Has the time come for a Federal Britain?

Blair gave independence referendums to two countries of the UK and began to do the same with the regions – crucially without suggesting the actual overall system. Scotland and Wales got their devolution whereas England, in the end, did not. It is very typical of the piecemeal approach of, what the French call ‘Anglo Saxon’ countries. ‘Grand plans’ are for others. Muddle and practicality is the substitute. There was certainly no proper constitutional plan and Brexit demonstrates all too clearly that that there still isn’t.

In the light of the rather subdued SNP proposals on independence, and with Scottish independence already rejected once, there is clearly hesitance by many on absolute independence.

I think federal proposals would be much more likely to be easily accepted – indeed I’d like them for regions of England.

For England, because of its large population compared with either Scotland or Wales, there would need to be regional assemblies. These would probably have to substitute for larger councils which would need to be abolished and merged, so that England is not overgoverned (which I would argue is already the case in Scotland and Wales, which to me is suggested by some quite long recesses of the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments). It is true that English regions are often ill defined and variable but we could start by making regions always coterminate with existing counties and perhaps we could enlist royal help – after all Prince Harry seems fairly well federalised: Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dunbarton and Baron Kilkeel – that’s a whole pub crawl of possibilities.

Decision making powers and responsibilities would have to be carefully specified. We do not want to alter the basic English and Welsh legal system, I would argue – not least as it often comprises a ‘service export’. Scotland, of course, already has its own independant legal system – albeit sharing a United Kingdom Supreme Court..

The most appealing part of regional and state federalism is that it brings more decision making closer to the voter, whilst at the same time distributing the overheads of a functioning state among as many people as possible. (Brexit is teaching us that overheads are better shared). So embassies would still be found in every country of the world (something which is noticeably lacking for the 5 million odd citizens of Ireland, for example), general trading standards can be common, control of air space and defence would all be standard. And probably because Britain – and especially England – is a crowded island there is less possibility of much difference between countries or regions especially when compared with the vast expanses of, say, America or Canada.

Yet if Scotland went completely independent would or should the remains of the UK still be on the UN security Council? At a time when Europe is struggling, against American inconsistency, to support the treaties it has signed, is it really the moment for what is theoretically at least, the world’s oldest Parliamentary democracy to crash out of those responsibilities it still has? Britain is no longer powerful enough to be able to plow its own furrow alone. It needs to beware of ‘hostile environments’….

All this seems, perhaps, to leave things not be much different from now.

A more substantial difference could be added. This would be a requirement for every country or region to have their own currency, which would be both physical and digital. This would be legitimised by the devolved state or region accepting it in payment for council charges and local taxes. I would anticipate that, in turn, all businesses would choose to accept the local currrency where thay had operations in that jurisdiction. Each currency would be exchangeable £ for £ with Sterling within its own area, but not generally outside it, building on what the Bristol pound, usually reckoned to be the most sophisticated local currency in Europe, has already achieved. Clearly the devolved state or region is likely to be predominantly dependant on central government finance but this local currency creation would give headroom for spending never to be wholly dependant on the central authority and give increased local control – and accountability. Indeed it might be good for prosperity to require local banks to print the physical money (as in Scotland, say – but with the proviso that these banks could not be nationally owned).

When England’s central bank (started, of course, by two Scotsmen 15 years before the Act of Union) has become a model for the rest of the world there is no obvious reason why Britain could not pioneer a second financial concept: a single currency with subsidiary currencies. Indeed, if the ECB wants to survive, the Euro might even copy it

This would probably leave the House of Commons with looking after only those ‘overhead’ areas of common control. Then perhaps the Lords should become a chamber of co-opted federal representatives?

Radical constitutional change has long been needed, though there seems little hope of much in the near future. Am I the only one feeling that whilst we don’t any longer have any tally sticks to burn to precipitate the shake up of our over centralised, currently incompetent government, since the Palace of Westminster is at the moment, alleged to be in such a disastrous state of repair, that perhaps we should harbour the desire that one of their plagues of mice find their way to chew through sufficient electric cables to achieve a similar result?

That would be a new story of mice and men.

I hope that federal change will arrive first.


  1. Andy Crow -

    I don’t think there’s much appetite for regionalising the UK is there ?

    For the idea to take off, we’d need to see a level of engagement in local politics which seems to have declined. Centralising of government has been very much the trend for the past four decades and although some of us recognise this, I don’t think there is a widespread, strong sense of needing and wanting to take back control. Let alone the energy and engagement to make it function.

    Does the majority of the UK populus actually want to control the surroundings and society in which they live ? My impression is that the majority is quite happy to have ‘delegated responsibility to the ‘professionals’ both politicians and technocrats.

    I don’t believe there would be much electoral support for an independent Wessex. The links and tradition have evaporated and the sense of identity with it. Not so in Scotland where that feeling of ‘national identity’, though not universal, is widespread.

    If we get it it on reasonable terms, Scottish Independence might just lead the way to regions seeing that their interests are not best served by a centralising WM government and cotton-on that actually it could be different (and better).

    I think such a realisation is fair and far off. Even in Scotland a ‘YES’ result in Indyref2 is not a foregone conclusion.

    1. Peter May -

      I think there might be if regions had their own currency as well. That’s a great incentive to improve the emasculated local control we have now…
      And I see a chap from Norway is actually promoting a similar idea for the Euro

      1. Andy Crow -

        I’ve been considering this notion of regional currencies.

        It might have some possible advantages as the Bristol pound seems to show (though I admit to not being well-up on how well that is operating). But the Bristol currency runs alongside Sterling and does not replace it.

        But the model of regional pounds exchangeable at parity is a kind of nonsense I think.

