The UK’s Not So Federal Solutions

Published: 28 May 2015
The term ‘federal’ has been thrown around fairly loosely since the general election but, says Bettina Petersohn, the current proposals fall along way short. 
With the unprecedented success of the SNP in the General Election, promises for further constitutional change have been made to all four parts of the UK including more powers for Scotland - even before the Smith Commission proposals have been implemented - and “a fair deal for England”. In the early morning after the vote, newly elected MPs were proposing a ‘federal offer to Scotland’ or a ‘federal solution for the UK’. Taking a closer look at the different proposals made under that headline, however, the question is: what’s federal about them?

What is federalism?

A state is called federal, if at least two levels of government exist, each enjoying meaningful authority over distinct policy fields; if the existence of entities is constitutionally protected; and if the interests of entities are represented in central institutions. Federal systems differ in comparison with each other, for example, regarding the level of autonomy that entities enjoy or how their representation in central institutions is organised. The political scientist Daniel Elazar defined federalism as a combination of self-rule and shared rule with self-rule referring to the extent to which regional governments have the power to take decisions independently from central governments. Shared rule captures the capacity of a regional government to participate in and influence decisions taken at the centre, for example, through representatives in the second chambers of parliaments.

How does the UK fit into federal concepts?

Based on these distinctions, the UK in its current state, does not classify as federal but rather as highly decentralised at the peripheries. First, devolution has focused on the self-rule dimension leading to high levels of autonomy for Scotland (starting with legislative autonomy and now including more fiscal autonomy) and lower levels of autonomy for Wales with a tendency to increase over time. Devolution has not led to meaningful shared rule or institutionalised forms of coordination between the levels of government. The House of Lords does not represent the territories, intergovernmental meetings do take place but have no authority to take binding decisions and the relations between the centre and the periphery are managed mostly on an ad-hoc basis. Second, devolved institutions are a political reality only for 15% of the population. While Scotland scores high on the level of self-rule in comparison to other entities of federal states, England remains one of the most centralised regions. Distinctively, with regard to the constitutional protection of devolved institutions, the Smith Commission proposals did make some progress in ensuring the permanence of the Scottish Parliament and its protection from central infringement.

What would the discussed ideas for further constitutional change mean?

Several proposals for further constitutional change are currently being put forward including: 
  • An increase in fiscal autonomy for Scotland, including more powers over welfare policies (e.g. housing benefit)
  • Further devolution to, and financial support for, Wales and Northern Ireland 
  • The introduction of English-Votes-for-English-Laws (EVEL) in the House of Commons 
  • More powers to local governments in the form of city-deals
The proposals for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would continue the existing path of increasing the autonomy of devolved entities from the centre – or the degree of self-rule – while England would continue to be governed from the centre. So far, no ideas have been circulated on introducing more coordination mechanisms between the devolved parts and the centre – no shared rule. The idea to introduce an upper chamber where the interests of the four parts are represented will remain an unfulfilled project of the Liberal Democrats for some time.
EVEL will transform the House of Commons into a part-time parliament for England. Apart from the century old division between government and opposition, a new distinction will be introduced between MPs representing devolved vs. non-devolved parts of the country with unforeseen consequences for the relations between MPs and the parliamentary party groups.
City deals are offered now to counterbalance the centralised nature of England. As the name suggests, they include the transfer of power (transport, health policy) and financial support to urban conglomerations and the introduction of directly elected mayors. Governing England will become more complex as a consequence with responsibilities being divided between the House of Commons, the truncated parts of it voting on England-only matters and several cities – mainly with Labour-led councils – gaining more powers over the delivery of public services or even health care budgets as in the case of Manchester. Since these city-deals are negotiated one by one, we can expect variation even between the responsibilities of different city-regions while rural areas are left out entirely.
Compared to the definition of federalism and the arrangements found in other federal states, one can call these proposals innovative but none of them will move the UK closer to a federal design. 

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