The F Word

letter f 2

By Mike Small

It’s constitutional Sesame Street on Bella today. Today’s letter is F.

In an attempt to give credibility to the Devo Nano proposals that lie about the constitutional house like bits of broken furniture, many articles have been penned this week bigging the whole thing up. First among them is the Guardian’s Martin Kettle, who writes with absolutely no evidence at all ‘Gordon Brown is right: federalism is on its way if Scots shun independence’.

He suggests: ‘Brown is the highest profile UK politician to utter the political F-word during this debate. He is right to do this, because federalism, in some shape or form, is one of the great awakening issues in the debate about what happens after 18 September. The four nations of Britain need to engage with federalist options before the referendum takes place, because if there is a no vote they will have to engage with it afterwards.’

This is nonsense. The Lib dems have been promising constitutional change for over 100 years and have delivered nothing.There is no appetite for federalism in England, nor will there be.

Here’s why Federalism won’t work. This is from the Royal Commission on the Constitution, the Kilbrandon Commission (1973):

A federation consisting of four units – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would be so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England. The English parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament; and in te federal parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it too be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one fifth of the population. A United Kingdom federation of four countries, with a federal Parliament and provincial Parliaments in the four national capitals, is therefore not a realistic proposition.

Whatever grand declaration is cobbled together by the Unionists next week it will surely be a desperate muddle, either diluting the Liberals Federalism, or creating a compromise between the ‘radical’ Tories and Labour’s timid proposals.

Too timorous and it will be subject to ridicule, too ambitious and it will be seen as a ‘gift to the nats’ and the more enrage wing (McTernan, Forsyth etc) will be foaming at the mouth. My spies tell me this is precisely why discussions are getting very heated as the fine detail is hammered out. Someone’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.



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32 replies

  1. Indeed – a German friend said this to me 30 years ago when I was lamenting our under-represented lot. It is impossible to have a federation when one part comprises 85% of the whole.

    Actually in Germany the Bundes, although a bit more balanced, have grievances. For example Bayern (Bavaria) is a powerhouse and many feel, as in Catalonia, they should have more independence.

  2. This was always going to be a problem for them. As the day draws ever nearer, they have to present something to the electorate. They can’t get away with saying nothing, they can’t get away with empty slogans. They have to prove why we’re “Better together” or why the UK is OK.

    Labour with its fatally flawed “one nation labour” programme want to cut barnett and tax then scots to mitigate austerity in England. The Tories just want cuts, but they want the Scottish Gov to be Westminsters bah man for the collection of taxes. The lib dems will make a deal with whoever gives them a seat at the table. It is this they have to somehow present to Scotland as a coherent package that maintains the status quo. It has too many parts that simply don’t fit, there is no real glue to hold it together, as there is in the end, no real reason for the Union to continue.

    My feeling is that Scotland has simply outgrown the Union. We really don’t need it anymore.

  3. In my transition from unionism to independence, I flirted with the idea of other constitutional arrangements. Like having a “Council of UK Nations” where UK-wide and foreign policy issues voted on by Westminster would be debated and even revised by leaders of the 4 UK nations. I thought about a joint “Celtic veto” in which the leaders of Scotland, N Ireland and Wales could together block Westminster / English majority policies. This would involve revising the Act of Union and also challenge the mighty notion of Westminster Parliamentary sovereignty (all bow down) – a big hassle I am sure for Westminster. Such an arrangement would educate English politicians on what a union of equals really entails. But I just don’t see that it would work very well. SNP perspectives vary so much from English Tory ones that I imagine deadlock would ensue. If there is a “no” vote, it could be worth the SNP going down this road. The resulting tensions within the UK would probably convince more Scots that independence is the only sensible option.

  4. The one thing voters must remember is the duplicity of Alec Douglas Home – Lord Home of the Hirsel, in 1979. During the run up to the Devolution Referendum, he promised us “vote NO and we will give you a better bill.” What Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory dismantling of the industrial base, trade unions, local authorities and welfare state.
    These hints at Federalism or Devo Max are the modern equivalent of that duplicitous bribe. A NO vote will result in the dismantling of the Scottish Government, such as it is, and action to ensure that nothing like this Indyref will ever happen again. Don’t be fooled. If any Unionist party had any intention of delivering Devo Max or Federalism, it would have been on the ballot paper in September.

    • Got it in one, Capella. As one who lived through the “jam tomorrow” promises of 79′, the No campaign have nothing to offer us, except more austerity. I fully expect that they are going to make a pigs ear of whatever they come up with, and the so-called benefits from voting to retain the union will quickly be demolished by this site, and many others. However, with a compliant media eager to do their bidding, I have no doubt their proposals will be lauded as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Time to end the wholesale squandering of our resources by Westminster. Vote Yes.

    • What these people are counting on Capella is that there are not enough people who remember that double cross, and the fact that we DID vote for a Scottish Assembly but were denied it by an anti democratic Labour Party because of that 40% hurdle, we need to boom that message out between now and 18th September to remind the forgetful and inform the ones who weren’t even born.

  5. If the Treaty was composed today it would not get passed by the lowest court in the land so draconian is it in its one-sided conditions of servility and imbalanced representation.

    It was created at a time when oil did not exist as an economic booster worth stealing, nor vehicles, nor house ownership, nor large scale industry, nor the IT industry, nor the stock market, and so on and so forth.

    It needed redrafted over 100 years ago, but two world wars delayed it – wars that were avoidable – but that’s another debate – while increasing the awareness of Scotland as a permanent junior partner.

    Time to tear it up and negotiate a fresh one suited to the 21st century.

