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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Federalism, bit like my wardrobe, coming back into fashion

I always thought my interest in federalism was a quirky minority sport. However, it is now beginning to look dangerously mainstream, given recent initiatives.

Some of this has been driven by Brexit and a drive to safeguard Scotland's relationship with the EU. Scottish Labour Leader, Kez Dugdale, has asked former Labour justice secretary Lord Falconer to “explore some potential avenues around a federalist solution”. The idea being that Scotland could retain its place both in the UK and in the EU, reflecting what the vast majority of people in Scotland voted for in two referendum results. They voted to be part of the United Kingdom and they voted to be part of the European Union.

This idea is not incompatible with the Scottish Government's approach, looking at what has become known as 'reverse Greenland'. Denmark joined the EU, but semi-autonomous Greenland didn't. If such an approach was deliverable, it would clearly require a form of federalism in the UK.

Before we get over excited, it has to be said that there are very few experts, here or in Europe, who believe this is doable. Particularly if the UK goes for a loose trade relationship with the EU based on WTO rules, rather than the Norway or Swiss model that includes free movement of people. The former would probably require a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, although some believe there are National Insurance solutions to this. 

Whatever the practical and political problems (don't mention the Spanish!), it is absolutely right that politicians should keep an open mind and pursue all options. That's why Ruth Davidson's uber unionism is the wrong approach. In contrast, one Tory who has always been prepared to think out of the box is Murdo Fraser MSP. He has supported federalism for some time, advocating various forms that would also include administrative devolution in England. As he himself admits, this would not be pure federalism in any sense, more likely ‘quasi-federalism’. However, as the UK is an asymmetric state any solution is going to be untidy.

Next up is the Constitutional Reform Group, who have drafted a new Treaty of Union based on full blooded federalism. In their model, each constituent part of the UK would agree what powers it wanted to share - similar to the 'Devo-Max' approach.

This group is also chaired by a Tory, Lord Salisbury, and includes the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Labour Northern Ireland and Wales secretary Peter Hain, the former clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane, and the former Ulster Unionist politician David Burnside. The group also claims the support of former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, and from the current chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady. Again the involvement of leading Tories is interesting, given their traditional reluctance to address constitution reform. We should also give credit to the Liberal-Democrats who have been consistent supporters of federalism.

Salisbury told the Guardian. “We are in a different world following the Brexit vote. The top-down, ad hoc approach to the structure of the United Kingdom needs to be replaced. We believe that our approach based on consent will provide a stronger union than the one that we now have and which is under challenge.”

This leads us onto the questions of powers for a purpose. The CRG plan is very much about the mechanisms of federalism, albeit with a political understanding of the additional pressures for constitutional change post-Brexit. 

The purpose of new powers is much clearer in the Red Paper Collective's recent paper 'Progressive Federalism'. In this and previous publications, the group says constitutional change must be measured against its potential to challenge the power of capital and bring the economy under democratic control. The latest publication includes a range of policies that could achieve such a goal, including my own chapter on local economies.

The UK Labour Party has demonstrated only limited interest in constitutional reform since devolution, under the dead hand of many in the PLP. However, under Jeremy Corbyn that has started to change. His joint statement, with Kez Dugdale, on internal party devolution was strong on the need to decentralise power. He also appointed Jon Trickett MP to head up a Constitutional Convention. The direction of travel was set out by Jon at the the 2015 UK Labour Party conference when he said: 
"The truth is that many people feel the UK is over-centralised. That politics is broken. That there is a closed elite circle in Britain which rules in its own interests rather than those of the wider population."

We should also not forget that federalism has economic challenges, particularly for Scotland. It may address many of the additional costs independence would bring and fixes the currency and other issues. However, it still leaves a big gap in the public finances since the oil price crash. 

What is clear from the above is that federalism can take different forms and certainly has many different motivations. However, the consistent theme is that the Westminster system is broken and the future needs to be less centralised - calling an end to top down politics. In Scotland, that also means devolution should not stop at Holyrood - Scotland isn't my idea of local.

At home, when resisting throwing out old clothes, I have been known to argue they might come back into fashion. Well, it looks like federalism might just be doing just that!

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