Today’s UK: a federal embryo?

By Dr Andrew Blick

Summary of the November 2009 Federal Trust pamphlet: Devolution and regional administration: a federal UK in embryo?

In the period since Labour took office in 1997, the pursuit of regional and devolution policies by the Labour government has seen significant changes to the administrative and political structure of the UK. In particular devolved governance has been introduced to London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and Regional Development Agencies have been established in the English regions. At the same time there have been significant constitutional changes at the centre.

While change has occurred throughout the UK it has not taken place in a uniform, even fashion; and central constitutional developments have been piecemeal rather than part of a fully conceived programme. Yet these developments, when considered in their totality, represent significant movement in a federal direction for the UK.

What would a federal UK look like? In attempting to answer this question, we must recognise that there is no one set pattern to which all federal constitutions must conform. There is on the other hand a cluster of characteristics typically associated with such constitutions. These characteristics might include a codified constitution delineating the rights and responsibilities of each tier of governance; a Bill of Rights; a Supreme Court to interpret and enforce the constitution and Bill of Rights; and mechanisms for coordination between the different tiers of governance, possibly including an upper chamber in the UK parliament giving representation to the different UK territories.

It cannot plausibly be argued that the UK is set upon an inevitable path towards a federal settlement. However, the last decade has certainly seen the development of certain institutions and tendencies which could potentially be used as components in a federal UK.  A serious project to establish such an entity would not be starting from nothing.

The existing features of the UK it could draw upon would include the existence of devolved settlements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. They have given expression to diverse political alignments and enjoy reasonably high degrees of popular support. Devolution has in turn made a contribution to establishing the principle that sub-UK governance demands democratic legitimacy. These settlements are dynamic in nature, with an overall tendency towards expansion of devolution. Much development in this direction has taken place in Wales, and another referendum on further extension to devolution seems likely. The recent government white paper on Scottish devolution accepted the proposal put forward by the all-party Calman Commission that there be significant fiscal devolution to Scotland. Devolution settlements enjoy a de facto security from intervention from the centre. The principle of devolution has been entrenched in other ways, including through the establishment of new sub-UK institutions such as human rights commissions and children’s commissioners. Finally the Lisbon treaty incorporates a new protocol on subsidiarity which gives territories, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland a potentially greater role in EU issues.

While devolution policy since 1997 represents the most significant progress to have been made in a federal direction for the UK, a key reservation must be recorded. England – or rather the English regions other than London – has been left behind. The House of Commons Justice Committee recently concluded that:

the system of government for England, which remains relatively centralised under the management of the United Kingdom Government and the legislative authority of the United Kingdom Parliament, is at least called into question [by devolution], and, in the view of a significant proportion of our witnesses, in need of fundamental change…the system of government of the United Kingdom as a whole has changed irreversibly from that of an undifferentiated unitary state, and will continue to adapt to the changes already made; and the way in which England is currently governed may be unsustainable in this changed system.

At the centre there has been a process dating back to the John Major period of gradual codification of the UK constitution, with the publication of documents such as the Civil Service Code and Ministerial Code. Yet there remains significant resistance within political and governing circles to the adoption of a comprehensive UK constitutional document. Alongside the codification of arrangements, new institutions and instruments that could be key to a future federal UK have been introduced. They include the UK Supreme Court and the Human Rights Act. There exists a degree of cross-party consensus about House of Lords reform, in particular that it should become a mainly or wholly elected body. An upper chamber of this sort could perhaps form part of a UK federal settlement. The alternative is that the British-Irish Council and British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Assembly for coordinating relationships between administrations and assemblies could form a model for a federal-style upper chamber. Recently there has been pressure, including from a House of Lords Committee, for the replacement of the Barnett formula for determining changes in the funding of devolution settlements with a new needs-based formula. A new formula of this kind could eventually be used to determine the redistribution of money within a federal state. While the present government has emphasised it has no immediate plans to change existing funding arrangements, a future administration may take a different approach.

To conclude, those who favour the establishment of a federal UK know that there are real political and administrative barriers to the realisation of that goal. They can however legitimately argue that individual elements of a potential federal system are gradually emerging which could, in circumstances not yet entirely predictable in their detail, create a more favourable background for a British federal system than at any time throughout the last century.

Dr Andrew Blick is Senior Research Fellow, Democratic Audit. He is the author of numerous books and articles including, with Prof George Jones, Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010). He has carried out research projects for organisations including the National Audit Office, Local Government Association, UN Development Programme, and the Federal Trust. November 2009

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