acts in order to get its way, but it would be troublesome. MPs representing areas outside of England, with constituents who want powers held locally, would find themselves in trouble with their voting public if they backed the government.

And so, given that the UK is a multi-national state, it would seem federalism provides a logical solution to an increasingly technical problem, solving the frictions thrown up by the asymmetrical nature of the existing devolution settlement. Well, that brings us to the problem of England. There are only two basic federal models for the UK, and everyone who says they support federalism should decide which one they support.


The first is the Four Nation model, in which the states would be England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There would be no difficulty in defining boundaries between these states as the geographical lines already exist. However, the giant elephant in the room is the huge disparity in size.

England holds 85 per cent of the UK population. Having states within a federation which have very different sizes is not necessarily a problem and in fact is common. However, this generally applies more when talking about federations that hold far more states – like 50, in the US. Varying interests and coalitions tend to even out the disparities in such cases, but when there are only four states and one is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can create a very unstable situation.

At the federal parliament level, federalism works either by allocating equal numbers of representatives to each state, like the US Senate, or by allocating representatives based on the population sizes they represent.

If the UK opted for the former, England would experience a serious democratic deficit. It would find itself in a position where it could always by outvoted by the other three states, or there could be stalemate if there was two versus two. English voters would be entitled to feel unjustly treated if, for example, major public investment decisions at the macro level were made to its disadvantage.

But if seats in the federal parliament were allocated on the basis of population, what would be the difference from the current system in the UK? Scotland would be where it is now: it could still be taken into wars it doesn’t support; it could still be subject to economic policies it didn't want; and it would not be able to make its own decisions about EU membership.

A Four Nation system could have government structures similar to the EU system. Each of the national parliaments could nominate a number of representatives to be government ministers at a federal level, as with the EU Commission. There would also be elections to a federal parliament, like the European Parliament.

This version does not solve the basic problem: would England get the number of ministers in ratio to population, or a much-reduced number to ensure it cannot always outvote the others? Would there be any right of veto in the system for each state?


The second model that could in theory be introduced in the UK would be the three nations model, plus English regional legislatures forming the state level in the system. This would produce an outcome closer to normal federal countries. It would not create a huge democratic deficit for any one area and, given the varied political profiles of the English regions, one could see a different pattern of relationships emerging.

This would mean a new system of regional assemblies in England with power over crime, planning law, local government, health, and higher education. Is there any evidence of enthusiasm for, or even interest in, such radical reforms in England? The answer is no.

There is not currently a political base for change, nor is there much civic campaigning for English regional government as there was at one period in the 1980s/90s. In that period, the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament worked with the Welsh campaign, some groups in Northern Ireland and campaigns for assemblies in the north-east and north-west of England, Humberside and London.

There was support from the reform organisation, Charter 88, which was very active in the period. There were some shared conferences and there was at least some real enthusiasm, if not the breadth and depth of support that there was in Scotland. But even then, there were some major geographic gaps in interest – not much around the midlands or the home counties.

There was little real interest in English regional government in the 1997 Labour government - apart from former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who campaigned for devolution in the north of England - and there was even less in Whitehall.

Serious English regionalism would have meant transferring substantial powers from the centre. Eventually, proposals for a north-east assembly were produced, with very weak powers and the requirement of a referendum. The vote was lost by a huge margin, with 78 per cent against. That put an end to any further initiatives. The argument was that if you could not come close to winning in a region with such a strong sense of identity, there was no real demand.

Today, because almost all the recent talk about UK federalism has been about offering an alternative to Scottish independence, not about a serious commitment to constitutional reform, there has been a lack of content and rigour in the debate. Instead of the problem of England being central, it has been treated almost as an afterthought.

As we can see, a true federal system would be very difficult to introduce in the UK. In the Four Nation form it would either be very unfair to England or it would largely replicate just what we have now.

In the Three Nations plus English Regions form it would create a more balanced model but would be hugely difficult to implement and lacks popular support.

In either form, Scotland would still be left with no right to choose its preferred international relationships, no right to control major aspects of its economic policy and probably limited control over its fiscal policy.

Perhaps a far better option, which would work both under the existing constitutional settlement and with Scottish independence, would be to build on the British-Irish Council and create a Council of the Isles, within which extensive cooperation could develop involving Ireland as well as the existing UK members.

Isobel Lindsay is a board member of Scotland's economic and political think-tank, Common Weal