This Is Not A
The Fairy That Can't Fly
Sorry folks, but it's another long politics piece.
Readers in Scotland (if I have any) - or readers elsewhere who have a knowledge of developments there over the past decade (ditto) - will be aware of a fantasy figure who was magicked up from the deep recesses of British Nationalist mythology and desperation to be paraded before the surly natives of Auld Caledonia in an attempt to take their minds off all that 'independence' nonsense.
This creature first appeared in the closing overs of the referendum campaign of 2014, and her magic wand was to be waved to persuade haverers and waverers that self-determination for their land was A Bad Idea, and that all of their problems could be resolved without resorting to actually exercising their sovereign rights as a people.
Now, as support for major constitutional change continues to rise over here in England's Oldest Colony™, she has been conjured into existence again in order to deflect the discussion around our nation's future.
Her name is The Federalism Fairy.
It's not difficult to see why this Peter-Panacea is being presented to us now, and it's for the same reason that she was made to manifest herself in Scotland. It's also why the notion of 'UK Federalism' is being promoted so heavily by people in and around that convocation of the vacillatingly vacuous called 'The Labour Party'. For, if you peruse the articles published over the last eighteen months or so on constitutional issues on the website of the self-described 'Institute of Welsh Affairs' (which I have referred to before by its more accurate name, 'The Institute for Crachach with Safe Opinions'), you will find an overwhelming preponderence of pieces which talk not only of 'Federalism', but something called 'Radical Federalism'. When they're not completely missing the point of the current debate by pretending that 'devolution', 'enhanced devolution' and 'home rule' are anything other than re-ordering the optics behind the bar in the cocktail lounge of the Titanic, of course; for nowhere is it adequately explained how these chimaeras would differ operationally in any substantive way from the half-cock fob-off we currently enjoy.
In short, the comrades (if that's not too left-wing an appellation for them these days; I suppose 'colleagues' would be deemed more appropriate now; if not 'stakeholders') are spooked. They know it, and we can see it. For when a party (or rather in this instance a regional accounting unit of a party) finds that about half its own voters are at least strongly curious about independence if not at this point full-on supporters, and that there are strong murmurs amongst the actual membership that 'separation' (which is, of course, a loaded word) might be preferable to being stuck with a sequence of ever more corrupt and ever more extreme right-wing régimes in London in near perpetuity (an increasing likelihood given the way that the Westminster system is about to be gerrymandered in favour of such an outcome), then clearly Something Has To Be Done. Or at least a Something which doesn't imperil that smooth path from councillor to Seneddwr to MP to Lord of the Realm which is still deemed to be the rightful inheritance of Labour political hacks in this country.
And so The Federalism Fairy is hauled up from the bottom of her enchanted well to be displayed to a populace whom the Labour Party has long believed (not, it must be said, without evidence) will swallow anything if it is presented in terms of that fake 'solidarity' which is only ever enjoined upon the weaker party.
The one thing which is not admitted to by any of these advocates of a 'Federal UK' is the biggest hindrance of all:
It can't happen.
For consider if you will the stages which would be necessary to bring about this Golden Future:
You would need one of the two main British Nationalist parties to place the creation of a 'Federal UK' front and centre in its election manifesto. Of the two, no-one more than a quarter sane could expect the Conservative Party ever to give house room even to the concept, let alone adopt it as part of their programme; and the UKanian Labour Party - being as they are as much given to flag-shagging and Union Jacking-off as their supposed opponents - although willing to espouse some of the rhetoric of the idea, could never commit themselves to it as an actual policy. For to do such would be to consign itself to electorial oblivion in England, from whence eighty-two per cent (soon to be eighty-four per cent) of MPs are chosen. One doesn't need much in the way of imagination to picture the explosion of frothing Gammonism in England's overwhelmingly hard-right press about how "Labour will break up OUR COUNTRY!!!". And in any case, how could you possibly convince a sufficient proportion of the population of England to vote for what, prima facie at least, would be a perceived diminution of their actual dominance and their delusions of significance?
So the unicorn (if you'll pardon the switch of metaphor at this juncture) falls at the first fence.
But let's pretend (since pretence is what is needed in spades to follow the potential itinerary involved in this matter) that one of the Big Two adopts such a policy and manages to get elected with it. Their majority would have to be so large as to render impotent any rebellion by those of its MPs who are still bewitched by a largely falsified history of 'Britishness'. Labour couldn't achieve such an outcome, especially under the changed boundaries; and the Tories would as likely tear up their stated commitment once they had their size nines safely under the table for the succeeding five years.
The magic horsey would unseat its rider at fence number two, then.
But as we're already entirely in the realm of comforting fantasy to an almost Disneyan degree here, let's push on just a tad further:
All other things up to this point being stipulated, what would the process be for drawing up proposed legislation to provide for this soi-disant 'Federal UK'?
Assuming that the banner-bangers had been at the very least neutralised, then the process of drafting any putative legislation would begin. There would be a Green Paper, followed in due course by a White one ("A pink one, a red one, the colours you choose"; a round of applause if you get the musical reference). This would, of course, take time. Enough time, indeed, for "events, dear boy, events" to push the issue further down the government's list of priorities, no doubt to its immense relief.
And that's before it ever has to encounter Whitehall in full cry.
