Is Federalism Unionism’s only salvation?

The ever challenging pan-UK Unionist Dilettante doesn’t think so but English Nationalist David Rickard does. As ever, Dilettante’s is a well argued piece, but it doesn’t convince me – I’m no English Nationalist, but I find it hard to counter the case that it is federation or separation.

I am appearing in a debate on this subject at Queen’s University on evening of 18th.

I have been increasingly of the view that Federalism and Unionism (both in the very broadest sense) need to be the same thing if the Union is to survive at all (I am not stating a particular preference for it to survive, merely my views on how it can).

Firstly, my judgement is that Unionists in England (and occasionally elsewhere) too often make the mistake of trying to present the Union as some sort of “Greater England”. This may or may not be intentional – in Dilettante’s case I have no doubt it isn’t – but it is the outworking of most English “Unionist” logic.

Secondly, following on from this, English Unionists have been distinctly discomforted by devolution. Yet the opposite of devolution, implicitly advocated by Dilettante, is centralisation in England – with 85% of the UK population, that means English rule, intentionally or otherwise, with people in England prepared to justify it on numbers alone if necessary. English rule only gives ammunition to Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists to present their case in national and even anti-colonial terms.

(As a peripheral but perhaps noteworthy aside, where I agree with Dilettante is that the case for centre-right groupings in Scotland and Wales to split completely from the Conservative Party is ridiculous if they are all to be taken seriously as Unionists. The Union – whether centralised or federalised – still requires parties to operate in all four corners of it because there will always be policies and legislation passed in a single parliament for all four corners of it; indeed, no party serious about governing the UK should enter an election with that objective without running or at least clearly endorsing candidates in all four countries. The CDU/CSU parallel is often invoked but, as discussed before on this blog, it is not remotely relevant, applying to a different set of political relationships which have no equivalent in the UK. The “Canadian Model” of having specifically separate provincial and federal parties – and freedom to be a member of any combination as long as it is only one provincial and one federal – is much more appealing and should be discussed more widely as an option, in Northern Ireland particularly.)

The only chink of light for the Conservatives post-devolution was in Wales, where the party – unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland – moved quickly to embrace devolution and the opportunities it brought about, and backed subsequent yes-campaigns for more powers. This is not a coincidence. The social trends are towards greater devolution, a great sense of English, Scottish, Welsh and even (unmistakably in recent years) Northern Irish identity. That doesn’t stop anyone being British any more than being Bavarian stops someone being German, or being Norwegian stops someone being Scandinavian, but it does have implications on where people expect decisions over the laws and policies which affect them to be made.

The world is full of countries which fell apart despite widespread desire to keep them together, because of the failure of those advocating Union genuinely to think and feel for the whole country – which is why the West Indies only now exists as a cricket team, and Czechoslovakia only as a tie-breaker in spelling competitions. After all, best laid schemes gang aft agley, as one Scottish patriot (nationalist?) once famously wrote…

Britishness has evolved; indeed, it has devolved! Deepening devolution – thus, in fact, a form of government within spitting distance of federalism – is the only route seriously open, and any party unaware of that aspect of contemporary Britishness has no right to call itself British. Or to call itself Unionist, for that matter.


19 thoughts on “Is Federalism Unionism’s only salvation?

  1. Alan says:

    Interesting you used the Norwegian/Scandinavian analogy. Scandinavians maintain a common Scandinavian identity despite their political independence from each other.

    That should send a message to the Unionist people in north Ireland. They will remain British whether the UK survives or not. Political bondage to England is not the price of Britishness.

    • Indeed – of course, re yesterday’s post, it sends a message to Nationalist people in NI too, that it is not necessary to be governed from Dublin to be Irish.

      • Alan says:

        True, but winning support for an independent NI post UK will be a lot harder than winning support for an autonomous Ulster within a united Ireland.

      • But would it?

        If you are going to have autonomy, in the context of the EU (and the Eurozone, in the case of Ireland), you may as well have outright sovereignty and then build cross-border linkages on an equal basis than have devolved autonomy accompanied by another West Lothian question and an inevitably dependency culture on the part of the economically weaker side (I refer you back to the Czechoslovak case, and also to contemporary Belgium).

        See today’s post, also.

      • See another response for that – I strongly suspect the reverse is true, in fact, even if it’s economically pretty scary!

      • Alan says:

        Because nationalists in the current NI feel part of the Irish nation as a whole, even if unionists don’t. So why would the same 40-45 per cent nationalists in NI not logically want unification with the rest of Ireland if the UK was breaking anyway?

        You might get a NI independence vote in Antrim and Down, but that’s it.

      • They may well want that, but no one is stopping them being part of the Irish Nation regardless of any outcome (that’s your own logic, as you accept).

        My specific point in an earlier post last week was that Czechs and Slovaks actually wanted to stay together as a single country, but when it came to negotiating it they simply found it easier to break up and be friendly, equal sovereign entities than increasingly antipathetic devolved ones (not well that one had a considerably higher GDP/capita than the other at the time, although interestingly in the intervening two decades that has been evened up). There remains chaos in Belgium, again not because the two sides particularly dislike each other but simply because their economic world views have become different. I have a strong feeling that would also be the outcome in Ireland.

  2. Dilettante says:

    Interesting piece, Ian. I’ll try to pen a rebuttal tonight that deals with some of your issues. My main contention is that integration and centralisation are not – or at least need not – be the same policy.

  3. fairdeal says:

    Is the problem with this debate not the false premis that it essentially treats the conservative party and unionism as synonymous? Which they aren’t.

  4. […] and Open Unionism’s Editor H.C.H. Hill go head to head over the federalist […]

  5. Dilettante says:

    The Conservative and Unionist Party is a unionist party.

    • Firstly, that is not always obvious (remember “no selfish or strategic interest”!)

      Secondly, for the record, my own issue is not so much whether it is or isn’t, but whether the type of Unionism it espouses is actually feasible. I refer again to the examples of countries which have broken up or failed to federate despite the majority intention on both/all sides to be united.

  6. william grant says:

    David Rickard has said elsewhere that he sees federalism as unworkable and thinks it would eventually lead to a separate England.

    • I am making precisely the opposite point. It is self-evident that the current system, with the blatant unfairness of the “West Lothian Question” and ongoing moves towards greater devolved powers is unstable and unworkable (and will thus eventually lead to a separate England). I use comparisons such as the break-up of Czechoslovakia to back this argument up.

      I’m not sure who David Rickard is, but on what does he base his assertions? What is his solution to the obvious unfairness within the current system? (And, to play the devil’s advocate, what is his argument against a separate England?)

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