Federalism: uniting a disunited kingdom

However, should reforms be made to federalise the United Kingdom more, granting greater autonomy to the current devolved administrations of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly and the creation of a new devolved Cornish parliament then we could begin to stem the tide of the UK’s dissolution“.

Adam McCartan

The United Kingdom. Made up of 4 distinct nations, all with their own identities but united under the Union Jack and the Crown, but is it really all that united?

The short answer is no. In a recent poll commissioned and published by the Sunday Times it shows the quickly rising support for nationalist and separatist ideas within countries like Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in wales although to a lesser extent to the former two.

Now there are many reasons behind this trend with different reasons for the different states of the UK, for example the rising nationalist population in Northern Ireland steadily growing larger than the Unionist. However, there are some main reasons that I feel can be attributed to this increase in the demand for independence across the various constituent nations of the UK.

The first of these reasons is undoubtedly the current Covid 19 pandemic in which we have all found ourselves in and the mismanagement and mistakes made by the central government in Westminster and Downing street. This is in contrast with the apparent successes and popularity of current nationalist leaders and parties such as Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP within Scotland, who polls are suggesting will gain a pro-independence majority in the upcoming Scottish elections in May later this year. Its not just nationalists who are praising Sturgeon on her handling of the pandemic within Scotland with one senior Conservative MSP describing her as being calm, authoritative and cautious throughout. Should this majority be achieved it is almost certain that Scotland will push for another independence referendum, with the Sunday Time’s poll supporting that 50% of Scots would be in favor of another independence referendum in the next 5 years.

The second of these reasons can be found in Brexit and its fallout and effects. As of 12:01am New Year’s Day the UK officially left the European Union, bringing with it a host of immediate changes and effects. Northern Ireland is finding the change especially difficult to adjust to, with the new customs border in the Irish Sea bringing with it a whole host of new bureaucratic processes for UK and EU companies. This has led to delays in supply chains and empty shelves in supermarkets across Northern Ireland as goods entering from the mainland UK are, in effect, still entering the EU despite Northern Ireland still being a part of the UK.

Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland such as Sinn Fein and the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) were both staunchly remain while unionist parties like the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) and DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) backed the leave campaign. The nationalist parties predicted the adverse effects currently being experienced by Northern Ireland and as such are quickly gaining more support. This has led to an increase in support for Irish Reunification with the Sunday Times Poll showing that in NI those pleased with and those upset by Irish Reunification is roughly equal at 47%.

Now you may ask yourself after reading this that if this is a trend then is the United Kingdom doomed to break apart? Well, I answer that question like this. Should the current form of devolution and governance within the UK remain then its very possible that within the next few decades the United Kingdom as we know it today could cease to exist, breaking apart into its constituent nations. However, should reforms be made to federalise the United Kingdom more, granting greater autonomy to the current devolved administrations of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly, as well as the creation of a new devolved Cornish parliament, then we could begin to stem the tide of the UK’s dissolution.

Federalisation of the United Kingdom isn’t a new idea, instead it was first proposed in response to the failure of Prime Minister William Gladstone’s attempts to implement Irish home rule during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now just as Ireland originally sparked this idea and debate, it has been given new life due to the “Scottish question”. Already federalism can be seen working pro-actively in states across the world from Germany to Canada to the USA.

Federalisation would set the devolved administrations up as highly autonomous states with full control over all aspects of their day to day running except for key issues such as foreign affairs and matters of defence, immigration, taxation and constitutional matters. In essence this gives the devolved governments greater independence, although still being directly apart of the United Kingdom. While these states wouldn’t be fully independent nation-states, they will still gain greater autonomy than they currently now possess and should help to reduce the appeal of separatist and nationalist parties such as Sinn Fein, SNP and Plaid Cymru by providing a sense of control that currently they still currently lack.

The process of this federalisation would be easy as, apart from the Cornish Parliament which would be established through a referendum, would involve the devolved governments simply accepting the new powers granted. Of course, some people will fear that the Houses of Commons could remove powers from these federal parliaments, but this could be countered by officially writing up the UK’s constitution which is currently unwritten. By writing up this constitution it could be ensured that the Houses of Commons couldn’t remove powers of a federal parliament without their consent.

Nationalist critics of the federalisation point to federalisation being nothing more than a potential escape route for the British government to derail nationalist and independence movements within the UK while keeping the United Kingdom and British state intact. This is in my opinion, however, a short-sighted criticism. While yes, federalism would certainly impact independence movements, it would gives current devolved governments much more freedom and powers than they currently hold. Only recently in 2018 did the former leader of the Scottish labour party, Kezia Dugdale express interest in federalisation. Overall, the future of the union as portrayed in the Sunday Times poll is uncertain, however its my personal belief that should we adopt a federal system of governance then the United kingdom can continue its long and deep history through the rest of the 21st century and beyond.

Written by Adam McCartan, our chair in Northern Ireland.

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