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My plan to revive the United Kingdom

The union flag colours projected onto 10 Downing Street, to mark Brexit - Credit: PA

With the very fabric of the country threatening to tear apart, ANDREW ADONIS outlines his bold vision to reconstitute, and revive the United Kingdom.

Everyone knows that Attlee’s 1945 Labour government founded the NHS and the welfare state. It is less famous for founding Europe’s greatest federation, yet seven decades later this federal state is an international exemplar of good government, prosperity and democracy.

The trouble is, it isn’t the United Kingdom. It is the Federal Republic of Germany, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year.

Germany isn’t Britain’s only lasting federal legacy. We created federal structures for Canada in the 1860s and for Australia 30 years later, both former colonies at the heart of the ‘Anglosphere’ which Boris Johnson so admires. More grudgingly, the United States also owes much to Britain. But Germany is by far the most instructive model for Britain in the size, power and complexity of the territories covered by the federation, and in its success as a European country. 

Not only has the Federal Republic laid to rest Germany’s fascist and communist past, it has become the unquestioned, and remarkably unthreatening, leader of Europe at large. This is thanks to its democratic liberalism and the distinction of its eight federal chancellors, who have held office for almost twice as long on average as British prime ministers since 1949, partly because they have not been hegemonic within Germany itself, unlike the occupants of Number 10 who usually burn out within a few years. 

The best thing the UK could do today, if it is going to survive as a ‘united kingdom’, is to reform itself into a federation on the model of the Federal Republic with its 16 federal states, its federal chancellor (Bundeskanzler), its elected state parliaments each with their own prime minister, plus a federal constitutional court and a second chamber (Bundesrat) representing the state governments.

The Bundesrat is responsible for the fair nationwide distribution of taxes and revenues. In contrast to our largely irrelevant part-nominated and part-hereditary House of Lords, it is a forum in which key national policies such as minimum nationwide standards of educational and health provision are negotiated by the leaders of the states (Lander), while allowing for substantial diversity and democratic control at state level. 

Until Angela Merkel, every German chancellor from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl had previously been prime minister, minister or mayor of a German state or city. Merkel, now into her 16th year as chancellor, is the exception, but was chosen largely because she came from the former East Germany and symbolised the unity of the painfully but successfully enlarged federal Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“We need to keep the Iron Curtain down and build up West Germany behind it,” said Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary who initiated the process towards German federalism in 1946. “Then there is more chance of drawing Eastern Germany towards the West rather than vice versa.”

This was prophetic, and not only about Germany. Two years after the formation of the federal republic in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community, which became today’s European Union, was launched by Adenauer and Robert Schuman of France on this same German model of a ‘federal core’ taking on only functions, notably over free trade and cross-border movement of people, which added substantial value to the work of the member states. 

The success of this ‘Common Market’, as it was called in the early years, attracted new member states across Europe like a magnet. It now extends from Cork to Krakow, without changing the original institutions and distribution of powers within the EU’s successful structure as founded in the 1950s, similar to how West Germany first attracted and then incorporated East Germany. Over seven decades this led the EU to expand from six to 28 members states, including all the countries of central and eastern Europe colonised by Stalin alongside East Germany after 1945. 

Since the launch of this nascent European Union in 1951, only one country has joined and then left: yes, Britain. Lacking federal institutions itself, and governed essentially as Greater England with little effective devolution even within its dominant nation, Britain and its the imperial-minded Conservative Party – essentially an English nationalist party – failed to adapt to the EU in the way that Germany did from its inception and over time France did too, overcoming its long imperial and centralised past under the long modernising presidencies of Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand between 1958 and 1995. 

Historically, Ireland has been the Achilles heel of the United Kingdom. Symbolically, the Attlee government’s one substantive post-war reform of the United Kingdom was to grant complete sovereign independence to southern Ireland in 1949, which for the previous 25 years had been self-governing but still subject to the British crown.  

Under Gladstone in the late 19th century, serious efforts had been made to turn the UK into a willing federation. The ‘grand old man’ of liberalism twice introduced legislation to create a devolved Irish parliament within the UK, with the support of moderate Irish nationalists who did not then want to break up the UK. Gladstone saw this as the first stage of what he called ‘home rule all round’, with equivalent parliaments intended for Edinburgh, Cardiff and London. ‘Westminster’ would have become a federal parliament and government.

Tragically, the Tories managed to thwart Gladstone’s plans for Irish ‘home rule’. To do so they mobilised English nationalism and the then powerful Tory-dominated House of Lords; they even precipitated an army mutiny when Irish devolution was about to be enacted by the successor Liberal government to Gladstone’s shortly before the First World War.

Civil war ultimately ensued in Ireland, forcing Lloyd George to concede self-government in 1922 to a de facto southern Irish state under Eamon de Valera, who had narrowly escaped being executed as a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. De Valera was determined to get southern Ireland out of the UK as soon as possible, and succeeded 26 years later.