  6. The only way real federalism would ever work in the UK would be to split England into two or more parts (e.g., greater London vs. the rest, or Northern England vs. Southern England), but there’s almost zero appetite for this, given that a real federal system would give each constituent part equal powers, which would lead to a Greater London legal system, a Greater London NHS, a Greater London education system, etc., etc. It’s just not going to happen.

  7. The word in the publishing world is that JK Rowling-in-it has decided to write a new part of the Harry Potter saga inspired by her old mate, Gordon Brown, called “Harry Potter and the Fable of Federal Britain…”.

    Gordon Brown gets a walk on part in the book, in which he gets to wear a wizard’s hat and wave a big magic wand and reverse time, sending us all back to the day Labour won its landslide victory under Blair and half the country waited for Labour to finally do as it had always promised to do and thoroughly reform Britain’s ancient institutions…

    I doubt it will sell as well as the other parts of “The Harry Potter” saga, though no doubt “the big beasts of Labour” can all read it when they finally join the Red Baron Lord Foulkes in the House of Lords….all that time to kill….and no doubt put it down on expenses too, why not….

  8. There is also the UK is England problem.Federalism wouldn’t solve that.Scotland’s identity is either ignored,regionalised,almagamated or patronised in the Union.Its the classic elephant in the room situation.Let’s remember that fundamentally this referendum is about Scotland’s identity in the world.

    • It can be argued that a lot of what the rest of the world–and indeed people in Scotland–sees as a “Scottish” identity was brought together by Sir Walter Scott to accomodate the ego of the visiting George IV in 1822 – that is, modern Scotland was a product of the Union.

      Of course, 192 years later, that’s no reason to keep the Union. But to deny the UK’s role in creating Scotland as it is today is historically, politically and culturally naive.

  9. The case for a federal UK has been well dissected and spelt out above But the idea which has been broad Liberal policy for over 100 years and regularly regurgitated by them hasn’t changed all that much from the Federal proposal put to and thrown out by the Irish in 1921. The only way that Federalism would ever have an out side chance of working is if England was to be divided up into something akin to the German Landers and with special arrangements for the largest cities i.e. London, Manchester etc. However there is probably more chance of finding a snowball in hell than the possibility of this type of arrangement ever being accepted by Westminster MP’s. Not only that but Tory and New Labour Backbenchers would drag this process out for not just years but decades. Meantime Scotland will be at the whim of whoever forms the Westminster Govt’s during this time.

    We know that whatever next weeks discussions come up with and while it might have the backing of unionist MP’s in Scotland and their party bosses in London there is again still the small matter of 500 or so MP’s (probably including a handful of UKIP and we know their views on Scotland) who in all probability will throw it out. Then were will all their grand promises of next week be – in the MIDDEN.

    We must win on the 18th.

    Auld Rock

  10. Where was Broon two years ago when the referendum questions were being formulated?
    The threat of Scottish independence has been the only motivation for British national supporters to offer more powers.
    Why would they offer anything if we Scots say “No Thanks” to independence,”We like things the way they are” ?
    Some Scots undoubtedly do like things the way they are but they are a minority of privileged people who are replicated the world over.
    Not many Scots are passionate about the Westminster establishment and it is easy to work out who is and why.

  11. Fuck the Union. Vote Yes to independence.

  12. And of course,whatever they come up with will ensure that they are left in charge of our affairs.
    Westminster vs the people of Scotland to decide our future.

  13. Federalism is impossible under the current system, since Westminster regards sovereignty as indivisible, “like a cricket ball”. The only way a Federal system could possibly be set up is after a “Yes” vote, if the peple of Scotland as a sovereign nation decided to enter a federation.

  14. The overwhelming reason to reject federalism is why on earth should r.UK with 2/3rds of the territory and 92% of the UK population change its entire constitution just to suit 8%?

    • You know the answer to that MBC: the 8% cannay tie their own shoelaces and the 92% are born altruists who for 300 years have been watching out for us and looking after us…; )

  15. Federalism is impossible in a UK that is ruled by institutions like the House of Lords, Whitehall and the Royal Family. The reason that people can sell a myth that ‘federalism is on the way’ is because they tell themselves that it might happen within 100 years, so in effect, it could be on the way. But we could be invaded by aliens too.

  16. As others have suggested above, the problem here is England rather than Scotland. England is grossly over-centralised and skewed towards London and its hinterlands. As a resident of England for most of my adult life (though Scottish by birth and upbringing), I would really like to see proper English regionalisation as a counterweight to the power of London. Whether that served as a precursor to any sort of federation in the UK or rUK is a different question, but I can’t see federalisation happening without English regionalisation. But during the almost 25 years I’ve lived in England (scary!), things have got more centralised rather than less, and I’m genuinely unsure how things could get better. If I lived in Scotland I really really wouldn’t count on promises of federalisation, especially with the rise of UKIP and the Tory right for whom the unitary UK, sovereign in Parliament, is the best possible constitutional design.

    To me the only rational answer to the powers available to Scotland would be summed up as “vote Yes, or get less”.

    • I like what you say. The biggest problem with English regionalism in my view is that Westminster-style centralisation has stifled English regional identities (political and cultural), so much so that there is very little passion from the grassroots. That might emerge more as we watch what I hope will be a very successful new state in Scotland and are more willing to challenge our notions of what Britishness and Englishness mean
      .

  17. The only ‘F’ word the ‘United’ Front of BT Unionists will produce is Flatulence.

  18. Mike, i can give a better F word: FREEDOM.

  19. Why can’t we edit our posts retrospectively? Of course, I meant: I can give you a better F word: FREEDOM.

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