For it should not be necessary to state that - seeing any such proposals as a removal of powers which the satsumas (i.e., diminished mandarins, but still as full of pith...and wind) have always regarded as their Divine Right - the senior civil service of UKania would put up a spirited and effective resistance (bear in mind that Jay and Lynn weren't writing comedy with Yes Minister and its sequel so much as drama-documentary).
All the means of misdirection, obfuscation and selective leaks from those "Whitehall sources" so beloved of the current generation of stenographers and fluffers masquerading as 'political correspondents' would be used to portray any change of any substance as being - to use Sir Humphrey's favoured word - 'unwise'.
Circumventing all of the above would take time, by which point the moment would have passed, another election would be drawing near, and the issue could safely be deposited in the same dusty bomb- and access-proof vault under The Strand which holds the ancient papyri headed 'Ethical Foreign Policy', 'The Big Society' and 'Levelling Up'.
Assuming against all of what we must now it seems refer to as 'lived experience' that any meaningful progress might be made, then the next fence to be jumped (or the next portal into Neverland to be transited, to return to my original image) would be to decide what form of federalism would be put forward.
There would, as I see it, be two main options:
- One where England, Cymru, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have one vote each in any deliberation on matters which were not fully devolved. This would include such areas such as macro-economic policy, external affairs, immigration and military matters, plus any area of state action which had to that point not been devolved, not been fully devolved, or simply grabbed back by Westminster and Whitehall without consent or consultation in the interim.
That a simple majority would be needed to pass any policy would not be remotely acceptable to the largest party to the putative 'federation'. For clearly, if that party has a population of fifty-seven million (enhanced by then by all the old farts forced to return from their Shandy Shangri-La in The Land Of Grey And Pink; another round of applause if you spotted that musical reference) - i.e., Torremolinos) and the other ones have a combined total of less than one fifth of that, then the fact that The One could be (and almost certainly would be) outvoted by The Rest on almost everything (given the diversity of outlook between them) would not be remotely acceptable to The One. It couldn't possibly be portrayed as being democratic in any case.
And so there would have to be a complex system of weighted votes, whereby England's numerical dominance would be exercised. Under such a system, England's position would count for, say, seven votes, Scotland three votes, and Wales and Northern Ireland one vote each. This would certainly reflect the preponderance of population, but it would merely replicate to a large degree the imbalance which currently exists in the Imperial Parliament, so it could hardly been termed an improvement.
- One where England was sub-divided into regions (they might be called 'Länder' or 'Cantons', except that they're forrun words and so ipso facto beyond the pale). The divisions could, for example, be: London and the South East; the South, the South West and Cornwall; the West Midlands; the East Midlands and East Anglia; Lancashire and Cumbria; Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; and Tees-side, Tyneside and Northumbria. That would still give England as a whole seven votes, and therefore reflect the numerical dominance, but would also be in toto much the same assymetry as we currently see.
It would also be a near-certainty that, on most issues, the English regions would vote en bloc, and produce the exact same results as under the other option.
In neither case would it make any sense to go to all that trouble, upheaval and expense simply to provide a faffed-about-with simulacrum of the distortions of power which have existed heretofore. It would be mere window dressing and would be no more democratic and no more reflective of the differing needs of the constituent parts of what is termed - with ever-increasing divergence from observable reality - 'the United Kingdom' than what we already have.
That one or other of these false solutions would be presented to a Westminster parliament still under a hopelessly unrepresentative voting system, under fiddled boundaries, and with a second chamber of appointees and donors which is now fifty per cent larger than the elected one, would merely be the start of the problem. The rearguard action of the remnants of the Battalions of Imperial Delusions (especially in what is termed 'The Other Place', quite rightly making it sound like somewhere beyond the grave and well into the realms of zombie damnation) would be fierce, and any of the more 'radical' elements remaining in the proposals at that point would be either removed or watered down into uselessness. What would emerge would be, to put it in terms familiar to constitutional scholars everywhere, 'a fucking mess'.
And all this would do nothing more than kick the issue down the road for another twenty years or more, or until England's neighbouring colonies decide that up with this shit they will no longer put and withdraw from the arrangement. At which point, the same arguments would no doubt again be put in favour of the status quo (or even the status quo ante) by those who still wouldn't have managed to shake off their comforting self-delusions about 'the British nation' or mere opportunistic careerism.
It is at this point that the Federalism Fairy lands with a loud 'Splat!' on the ground, picks herself up, says, "Sod this for a game of demiurges!", and goes online to see if she can buy a nice little retirement property in Narnia.
As I said at the top, it ain't gonna happen. The power structures of the State Of Greater England are so entrenched and so sclerotic that any change short of that State's outright dissolution would merely continue the wholly unsatisfactory arrangements against which we in 'the periphery' and 'the regions' (and in no other country is that latter term uttered with the barely-concealed condescension and contempt which manifest themselves here) have struggled for far too long.
It would be far better for the more rational advocates of whatever they think 'federalism' means to stop wasting their time and ours on promoting that which is - and forever would be - clearly unworkable in the UKanian context, and instead start thinking about - and planning for - the creation of a British Isles of free nations of equal standing and with equal mutual respect which just might get all of us on this archipelago moving forward in ways which are relevant to our own circumstances and mutually beneficial.
No magic wand is required.