Federalism in the UK

Sir Anthony Meyer

By Sir Anthony Meyer

For the past year Federal Union has been the British member of the UEF, and its aims are, as they always have been, those of the UEF, that is to say the promotion of a European Union closely integrated on federal principles, and with strengthened democratic accountability and built in safeguards for human and civil rights. Federal Union in the UK also included World Federalists, and for that reason, if for no other, we include among our aims the eventual creation of some kind of world federal governance, although most of us regard that as a desirable but extremely distant prospect. I myself prefer to point to the example which shared sovereignty in a federal system can offer to other areas, particularly in Latin America, and as a preparatory step for those states in Central and Eastern Europe waiting to join the European Union.

But, by an extraordinary paradox, the British, who bequeathed federal constitutions to their former dominions when they became independent, have allowed themselves to be deceived by their political leaders and their strange popular press into equating federalism with centralisation (whereas, of course, it means the exact opposite). Canada and Australia thrive with federal constitutions which enable them to combine effective safeguarding of their national interests with wide devolution of decision-taking to the constituent states. The British indignantly reject such an idea for themselves. They are blissfully unaware that they are actually living in the most highly centralised state in Western Europe.

It is Federal Union’s role to dispel this misunderstanding. We start from a very low base. Over the past forty years Federal Union in the UK has played a role analogous to that played by those few monks in the Dark Ages who kept the flickering flames of learning alive in their closed monasteries. We have been a tiny band of devoted men and women addressing mainly ourselves. We are now trying to erect something a bit more ambitious and to recruit more widely, but it is going to be a slow process. We are still fighting against the obstinate misconceptions as to the true meaning of federalism. Misconceptions which were greatly strengthened by Mrs Thatcher whose ghost is still able to terrify many Conservative politicians and whose political demise is still regretted by some newspapers. So much so that even strongly pro-European Conservative politicians (and, indeed, there are some) seem to feel it necessary to deny that they are in any sense federalists.

The prospect of enlargement of the European Union, which brings with it the risk of paralysis of decision-taking gives urgency to the need for a proper constitution for Europe, and even some of those timid pro-Europeans politicians who reject the word federal are now beginning to acknowledge the need for a European constitution. This is encouraging for us at Federal Union; but there is a more immediately helpful development still.

I have already described the United Kingdom as the most centralised state in Western Europe (perhaps in all Europe). Local government has been gradually stripped of its powers, and nearly all its resources are provided by central government. This has been a gradual and not necessarily intended process, though it follows from the unquestioned doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament which is free to reduce or even to abolish local government (as it actually has done with the government of London, not once but twice in this century). It is because of this doctrine of the unchallengeable supremacy of Parliament that Britain, almost alone in the Council of Europe has refused to sign the European Charter of Local Self Government, surely the least binding of international agreements, but which does enshrine the principle that local people have the right to set up local institutions to look after their needs and to give these institutions the right to raise money locally.

The present Labour Government is making some effort to reverse this trend, by giving Scotland a measure of home rule, and a smaller measure to Wales, and it is also restoring some self-governing powers to London. But it has manifestly not thought through its policies, and it is still continuing to reduce the powers of elected local, as opposed to regional authorities. The results are becoming every day clearer; the system simply will not work. The most obvious flaw is the anomaly that Scottish MPs, who continue to sit in the Westminster Parliament can vote on purely English matters (where their vote could well be decisive), but cannot vote on Scottish matters; nor, of course, can English MPs. But there are many other anomalies. And there is a growing demand in some regions of England, particularly the North East, for their own regional assemblies and agencies. What is more the Government has started on a reform of the House of Lords without thinking through how their process is to be completed. And finally it has, very commendably, agreed to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, but without making it fully justiciable.

The solution is simple and is staring everyone in the face; a Federal Parliament for the UK dealing only with matters which concern the UK as a whole and regional assemblies and agencies for those English regions which require them, together with a restoration of the powers of elected local and municipal authorities. At the same time it is no longer respectable to ignore the lack of real democratic control which arises from the fact that the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy in effect means the almost unlimited supremacy of a government (indeed of a Prime Minister) who has a large majority in the House of Commons. There are no built in safeguards for civil liberties or even for the independence of the judiciary, for the Lord Chancellor, who is a Government Minister (moreover one who has been appointed, not elected) has the preponderant voice in the appointment of judges.

These worries are becoming day by day more apparent even to a public opinion systematically misled by the press; and Ministers are obliged to take note. It may be some time yet before they dare use the actual word Federal; but in the end they will have to.

In the meantime we at Federal Union, with our meagre resources, will do what we can to ensure that the European Movement, of which we are a constituent part, is not so mesmerised by the need to win an eventual referendum on the Euro as to forget the need for a wider reform of the institutions of the European Union. And that reform has to move us towards a federal constitution for Europe which will enable it to expand, to remain closely integrated, and to develop much closer links with the citizen and to protect his human and civil rights.

This article was contributed by Sir Anthony Meyer, Chairman of Federal Union, who may be contacted at info@federalunion.org.uk. The opinions expressed at those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. Last updated 01/03/01.

About the Author