        If it says ‘pound’ on it and it looks like a pound, spends like a pound and has the same value as a pound …effectively it is a pound.

        So not a lot has changed. think you’d be creating a miniature common currency not unlike the Euro and with the same inherent tensions which are widely anticipated to be going to destroy it and in the meantime are causing economic havoc across the Eurozone..

        I don’t think this idea looks, waddles, and quacks like duck; I think it lies on the ground very still, is silent and smells rather like a dead duck.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      We had a referendum for a regional assembly in the NE about a decade ago which was soundly defeated

      I think the UK is far too centralised and very badly run

      There seems however to be a near religious belief in Westminster being the mother of all parliaments almost akin to papal infallibility

      I would love to see a properly devolved UK but it will take a major constitutional crisis for any chance of this to happen

      1. Peter May -

        Yes, and I think Westminster’s infallability is if anything, even less credible than the Pope’s!

    3. Graham -

      The issues always seem to be presented, (from a UK/English perspective) as “the Irish problem” or “the Scottish problem”. Language matters, it conditions all our thoughts. The real problem is “the English problem”, but it’s never raised, or hardly ever.

      Anthony Barnett in “The Lure of Greatness..” dissects the English problem very convincingly.

  2. Andy Crow -

    Sean and Peter, you both refer to the doctrine of papal infallibility, so I feel it safe to wonder aloud what went through my head in response to the Abortion referendum result last week.

    I wondered if now, or even maybe as it will be viewed with historical perspective, the referendum result will be seen in terms of the democratic overturn of a long standing tradition of hierarchical church/religious power in Ireland.

    From where I’m sitting it looks like a ‘watershed’ moment.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The abortion referendum is very interesting for a number of reasons and I will try to put something together next week

      1. Samuel Johnson -

        Don’t forget to mention Noel Browne & Mother & Child scheme in yr overview.


        Fintan O’Toole interview on CNN. Speaks for me. (Was on staff of student paper with him & Mary Raftery at UCD).

      2. Sean Danaher -

        I return from the Scottish Highlands tomorrow but it will take a few days to write so probably towards the end of the week for the Article

      3. Sean Danaher -

        thanks, I had forgotten about the Mother and Child scheme. Esteemed company, Fintan is very commonly referenced her at PP. Shame that Mary died so young. I was in UCD from 1973-1981, though much of the latter was spent at the Harvard Smithsonian.

    2. Samuel Johnson -

      It’s a bit of a season of watershed moments and 100 year anniversaries of same. Or is it? Which is the watershed moment, the moment things changed, or the moment they officially changed, or the moment the rest of the world noticed?

      Once again we had a vote in Ireland in which the international media including, to its discredit, the BBC, spent time making sure it got and used pictures and video of nuns voting.

      To understand how inane this looks to an Irish person try to imagine the international media desperate to record imagery of Chelsea Pensioners voting during a British general election, and focusing on that instead of any aspect of party policies.

      The “But I thought”s amount to gormlessness. The Dublin London air route is the busiest international route in the world. English is the vernacular. How hard could it be to not have an outdated, patronising and frankly half-witted view of a neighbouring country? But it is too much to ask it seems. Change discombobulates the British, who like things to stay the same.

      Sean will write more, but in the meantime I can say this: the power of the Catholic church was both real and exaggerated. The church opposed all rebellions against British that ever took place. They occurred anyway. The Irish have been more than comfortable leaving their guns at the church door, using them later to kill and injure British soldiers, then summoning a priest to provide the last
      rites. This moral flexibility is deeply inherent in the psyche of colonised people who may feel that compliance with laws imposed by a foreign power are in some respects negotiable.

      The Catholic Church and the British were both foreign powers that ultimately failed to subdue the Irish.

      Is the collapse of Irish Catholicism’s Maginot line a watershed moment? Yes and no. Symbolically, yes, sure. Otherwise, hardly. After all, at bottom the issue was whether people should be forced to have abortions abroad or not, not whether they did or not have abortions. What was exploded was the culture of keeping up the appearance of compliance. When people discover they are in the majority it has a liberating effect in empowering them to validate new norms and resist convention.

      The next events I expected were

      1. Removal of Section 68 of the Education Act (allows schools to admit preferentially on a religious basis)
      2. Ending the broadcasting of the bongs of the Angelus at 6pm by the state broadcaster RTÉ.

      These are watersheds of sorts on the way to a separation of church and state. Ireland never had an established religion and has always just given the nod, in various ways, to the majority creed. Allowing the church to run various kinds of social welfare, eg,
      because why not? Well, nr 1 is on the table already.

      When the Angelus is finally ended, in recognition of the fact that Ireland is now a diverse multicultural and multidenominational society, THAT will be a hugely symbolic watershed moment. The last Angelus bong will be like the Union flag coming down in Hong Kong.

      1. Peter May -

        Agree that the media love a cliché and the BBC reporting seems to be Sun standard, of which they should be deeply ashamed. But I’m not sure that the Irish can lay claim to be a colonised by foreigners when they had among their number, Wellington, Castlereagh and Palmerston, who would on a similar basis seem to have colonised the English. It’s rather like suggesting that Peterloo was a result of the British colonising Manchester.

      2. Andy Crow -

        Peter, I’m sure that great ‘British’ (!) wit, author and raconteur, Oscar Wilde would have an apposite epithet to offer on the subject 🙂

      3. Andy Crow -

        Thanks for that Samuel.

        As you say, we English have our very distorted view of Ireland and the Irish and I’m finding Sean’s observations illuminating and I thank you for yours.

        Interesting question on where watersheds are in reality as opposed to perception. So much depends on who is doing the perceiving I suppose.

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