Thursday, 9 June 2011

We need a federal UK, and positive reasons for the Union

The United Kingdom as it stands has become unsustainable. The tensions and imbalances unleashed by the half-formed devolution currently being employed are slowly pulling the country apart. In Scotland, the Nationalist SNP won a decisive victory in May and is planning to hold a referendum on independence in 2015. As things stand the nationalists will lose that vote, because most Scots currently want to remain part of the UK (roughly 30% favour independence, although more will vote SNP for Holyrood),1 but opinion could shift and the calls for ever more devolution could make a sustainable settlement hard to maintain.

At the same time, grumbling in England about their own lack of devolution is threatening to turn bad tempered, further fraying the fabric the Union. The fact that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on purely English matters is patently unfair. So, while neither Scotland are England so far look likely to declare independence anytime soon,2 the long term direction is unstable.

Why does that matter? Well there are all sort of reasons I could give - the fact that Scotland would be bankrupt now thanks to the financial crisis were it not part of a larger union, the deeply uncertain future of the European Union and the fate of small countries in a world of giants (USA, India, China, Russia, Brazil), but actually my real reasons for supporting the existence of the United Kingdom are much more positive. Quite simply I think that the country is greater than the sum of its parts. It gains something by binding historic nations and units into something more encompassing and cohesive. Scotland and Wales gain by being part of a larger unit, giving them a voice on the world stage and a less parochial politics and society than they might otherwise have, while England gains by being taken out of itself, given a broader world view and made slightly less subservient to the needs of London and the South East.

All of us gain through the freedom of movement and more importantly, belonging, we can enjoy as part of the UK. I refuse to accept that any of us should be foreigners in any part of this island. I claim as much ownership over the hills of Devon as I do over the mountains of Mull. Cardiff is as much my homeland as Edinburgh.

Finally, and personally, there is something nice in being part of a country that is not purely based on historic ethnic boundaries. Born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in Ireland, Scotland and England I can feel 'British' far more easily than Scottish or English. My Chinese-Indian-Irish partner feels the same. She can assimilate into a broad 'British' identity far more easily than Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, English, Orcadian or whatever.

So what can those of us who support the union do? Well first of all we need to make the case for the Union and hope that the SNP's referendum fails, but more importantly we need to begin a radical reform. I am in favour of a Federal approach. The United Kingdom would have a Federal Parliament responsible for Foreign Affairs, Defence, dispensing federal funds etc.. while each of the nations would have a State or national government. In order to improve regional representation, these state governments could have further autonomous regions (this is common in many countries). For example Shetland could become and autonomous region of the state of Scotland in the UK, if they so wished. I would also encourage cities to have mayors and councils. At the same time I would also like to see the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies given the offer of joining the federation and electing an MP or two, while not diminishing their current autonomy. While proud and independent, these people also feel strong ties to the UK and should be allowed to be part of the new federation, as equals. If they declined they could stay as they are.

Of course all these arrangements would require much greater fiscal autonomy than is currently offered to the devolved governments, although there would still be a federal fund for emergencies, bail-outs etc. Obviously there would be a lot of complications on the way, but I think if we did all that, we might have made a crucial first step to a prosperous, democratic and stable United Kingdom. Oh, and let's make it green as a priority while were at it!

1 Recent polls for Yougov, take after the SNP victory, put support for separation at 29%, with 58% opposed. Another for TNS showed 36% in favour, 45% opposed. While higher, TNS normally gets slightly higher results in favour of independence and this is in line with their normal fndings, probably due to the wording of the question. Opposition to independence remains fairly static.

2 While there does not appear to be any great shift in pro-independence feeling, supporters of the Union would be most unwise to be complacent. Alex Salmond is a highly capable and popular politician, has momentum and his personal popularity could be decisive in any referendum – particularly compared to the poor, negative character of many of his opponents!


  1. "the deeply uncertain future of the European Union and the fate of small countries in a world of giants"

    All the more reason for getting serious about a proper federal Europe of a hundred flags. A federal UK (and the UK as it stands) would still be small fry in the land of giants as you put it. A truly federal Europe made up of autonomous states such as Scotland, Brittany, Wales, Basque Country, Cornwall, Flanders, South Tyrol, would be more than a match for the big Russian neighbour however.

    A federal Britain then perhaps but only as a stepping stone to a much more effective federal Europe.

    BTW I hope you'll include Cornwall in your plans for a federal UK. You can read more about our movement here:

  2. At last! A rational and thoughtful piece by a Unionist. SO far - even from the quality press and senior politicians - all we have seen is knee-jerk opposition to the result in Scotland - hectoring bullying stuff which can only play into the hands of the secessionists.

    The days of the unitary, centralist Union are over, but most unionists are in a state of denial about it - that attitude is doomed to be defeated. The federal route is the only possible outcome that preserves the union and satisfies the desire of autonimy within the devolved countries - and England.

    A small point, but you said "the deeply uncertain future of the European Union and the fate of small countries in a world of giants"

    I would remind you that Luxembourg with a population of half a million (small in other words is the most prosperous country per head of population in the world.

  3. Hi Sionnyn, thanks for your kind words - I would argue that Luxembourg is not a useful example to most countries - since it benefits hugely from hosting European institutions - prosperous though it is! My point about the European Union is that future and direction of that Union no longer looks certain. Nationalists in European States have often said that they would be independent in an increasingly federal and tightly bound Europe - so what difference would it make if they left the UK/Spain/France... I would argue that that is no longer the case.

    I am fully in favour of the EU but I think we must be realistic and accept that it will not become its own federation any time soon, and indeed the momentum is heading the other way.

  4. The plan needs a title though -- '10 region federalism' or something.