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Artillery Row

Sleepwalking into federalism

The dangers of devolution

There is a spectre haunting British politics — the spectre of federalism. In 1848, Marx and Engels spoke of an “unholy alliance” to crush communism; in 2023, there is an “unholy alliance” between all the major parties that radical devolution, devolution, devolution is the solution to all our problems. 

Federalism and devolution, of course, are not the same thing. Read between the lines of the proposals being advocated, and we are going beyond simply beefing up the capabilities of local government. From “fiscal devolution” to the creation of an “Assembly of the Nations and Regions” — advocates are proposing the fundamental reconfiguration of the United Kingdom. No one mentions the “f” word directly, except perhaps to reference other countries that we should emulate, but this idea that federalism is the future has become the political zeitgeist. 

It may not be official Labour Party policy, but the Brown Commission reflects a great deal of common ground in political circles. Devolution, devolve and devolved are referenced over two hundred and forty times. Regions are referenced ninety-one times. The enemy is identified as Westminster, but in a sense it is the very idea of a unitary British state. The idea that we can put aside private or local interest, in the service of others who may be hundreds of miles away from us, has been eroded through political and economic failure. 

The problem has not been empathy or care, but implementation

A useful window into this worldview is the proposal by the commission to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an “Assembly of the Nations and Region”. 

The most obvious question is why this is necessary at all, given the House of Commons is already an “assembly” of representatives from every part of the nation. If representation in the Commons has not given people an effective voice, why would an “assembly” do so? 

The answer appears to be that this Assembly would “protect self-government” for the nations and regions, to prevent power being sucked back into the centre. Why has this been the case? It is because, historically, Members of Parliament have seen that local matters are not merely a problem for local people but have national importance. The building of local infrastructure, the performance of local health services or transport, the vitality of our village greens — these matter to us all. To use Bevan’s famous phrase, a bedpan dropped in Tredegar should echo around Whitehall. Failure in one part of the country affects every other part of the country, a point that is repeatedly made by advocates of radical devolution. Yet, the solution is to keep our noses out of each other’s business — except to hand over large amounts of money. 

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Westminster has been suspicious of the effectiveness of local institutions, the solution is not to replace an old superstition with the new. It is not that central government does not care about the North or other nations of the United Kingdom (perhaps with the exception of Northern Ireland). As Julian Hoppit shows in his excellent book on the history of tax and spending of Britain since 1707, Westminster has been trying to tackle regional inequality for centuries, arguably ever since the Union of England and Scotland. The problem has not been one of empathy or care, but a problem of implementation. 

It is true that more power needs to be given to local institutions. It is poor practice for the national government to tie up local funding in ribbons of red tape, preferring local “pots” of funding that can be tightly controlled rather than giving discretion to local communities. We must also put power into the hands of local people, not just transfer power from one group of politicians to another. However, the federalisation of Britain is a cure that is worse than the disease itself. Since the development of England over a thousand years ago, the great strength of England, and then Britain, has been its relative political unity and centralisation compared to other parts of the world. 

The siren call for the federalisation of our country seems irresistible

This has enabled great transfers of resources, the development of a sophisticated physical and social infrastructure and political decisiveness. Advocates of radical devolution and federalism are dreaming of Germany, but they are more likely to wake up in the nightmare of a fragmented United States of Britain. Our cousins across the Atlantic have some of the strongest powers for local government and federal states in the world, and yet America is also one of the most unequal nations on earth. The secret to success of regionally balanced nations such as Denmark and Germany is their much stronger sense of national solidarity, a willingness to put aside private interest for the national good, more than it is their federalism. Can one imagine, in our present circumstances, the herculean transfer of resources that West Germany has sent to East Germany in Britain today? We cannot even distribute a few billion pounds through “levelling up funds” without triggering media and political disquiet. 

Brown’s Commission sidesteps (as do most advocates of fiscal devolution) the question of why richer areas would pool resources with poorer areas in this federalised future, except by appealing to self-interest. Economically, we are all better off when all parts of the country succeed. Is this not the case already? The answer to why this concept has not worked has less to do with an absence of local identity than an excess of national apathy. We should be asking ourselves how we can unite people together in a shared sense of national endeavour, rather than how we break up our polity into smaller political units. 

We can see the likely gridlock that will result from these federalist reforms. It will be every man for themselves: North versus South, Rural versus Urban, London versus everyone else. We only have to look to Scotland and Wales to see what has happened. First Ministers and Mayors will blame every problem on the lack of resources provided by the centre then call for their area to be given more. Westminster and Whitehall will be a convenient scapegoat. It will be in no one’s interest to solve these problems, but merely to continue arguing and playing up to their base.

Everyone recognises the lack of trust in Westminster. The solution is to restore that trust, not break the constitution and encourage the further fragmentation of Britain. This is a time when we need to come together to rebuild after economic crises, political division and global turmoil. We need higher levels of accountability in Whitehall and Westminster, combined with greater public participation in the policy making progress, so that we can build long term consensus. Above all, we need to channel a sense of national collective ambition if we are to succeed. 

If Whitehall cannot be trusted to act in the national interest, and if Members of Parliament cannot be expected to balance the views of their local constituents with the needs of the nation as a whole, the future of Britain is terminal — no matter what constitutional innovations are proposed. 

Arguably, the House of Lords is one of the last “national” institutions left in this country. Packing the House of Lords with donors and those without expertise or political experience has rightly been attacked. It nonetheless offers a glance of how Parliament can function more effectively, with alliances often built across party lines on matters of principle and policy, eschewing unhealthy partisanship. If we had listened to recommendations put forward by various Lords Committees over the past several decades, we would probably be in better shape than we are now. This does not merely need to be an ode to the past. The Lords still has a vital role to play in representing the national interest in policy debates, providing a balance to Members of Parliament who are ultimately accountable to their local voters. It is this holistic, national, perspective that we are sorely lacking. 

The siren call for the federalisation of our country seems irresistible at present. It is time for those who believe in a United Kingdom, in every sense of the word, to wake up and develop an alternative vision. 

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