Attlee himself signed the treaty abolishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland while on holiday in Dublin in 1948. “I signed a treaty while the family shopped,” was his typically laconic remark on this anticlimactic finale to centuries of the original United Kingdom. Significantly, the new Republic of Ireland refused even to sign up to the increasingly nominal ‘British Commonwealth’ of existing and former colonies. Instead in 1973 it joined the European Union alongside Britain, as a co-equal and independent state; and in Europe it has remained, increasingly proud and strong, despite Brexit. 

De Valera’s complete secession of southern Ireland from the UK has shades of England’s more recent mishandling of Northern Ireland and Scotland, particularly by English-dominated Tory governments. This dates back to the creation of the devolved Stormont assembly in the 1920s in the case of Northern Ireland, and to the serially botched handling of Scottish devolution within the UK since the 1960s.

There were enlightened moments, notably Tony Blair’s Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ending Northern Ireland’s civil war, and the creation of the devolved Scottish and Welsh parliaments at the same time. But subsequent British governments at Westminster refused to engage with these devolved institutions fully, let alone move towards a fully-fledged federation, which was the essential next step to forging a durable United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Instead, Greater England lurched towards Brexit, at the behest of the right wing of the Conservative party, inspired by Margaret Thatcher, egged on by even more extreme Brexiters beyond, led by Nigel Farage and his successive anti-EU parties.

The uniting theme was rampant English nationalism. This was especially true of Scot-by-birth Michael Gove, who from his Times column in the 1990s and later as Tory MP for Surrey Heath vitriolically denounced both the Good Friday Agreement and the new Scottish parliament – he likened the former to the appeasement of the Nazis and the condoning of the desires of paedophiles – before leading the Brexit campaign.

In retrospect, the Blair government’s fundamental mistake lay in its failure to create effective devolution within England, which could have heralded UK federalism in the 2000s. Blair’s one successful federal reform within England was the creation of a mayor of London, but the attempt to follow this with an assembly for the north east of England collapsed in a 2004 referendum through lack of good policy planning and political management. Poignantly, the leader of the ‘no’ campaign in 2004 was that famous fan of Barnard Castle, Dominic Cummings.

Under Cameron and May, a few more city mayors were created in England, but with few powers and no coherent federal framework. The most vocal of these mayors is Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, who has denounced Johnson’s government for its policy of regional Covid-19 lockdowns. “The north is fed up of being pushed around,” he declared on the steps of Manchester town hall. His next words painfully encapsulate just how bad things are: “The north is standing on the verge of being back where we were in the 1980s, forgotten and pushed aside.”

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon looks set for a landslide re-election in Scotland, leading a Scottish National Party committed to a second independence referendum. Support for complete Scottish secession from England now commands a large majority in polls north of the border, while support for a United Ireland is gathering pace in Northern Ireland.

Can the break-up of the remaining parts of the United Kingdom be avoided? Only, in my view, if there is an early move towards the creation of a German-style federation, accepted willingly, even if not initiated, by the Conservative party.

The model of how to get there might be the Scottish constitutional convention, a high-level assembly of political, religious and civil society representatives which in the mid-1990s devised the plans for a devolved Scottish parliament and government. They were implemented largely unchanged by the Blair government, although previously fiercely resisted by John Major’s Tories who fought the 1997 election on the slogan of ‘New Labour New Danger’ – the greatest alleged danger being the break-up of the UK if Labour proceeded with devolution, when in reality devolution was the only then viable strategy for maintaining the union.

Yet even were such a UK-wide constitutional convention to be established, there would be the highly problematic issue of how credible regional units of government could be established within England.

German offers some hope. In the late 1940s, apart from the former kingdom of Bavaria in the south-east, there were few natural – dare one say ‘oven-ready’? – regional units for a federal Germany. Pre-1945 Germany had been dominated by Prussia, much as contemporary Britain is dominated by England. Prussia was brutally severed after the war by the Iron Curtain, but there was anyway a realisation that Prussia had to be divided into separate governmental units if a federal Germany was to succeed, and there was no attempt to revive a single Prussian state even after reunification in 1990.

What was done instead was to treat three of the largest cities – Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen – as states in their own right and then to create regions, harnessing as much existing regional sentiment as possible, across the rest of the country.
In England, where London is an existing city ‘state’, a similar approach might conceivably work. It has been attempted once before in the creation, a generation ago, of the nine ‘standard English regions’, which became the basis for England’s regional development agencies as fairly successful organisations until suddenly and capriciously abolished by the Cameron/Clegg government as part of austerity after 2010. The two largest of these regions – London and the south east – are the same size combined as the largest of the German federal states: North Rhine Westphalia with 18 million inhabitants.

It takes a huge dose of optimism to believe that, in today’s toxic and bitterly partisan climate, a sufficient consensus could be mobilised behind such a plan for a federal UK, even were one to be devised by a UK constitutional convention. But stranger things have happened, like modern federal Germany after the war. It might just happen at the behest of a wise – probably non-Tory – government.

Whether we will see one of those in the 2020s is another matter.

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