Brian Monteith: Federal UK may gather real support

This is a good time to be thinking of ways to make the countries of Britain more equal after Scots vote, writes Brian Monteith

Welsh Assembly deputy presiding officer, David Melding, has come to the conclusion too that a UK federal solution is desirable
Welsh Assembly deputy presiding officer, David Melding, has come to the conclusion too that a UK federal solution is desirable
Welsh Assembly deputy presiding officer, David Melding, has come to the conclusion too that a UK federal solution is desirable

Federalism. It seems strangely abhorrent to the British establishment. The thought of the UK becoming just one of 28 federal units in a United States of Europe causes convulsions among eurosceptics and even europhiles are apt to deny they would sign up to it.

Likewise, the possibility of the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies gaining the same legislative and fiscal powers being proposed by unionist politicians for their super-devo Scottish Parliament post a No vote in the referendum – and then delivering this to England through either regional or national devolution – remains unlikely.

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This caution in moving away from an unbalanced system of governance that throws up the West Lothian Question to a better-balanced symmetrical settlement is odd, not least because Britain bestowed federal constitutional settlements on so many of its dominions and had a large hand in such arrangements for Germany and others. That does not mean those who believe a British federation offers the most practical, sustainable and politically attractive solution to our constitutional arrangements should not take advantage of the Scottish referendum to press for its consideration. And so it was that last week that the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser spoke in public about why it could yet be that the time is right to look to a federal United Kingdom.

The timing was of course no mistake, for it would have been inappropriate for Fraser to air such a robust explanation on how federalism could be made to work in advance of the Tory consideration of powers for the Scottish Parliament under the chairmanship of Lord Strathclyde. The terms of inquiry for that committee were too narrow to allow such a sweeping look at the panorama of the British political system and would have meant any talk of federalism being at best dismissed as a distraction. Raising expectations about a federal option, only for them to be dashed, would also provide ammunition for those wishing to suggest the Conservatives are divided or that Fraser was seeking to undermine his leader, Ruth Davidson, when now is a genuine opportunity for thinking politically out loud.

The SNP – and others that fear a UK federation – would have seized on the chance to attack Fraser’s isolation and naivety and having played the man with a two-footed tackle would have then kicked the idea out of the park. The idea would have been set back, rather than advanced.

But Fraser is neither isolated nor naive.

Firstly, there are others who have arrived already at the conclusion that a UK federal solution is desirable, such as the Welsh Assembly deputy presiding officer and Conservative, David Melding AM, whose recent book has proven so influential. Other Conservatives are arriving at the same destination and I expect will, in the coming months, make their views known within the party as they realise that constitutional change will not, indeed cannot, end with more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The unionist proposals for far greater tax-gathering powers would allow Scotland to diverge considerably from Westminster but could still give Scottish MPs the power to determine the tax rates prevailing in England if a government’s majority was narrow, as it often is. This scenario would be a great injustice and bring the West Lothian Question back to the fore.

Something therefore must be done about England’s governance – and it is at this point that a form of federalism that would solve that problem will look more attractive.

When Scots Labour MPs determined the charging of tuition fees and NHS reforms in England but could not have any say in what happened at Holyrood, the English bit their lips. Were it to be the case that the issue was differing tax rates, tempers would burst.

The second aspect to Fraser’s speech is its timing, for he has waited for the right moment – a point when practically all that is to be said about independence has been said, the point when we are now in campaign mode and we should expect little to change except the volume being turned up to 11.

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The issues all seem to have been aired and the clock feels to be ticking faster every day. Anyone who knows anything about political campaigning will appreciate that there are lead times that need to be worked out going backwards from the day of the vote, or it is impossible to have any influence over what voters think. You need to give yourself enough time for the messages to be repeated so that they sink in.

So campaigning has to be planned and budgeted and anything that happens now from the No and Yes camps is likely to have been carefully thought of months ago. The only other option is, on occasion, to be opportunistic because of something said or an external development that a campaign can then try to maximise some benefit from.

So we’ve had the white paper and the economic case has been demolished, we don’t know what currency we might have, what the cost of establishing the new institutions will be, how much debt our children and grandchildren will be expected to pay or the costs of trying to rejoin the European Union.

Bannockburn’s anniversary has passed, England are out of the World Cup (believe me, that could have been an influence if the team had reached the semi-finals) and an imaginary constitution has been drafted only to set off a row about the monarchy. Of the remaining events that might stir patriotic feeling, we’ve only the Commonwealth Games to come – so is there anything else that could sway us?

I suspect not. I wager most people would rather the vote was now so we can get it all over and done with and the politicians could return to improving the NHS, our schools and getting out of the road of businesses so they may improve the economy. I suspect that what will happen in the remaining 80 days will be the convincing of those who already know and those who are quietly minded but were waiting to see if anything would sway them. Only a big gaffe, such as might happen in a Darling versus Salmond debate, might change people’s minds.

Raising now the issue of how federalism can place Scotland as an equal partner in any British constitutional settlement was the right thing for Fraser to do.