I have felt like something of a voice in the wilderness at times on this blog, advocating for equal devolution of powers from Westminster to the four home nations of the United Kingdom, to the extent that have almost questioned my sanity that something so self-evidently sensible and obvious to me should be so opaque and avant-garde an idea to almost everyone writing a newspaper column or appearing as a TV news talking head.
And so I am seizing on the words of Allister Heath with all the enthusiasm at my disposal. Apparently I am not alone after all. Addressing the question of Scottish independence and the upcoming referendum, Heath writes:
But that doesn’t mean that the status quo is right either. The UK’s constitution has been an irrational and unsustainable shambles since the Scotland Act of 1998; this can only be resolved satisfactorily if the process that started with Scottish devolution is now taken to its logical conclusion.
Following what we must hope will be a resounding “no” vote, we need to adopt a new, fully federal model for the UK inspired by the US, Canadian, Swiss and other similar systems that share power properly between the centre and autonomous provinces or states. England needs to have its own parliament, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be given greater rights and responsibilities, and all component nations of the UK need to start living within their means, raising as much tax as they spend.
This is heartening for two reasons – firstly because it validates my own thinking, but with the persuasive articulacy of someone who writes weekly columns in a national newspaper. It is absolutely right to assert that the devolution process begun in 1998 put our country into a state of limbo, but I would go further and argue that the UK’s constitution has been a shambles for many decades and indeed centuries prior to that. This tends to be the case in older countries that have eschewed revolution or invasion in recent times, but while conservatism would tend to urge an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, our constitutional underpinning and the way that our country functions is of such fundamental importance that I cast the “traditionally conservative” attitude aside in favour of the reforms advocated by Heath.
Secondly, Heath’s joining the argument for a federal solution is heartening because he addresses the financial aspect in a mature and sensible way. Making the four home nations responsible for their own taxation would allow for that all-too-rare thing, variety, to take root in the UK. The four countries could experiment with setting tax rates in line with local preferences to achieve local ends, and the redistributionist pipe dreams of some of the nationalist parties (SNP, I’m looking at you) once and for all. Heath expands on this thinking, conferring upon the home nations the financial autonomy enjoyed by the states of the US plus a little bit more:
Crucially, the UK’s four component-nations should not merely have the right to spend money but also the responsibility to raise it; they would have their own tax systems, running in parallel with a much reduced UK-wide HMRC. The four nations ought to be able to cut and hike taxes, and would be under great pressure to balance their budgets. They should have the right to issue their own debt, which would not have sovereign status and would not be guaranteed by the UK.
Absolutely right. Of course there will always be a place for HMRC, because certain tax policy (such as import/export duty) must remain common to all. But giving the home nations the right to set their own tax rates on the “big ones” like income tax and corporation tax is absolutely the right thing to do. This could even present the ideal opportunity to do away once and for all with the laughable notion that National Insurance is somehow separate from income tax – let the people see what their real effective tax rate is when NI is factored in to a single tax rate and see what they think of their overall tax burden then.
The UK has suffered from a dearth of political competition for too long. At times I have really struggled to differentiate between the views of the coalition government and the Labour opposition in terms of attitude to the proper size and scope of the state. Sure, the Conservatives may talk the small government talk, but in no way have they boldly walked the walk. Four powerful national assemblies under the auspices of the Westminster parliament would allow for some real diversity in our islands, diversity of ideas and yes, diversity of outcomes.
The end result of all of this would be political settlements more closely attuned to the moods of the local electorates, and therefore more democratic in the true sense of the word. Heath fast-forwards the clock and imagines the likely power dynamics in a newly-federal UK:
In a federal UK, England would probably be run by a pro-market Tory government (or, intriguingly, a Tory-Ukip coalition) with the UK as a whole controlled by Labour, at least in the short term. We could see radical tax cuts in England and elsewhere as leaders vie to grab business. Northern Ireland, in particular, is ripe for drastic supply-side reforms to rejuvenate its economy. This new dynamic would better reflect electoral preferences and would allow rival political ideologies to be tested simultaneously in different parts of the country.
In short, this call for a federal United Kingdom is the complete antithesis to Gordon Brown’s cack-handed intervention in the Scottish independence debate (which I dissected here), in which he proposed a raft of discriminatory (to the rest of the UK) special perks and privileges to be carved out for Scotland as a bribe to their electorate in advance of the referendum. That foolish proposal has all the hallmarks of Brown – short term political manoeuvering to achieve a tactical outcome at the great expense of a broader strategic goal (the strategic goal being the more efficient and democratic governance of the UK as a whole).
The side of democracy, transparency and common-sense needs more articulate advocates, and today we can add Allister Heath to the ranks. Where he picks up, may many more soon follow.