A great number of people within the UK have flocked to nationalist parties since the Scottish referendum last September. Although the SNP has been growing in influence ever since devolution, as has Plaid Cymru in Wales to a lesser extent, we must remember that however progressive some of these parties’ social policies are, their fundamental aim and objective is to split up the UK.
It therefore seems odd that the idea of a federal UK has been ignored in place of ‘devolution max’. Devolution has proven itself to be a sporadic and unpredictable process, with no parity between the nations, with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all being given very different forms of devolution back in 1999, and progressing along their devolved ‘journey’ at very different paces. Federalism would not only aide parity between the nations, but may also stunt the reactionary support that nationalist parties are beginning to gain. More importantly, federalism may be the only way to keep the UK together.
The only mainstream political party that has encouraged the idea of federalism are the Liberal Democrats. It is the only party that is itself federal, with a Welsh and Scottish party that are autonomous whilst still falling under the overarching auspices of the nation-wide party. This not only demonstrates the party’s dedication to the idea of a federal UK, but certainly helped prepare them for devolution when it occurred.
The problem with the other parties is that they are either staunchly nationalist or too committed to the idea of the union that they believe federalism would encourage the nationalist surge to gain even more strength.
If the unionist parties would accept the benefits that federalism would bring, then perhaps it could be adopted, particularly in the age of coalition governments that seems to have fallen on Westminster. The nationalist parties would also, probably, put their support behind a move towards federalism, perhaps not realising the possible consequences to their new-found status as big political players within the UK.
In relation to Scotland, the idea that a federal UK would speed up the process towards Scottish independence simply does not add up. The incredible rise in SNP membership following the referendum and the surprisingly close result that was to the credit of the SNP-led campaign shows that support for the ‘Yes’ campaign was mostly sporadic and reactionary, as has been the case with the subsequent support that the SNP gained in the run-up to the general election.
It is reactionary in the sense that the SNP’s rhetoric surrounding the lack of powers given to Scotland has resonated in the minds of much of the electorate.
However, it can be argued that this reactionary and fundamentally populist direction that has been taken by the SNP in regards to the U.K could soon be countered. If the U.K were to become federal the idea of a Westminster dominated system would be profoundly diminished. With a Scotland that very much led itself within the U.K, to a much greater extent than a devolved Scotland, would cut off the life-blood of the SNP and would undermine their calls for independence with a great deal of these reactionary voters that they have been appealing to.
Wales’s nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, would also be significantly challenged by the prospect of federalism. Although the calls for independence in Wales are much, much, weaker than they are in Scotland, there has still been something of a nationalist revival in Wales since devolution. Again, this is because devolution fuels nationalism by being a very much hybrid system which encourages discussions.
As Ron Davies, one of the architects of Welsh devolution famously said, “Devolution is a process, not an event.” Federalism, on the other hand, can very much be seen as an event. Again, in Wales where the nationalist movement is much weaker, a federal system of governance for the UK nations would stunt the growth of nationalism and cause it to lose all of those supporters who don’t necessarily support nationalism, but instead dislike the devolution settlement. This is particularly relevant to Wales, whose devolution process has been much slower and more complicated than it has in Scotland, with the National Assembly originally having a very restricted and fundamentally unworkable form of ‘executive’ devolution, which didn’t even give them the power to create primary legislation.
It’s not only in Scotland and Wales where nationalism is surging, but also England. The increase in support for UKIP can not only be put down to the concerns of people over UK membership of the EU and immigration, but they have also used populist rhetoric to form a sort of English nationalism, that has always remained very hidden in British politics, often expressing itself in the form of a vote for the Conservative Party.
However, increase in support for UKIP is beginning to show the cracks in a unionist English tradition, which needs to be urgently remedied to avoid a completely divided UK. A federal UK would help to satisfy many of these reactionary English voters too.
Right across the UK, federalism would quell the increasingly ferocious and regressive rise of nationalism. One must ask how the SNP and Plaid Cymru would deal with Scotland and Wales being independent nations within the EU.
For the moment they proclaim that they are ‘internationalists’, which in itself is misleading considering the very nature of their parties. However, if they feel constrained as nations within a devolved UK, one can ponder how long it would take for them to feel constrained as an independent state within the EU.
Maybe one day the SNP or indeed Plaid Cymru may be equally as passionate about leaving the EU as they are currently about leaving the UK. A federal UK may therefore be the perfect remedy for the increase in nationalism throughout the UK, whether in Scotland, Wales, or increasingly, England, resulting in a UK that could remain united, but in which the nations would be able to forge their own direction.
Much better than the asymmetrical process of devolution we have seen, resulting in resentment in Wales and England, and a longing for more in Scotland, federalism would be a definitive move to appease nationalism, whilst keeping the foundations of a successful and important political union in the form of the UK alive.