Is federalism the answer to tackling nationalism in the UK?
- Credit: PA
Readers have their say on Andrew Adonis' essay on whether a federal UK is possible.
Can I answer Andrew Adonis’ question “What Chance a Federal UK?” (TNE #220). Yes, there’s every chance, if only we could stop being so shy of the ‘F’ word and address it head on. I hope the TNE will continue to do that.
My rather gloomy mood fell away as soon as I saw that, at last, someone of Lord Adonis’s experience had the courage to face the constitutional mess this country has got itself into, and begin to analyse the options for the whole of the Union and its regions.
At the moment the nationalists have the field. We hear that national independence and the break up of the Union is the only way forward. No alternatives other then the very unsatisfactory status quo are on the table. Which is odd when you think about it, except that it suits the nationalist cause to have so pathetic an opponent.
The option of a federal state as a viable way to bind the Union and the regions together is seldom if ever discussed openly. Perhaps the subject is so huge that politicians and commentators think voters/readers could not possibly be interested enough, or we couldn’t understand it anyway.
Nonsense. If we don’t understand it is because it has not been adequately explained. You can’t ever expect massive public interest in constitutional matters but that doesn’t make it of no importance; certainly not now. I think Lord Adonis’ article should be the start of our education in the matter.
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I enjoyed reading Andrew Adonis’s vision of a federal structure for the UK, similar to that of the Federal Republic of Germany, particularly as it echoes my own views, which have been consistent since my first general election in 1979 as an 18-year-old Labour voter in what was at the time, the seat with the biggest Conservative majority in Britain.
Brought up in Preston, with grandparents in Pendle and Liverpool, it’s pretty clear to me now that my views were formed by direct experience of the UK government bias towards the South East of England.
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Having spent the vast majority of my adult life in Scotland, I contend that the federal vision has come too late to make any difference to the cause of Scottish independence, particularly as ‘The Vow’ of 2014, signed by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders was side-lined as soon as the ‘No’ vote was delivered.
It’s not all doom and gloom though: I suspect that to achieve Andrew’s vision, the process will work in reverse and requires the Scots to vote for independence.
If that does happen, the fallout is likely to re-set UK politics and usher in cross-party commitment to early federalisation (with PR). In such a climate, the negotiations leading to the exit of Scotland from the UK, are likely to be less polarised than might otherwise be the case, so that Scotland retains very close ties with the rest of the UK and continues to share some institutions.
An independent Scotland would hopefully be welcomed back into the EU and then as an EU member would clearly have an interest in lobbying for its nearest neighbour to be encouraged to re-apply.
I have long thought a federal Britain the most sensible solution to the basic problem that the British Isles do not contain enough mass to counter the gravitational pull of London. I also believe that the idea of the nation state needs rethinking.
For most of recorded history the city state has been the primary economic and political unit and seen this way, most of Britain is irrelevant as far as London and its home counties hinterland are concerned. Your suggested English federal units lack romance, however. I would restore the realms that obtained before Aethelstan became the first King of England in 927. To whit, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex and Kent; plus – to keep the peace – Cornwall and, of course, Rutland.
Andrew Adonis boldly discusses a federal UK, drawing parallels with the Federal Republic of Germany. He omitted Austria from his thinking, and he did little thinking about Northern Ireland. In the German model, Northern Ireland represents the Silesian Corridor – now returned to Poland. Scotland represents Austria – a different nation.
Instead of yielding to the Brownian desperation for the continued gridlock known as the UK, Adonis should accept reality and propose an architecture for a Federal Republic of England with four devolved governments: North, Midlands, South-East – including-London – and South-West, or five if Wales (our Bavaria) decides to stay and make a Federal Republic of England and Wales. That really would measure up against the German template. Help Ireland find its way back to reunification; help Scotland back to independent nationhood (and EU membership); don’t seek to prolong the death throes of the UK.
