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Federalism – Murdo Fraser MSP

This post by Murdo Fraser, which first appeared in the Sunday Times on 20 September 2015, is a summary of a chapter from a forthcoming publication, ‘Reforming Scotland’, produced by Reform Scotland.

The ‘F word’ is on everyone’s lips. In the UK, this is not new. Nearly a century ago, federalism of the UK was considered as a response to the threat of Irish secession. Yet, despite it having been official Liberal and then Liberal Democrat policy for many decades, the time has never seemed right to make much progress.

But what exactly is federalism? And why might it now provide a route forward for the UK constitution, when the pressures on the Union appear to be greater than ever?

At its core, federalism is the belief that sovereignty is entrenched at each layer of government, as opposed to the current UK constitutional position whereby all sovereignty rests with Westminster.

Under a federal system, each tier of government has substantial responsibility for raising the money that it spends, although there will always be a degree of cross-subsidy whereby the stronger states or regions support the weaker, in order to provide a sense of cohesion and shared risk and reward. Within a federal system, the general rule is that the federal parliament cannot override decisions taken at a state or regional level. The balance of power and responsibility is clear.

From a Scottish perspective, the most significant difference in creating a federal state would be that the existence of the Scottish Parliament would be entrenched in a written constitution.

Indeed, creating a federal system within the UK might be achievable without the perception of a great deal of change from the perspectives of those living in Scotland. The real difficulty with federalism in a UK context has always been this: what to do about England.

There are various answers to this question, and it goes without saying that the question about how England should be governed is a matter for the English people themselves.

It would be entirely possible to create a new English parliament, with powers similar to those held at Holyrood. In theory, this might make perfect sense, but in practice, such an arrangement would cause difficulty. It is hard to find examples of any working federal systems anywhere in the world where one of the sub-national states has 85% of the total population, and the overwhelming share of the wealth.

The alternative approach is to federate within England itself. But however logical this might seem as a solution, there is very little interest amongst the English people for this sort of regional government.

A more contemporary approach is already underway. We have seen developments towards more local autonomy, perhaps the most interesting of which has been in London, where the establishment of the London Assembly and the position of elected Mayor, both seen as radical innovations when first proposed, are now overwhelmingly accepted. We have the current Conservative Government now pursuing an active programme of devolution of administrative power to English cities, starting with Manchester.

So we could move to a situation, fairly quickly, of a network of strong city regions with devolved administrative powers. There will also be historic counties with a strong identity, such as Yorkshire or Cornwall, who could look to acquire additional local control. One can foresee the map of England filling up with a patchwork of local units, probably not identical in geographic size, population or wealth, but all having an identifiable local focus.

These would be areas of administrative devolution, not legislative. It is difficult to imagine the people of England wanting different laws to apply in Yorkshire from those in Lancashire, for example. But administrative devolution will be significant in reducing the over-centralised power of Westminster, whilst leaving legislative control for the whole country in London.

That would leave a de facto English parliament, sitting within the House of Commons at certain times, or at certain times of the week, following the implementation of EVEL.

This would not be pure federalism in any sense, more likely “quasi-federalism” as suggested by the Society of Conservative Lawyers. But the history of the development of the UK constitution has been one of incremental change, and messy, but working, compromises, which in theory make very little sense, but in practice can hang together very well. It would be a very British solution to an historic problem.

And it would also allow us to deal, for good, with two other constitutional problems which are seemingly irresolvable: the West Lothian Question and reform of the House of Lords. The latter could be replaced with a Senate, providing equal representation for each federated part of the UK, thus providing the requisite political balance and an appropriate counterweight to the House of Commons, with its own electoral mandate.

Crucially, federalism provides the potential for a permanent, lasting, stable, political framework for the UK. It is one of the weaknesses of devolution that it is, as the former Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davis once said: “a process, not an event”. In contrast, federalism is an event, not a process.

Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.