After Smith: Is Federalism Britain’s Last Chance?

Published: 28 November 2014

The Smith proposals are radical: the devolution of extensive tax and welfare powers will make Scotland one of the most autonomous regions in Western Europe. It seems that only a federal system can manage these changes while also giving Scotland a continuing stake in the Union. Otherwise, as the Scottish Parliament gets stronger and stronger, the UK will appear more and more irrelevant to many Scots. It is not too dramatic to say that federalism may well be the last throw of the dice for the Anglo-Scottish union. 

There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of ‘federalism’. It is in fact a very flexible term, requiring a balance between ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared rule’. UK devolution is all about ‘self-rule’ with very little focus upon involving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland closely in decision-making in London on issues that affect the whole country. This ‘representation deficit’ needs to be addressed particularly as Scotland becomes ever more devolved. Here are four changes which may well flow from Smith: 

  • English  regionalism

Regionalism has hitherto been unpopular in England but a demand for change could be sparked by the sense that a Scottish Parliament with wide tax powers might use these to gain competitive advantage. This is not mentioned in Smith but it is on the agenda.

  • Changes to how Westminster works

The West Lothian question cannot now be avoided; apart from anything else it will be an issue at the General Election next year. This need not mean an English Parliament but it will require a revision of the role of Scottish MPs at Westminster, ensuring that important legislation concerning England alone will require majority support among English MPs.

Another proposal, which would go some way to deal with the representation deficit, is reform of the House of Lords along the lines of a chamber of the nations and regions of the UK as proposed by Gordon Brown. Again this is not mentioned by Smith but it could offer a genuinely ‘union-focused’ institution at the centre of the state. 

  • A new status for the Scottish Parliament 

Technically the Westminster Parliament is still sovereign. In theory it could take away the powers of the Scottish Parliament or even abolish it altogether. Smith proposes that the Scottish Parliament be made ‘permanent’. This would presumably also extend to protecting its powers. This is a radical proposal which will in effect change the absolute power of Parliament, the cornerstone of our constitution for over 300 years.

  • A stronger role for the Scottish Government 

Until now the Scottish Government interacts with the UK government through very informal arrangements. If the Scottish Parliament is empowered to set radically different fiscal and welfare priorities this could put great strain on the system and some form of formalisation may well be needed. This is recognised firmly by Smith. This could also mean Scotland, and the other nations/regions, having a formal say in how certain central government decision are made, possibly with certain veto powers exercised through a reformed House of Lords. Again, powers of this kind may be needed to give the union a real sense of meaning to those on the periphery.

Whether all of this will create a stronger sense of partnership and a renewed sense of belonging to a common union we simply don’t know, but without such a broader set of reforms the Smith process may well further unsettle the union it was intended to save.

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