Thank you for Andrew Adonis’s excellent article on a federal UK. I agree with everything he says, but I think it needs to be taken one stage further, at least in England, and this concerns local names. When we look at Germany it is evident that every state has a proper name:, e.g. Hesse, Bavaria, Brandenburg. Now look at the map of England. The only proper names apply to London, Anglia and Yorkshire and Humberside. Then look at the others: South East, South West; North East, North West; East Midlands, West Midlands. These are not proper names, just labels of convenience.
I believe that to give a regional state a sense of dignity, history and self-worth it needs a proper name. In order to do so we can look at the old pre-Norman kingdoms and local landmarks. So here are my suggestions: South East would become Thames; South West: Wessex and Cornwall. West Midlands already applies to the Birmingham conurbation, so it needs to be renamed. I suggest West Mercia. East Midlands could be East Mercia, or Trent, after the river that runs through the region. North East could become Northumbria.
That leaves the North West – tricky, as it has no binding identity. It was Cumbria in Saxon days, but this already applies to a county. So how about taking the names of the Roman cities, Chester, Manchester and Lancaster and calling it Castria? Contrived, I know. But does any reader have a better suggestion?
C A Ralls
I read with great interest – and approval – Andrew Adonis’ article. It’s worth noting that a little more than a century ago the wonderfully name British geographer, Charles Bungay Fawcett (1883-1952), came up with a broadly similar proposal for a federal England, based on a map not dissimilar from the one you reproduce. Fawcett’s first version was proposed in a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society in the middle of the First World War, later published as ‘Natural divisions of England, Geographical Journal 49, 2 (1917) 124-135.
Fawcett re-worked this into a full-length book, The Provinces of England: A Study of Some Geographical Aspects of Devolution, published in 1919 and re-issued several times since. As Fawcett argued, if the Allies were set on redrawing the map of post-war Europe to secure a lasting peace, Britain needed to rethink its internal political geography as well to ensure a just ‘home rule all round’ for Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to be sure, but also for the regions of England.
Mike Heffernan FBA MAE
Professor of Historical Geography, School of Geography, University of Nottingham
I compliment Andrew Adonis on his excellent article. He could say that we already have a quasi-federal constitution. I would quibble, though, about the 2004 north-east referendum, which, as a loyal Blairite, he portrays as “an attempt” to create a regional assembly. In fact, it was a sop to John Prescott, with so many imperfections that it was obvious to all voters that the proposed assembly would be an additional level of government, with few real powers. It would have been just a ‘talking-shop’, and was consequently rejected.
Adonis’ article was spot on. The German constitution was designed to ensure that there was a balance of power to prevent any future extreme government. We should have a similar arrangement in Britain. Were the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, and the Greens to join forces for the 2024 election to run on the issue of constitutional reform, they might well win. The reforms could be put in place followed by fresh elections. This might lead to a government seeking closer ties with the EU. Indeed a second referendum might be called on the issue.
Andrew Adonis must know that a federal Britain is too little, too late. Indeed, he admits as much in his penultimate paragraph. I suggest after 100-plus years of “l’Albion perfide” and with English nationalism rampant, the idea that Westminster would, or could, find the time or the commitment to take a Federal Britain seriously is fantasy. The so-called “Precious Union” is an anachronism, long past its use-by date. Independence for Scotland is long overdue and now looks inevitable.
It is good to see Andrew Adonis advocating regional devolution for England. Any devolution settlement must be entrenched in a way that prevents any Westminster government from revoking or bypassing it by a simple majority vote in parliament whenever it wishes to force its views on the rest. That takes us into the whole issue of a written constitution, but that is unavoidable.
Your map of Federal States of the UK in Andrew Adonis’ article lumps Cornwall in with the ‘South West’. Cornwall already has a separate identity as a country as far as many of us are concerned. Cornwall has a campaign for a Cornish Assembly. Cornwall has its own identity stretching back to ancient maps which show it separate from England.
Upon reading this article by Andrew Adonis, I was left wondering whether the Shetland Isles were to become an independent state, a British Overseas Territory, or for sovereignty to be ceded to Norway. Alternatively, is there a simpler explanation for their omission from the accompanying map?
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