Since 1997 the United Kingdom has witnessed the great transfer of power or what became commonly known as devolution from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the establishment of the regional parliaments and assemblies. Witness also the devolution of power to London with the establishment of the Mayoral system of government. These changes were unprecedented within the history of the UK and marked the first successful attempt to transfer power to the constituent nations of the country since the Irish Home rule bills in the late 19th and early 20th century and the failed attempt at devolution in the late 1970’s. While these changes have been successful in moving from a highly centralised and unitary state towards a system similar to that in place in places such as Spain, there are still several holes that exist in the current settlement.
The most profound and evident of these is the case of England, which despite being the largest and most populous state, still finds itself without the means to govern itself in a similar fashion to Scotland or Wales. Its governance remains highly centralised in a manner reminiscent of Napoleonic France. If we continue along the path of the devolution settlement since 1997 we also see that the nations of Scotland and Wales are not content with the powers they have been granted and have pushed to increase them. This has been demonstrated by the Calman commission in Scotland and the upcoming Scotland Bill that will grant greater tax varying and borrowing powers to Scotland along with control over various fines and regulations. Wales will soon be holding a referendum on whether to adopt primary legislative powers which will bring the status of Wales closer to that of Scotland. In time this will lead to increased agitation for greater control over the Welsh economy through tax varying and borrowing powers and the upgrading of the Welsh Assembly to full-parliament status.
These steps highlight two other anomalies, the first is Northern Ireland which slowly but truly has taken control over justice powers which includes responsibility for prisons, the police and probation service amongst others. In turn this may eventually lead the Government of Northern Ireland in the years ahead to demand greater powers over their economy and other areas currently not devolved to them.
The second and final area is our overseas territory which while mainly self-governing and outside the reach of Westminster with regards to the majority of domestic policy, does require a definition of the exact powers they hold, their relationship with Westminster which in turn includes the issue of representation and the powers that Westminster holds over them.
So while these are the issues that face us, the task of addressing them requires a radical and lasting solution, one that will require us to take a large step in a new direction but which will mark a natural continuation of the process of devolution since 1997. The policy that we should adopt to address the problems that face the UK is the most simplistic and natural: it is federalism. The process of adopting federalism in the United Kingdom would require a leap of faith for the majority of both policy makers and academics who have in many quarters either rejected or failed to seriously examine federalism and the merits that it holds for the UK. If we were to move towards such as system then we will have to develop a model that works effectively for the unique position that the UK finds itself in both historically and politically. The second half of my article will seek to address how such a system would work within the UK and how we move towards it.