We Need A Federal United Kingdom, Not Just More Powers To Scotland


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.


7 thoughts on “We Need A Federal United Kingdom, Not Just More Powers To Scotland

  1. thelyniezian January 17, 2014 / 9:00 PM

    I’m one person who agrees with you on the idea of a federal UK…

    …though again I still think that should include multiple English regions as states! (For example I don’t think up here in the North-East they would welcome a Tory-dominated England, when most people up here are staunch Labour. Unless you move the border of Scotland to just south of the Tees. UKIP is another matter, as they seem in part to be trying to go after Labour voters and perhaps even fill in for those generally disaffected with the whole three-party system, by offering something for all. Doesn’t stop a lot of people from disliking them.)

    The problem with devolution at the moment, let alone Gordon Brown’s proposals, is that it is both unfair and non-uniform. It doesn’t even make sense that there should be one sort of arrangement for Scotland, and other for Wales etc. and England doesn’t have anything but Westminster, in which Scots MPs can vote, whereas English MPs have no say on matters pertaining to Scotland alone. This view, even with a single English Parliament would be better.


    • Semi-Partisan Sam January 17, 2014 / 10:31 PM

      Totally agree with you on the “West Lothian Question” aspect about the need for votes pertaining to English matters being voted on only by English MPs.

      I also find it confusing and embarrassing to explain to friends and my American family-in-law the weird setup of my country, and the fact that the UK is one country, albeit one with some upstart countries-within-countries that sometimes pretend to the outside world that they are independent. But then I suppose my shame and irritation isn’t a good reason to alter the constitution.

      The only area where you and I part company is on the question of the English regions. I quite agree that people from the north of England would likely be quite peeved at having a Conservative-dominated English Assembly. But I think you can take this line of argument to extremes – certain towns or villages even in a specific English region would be politically out of place with the rest of the region, rather like the Democratic-leaning Texan capital Austin and the rest of the state. Rather than worrying about whether people will be upset with the likely political balance of a future assembly, I think it’s more important to base devolution on a level where power is devolved to a places with which people have affinity. People feel Welsh, they feel Scottish and they feel English. A person may be from northern England or the Westcountry, but (unless I’m wildly wrong) the English moniker is stronger. Therefore it makes sense to me that power should be devolved to that level.

      Actually, thinking about it a little more, my main concern would be that a Westminster parliament in Labour control might be more likely to go too soft on Defence, and continue deprioritising the military, nuclear deterrent and our foreign policy muscle in pursuit of their “social justice” goals.


      • thelyniezian January 17, 2014 / 10:49 PM

        I think we also part ways on that last paragraph too- for one thing I’m something of a “technical pacifist” who believes military involvement is best avoided unless absolutely necessary, and at any rate as a small country I wonder whether we really have the resources to have military clout. We are not the old Empire anymore. I’m not even too sure what purpose our independent nuclear deterrent is, since other nations seem to get along fine without it, and really the only real purpose of such a deterrent is to stop major military powers from starting WW3 on each other. At the same time of course, cutting back too much on the military, means that the things it is needed for cannot be serviced, and they are woefully under-equipped to deal with real challenges. I think the Falklands War taught us that lesson if nothing else…

        I might be sold on this if I could see a real need for our having military strength and “foreign policy muscle”, and a nuclear deterrent, but as of yet I’m not. Especially after the debacle that was the Iraq war.

        Your argument that regionalism in political differences can be taken to extremes is true, but I do think there is if nothing else a real North/South divide in England, and nowhere near the English national identity that the Scots and Welsh have. (The Northern Irish being pretty divided?) There is that risk, though whereas the northeast (above Yorkshire) is a Labour heartland, much of Yorkshire is Tory as well as Labour, for example.


        • Semi-Partisan Sam January 17, 2014 / 11:06 PM

          I wholeheartedly agree that military involvement should be a last resort, and deplore failed military ventures such as Iraq – I’m certainly not a neo-conservative! But as you brought up the case of the Falklands, that is exactly why I think we need to maintain a very strong, robust and capable set of armed forces. Were the Falklands to be invaded today, we lack the capacity to repel the invasion. Of course the next flashpoint will not be the Falklands in in most likelihood we will have coalition partners in the most probable future military actions (humanitarian interventions etc.). But a trading nation with far flung interest such as ours does, I feel, need to maintain the ability to defend those interests with overwhelming force.

          As to the nuclear deterrent, I believe that this goes hand-in-hand with our continued presence of the P5 of the UN Security Council. I cannot point to any specific instance, but I’ll wager a fair amount that Britain uses her clout in the UN in all manner of ways that promote our interests – trade agreements and other negotiations, for example. Who knows the number of times that a threatened veto or the promise of support has won concessions for Britain that have benefited us all? The current makeup of the security council may not make much sense, but we benefit from it and our clout largely depends on us remaining a nuclear power.

          Finally, I would take issue with your characterisation of us as a “small country”. I got the sense that you were not just referring to us being small geographically, which is of course undeniable. I wonder why you (and so many others – you’re probably in the majority!) think of our country in this way. The seventh largest economy in the world, global cultural powerhouse, home to perhaps the premier city in the world, home to some of the world’s finest educational and scientific establishments, cradle to so many great inventions, old and new – none of these things seem small to me. In fact, it seems fitting and necessary that a country of our stature should have a formidable military – not to throw around interfering with other countries at will, but to show that our words are backed by strength.

          I can’t help but agree with you on the North/South divide in England, it clearly exists, but I can only point to the fact that there is a similar cultural divide in the United States between the south (the old Confederate states) and the north, and also to some extent between the coastal cities and the heartland in the midwest, but that (despite the urgings of some extremists), no one serious raises the idea of another secession.


          • thelyniezian January 17, 2014 / 11:19 PM

            On the need for a robust armed forces, and on us not entirely being a “small” country (as opposed to a “great” one?)- you’ve certainly made a good case. Still not too sure what a nuclear deterrent is absolutely necessary for with respect to our being a member of the UN Security Council P5 as such, though, except perhaps in terms of the extra “clout”?

            In terms of the US cultural divide- unlike England, it at least has the advantage of occurring in different sets of states. There is only one unified England, as of now.


      • Banjo August 6, 2014 / 6:04 AM

        Holy Toodel, so glad I clicked on this site first!


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