No way back for Britain: federation or independence are the only options

Another way to address the question of the constitutional options that should be put to all the nations of the UK at the same time as a Scottish referendum on independence for Scotland (see previous post) is to say that we should all have a vote, not just on independence for our respective countries, but one that asks us to choose between independence and the only other viable way forward for the UK: a federal state.

No other solution than one of these two will work. The reason is not solely because the Scots will ultimately opt for independence anyway, but also because no other solution can satisfy the aspirations of the English to the dignity and freedom of democratic self-rule. And here’s a short potted guide as to why.

In the Britain before devolution, ‘Britain’ (technically, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) was effectively the English state. The diagram below represents the overlapping identities of England, Britain and the rest of the UK that prevailed at that time in the minds of the English:

Prior to devolution, there was a symbiosis, in English minds, between England and the sense of Englishness (the ‘English national consciousness’), on the one hand, and Britain and the British state, on the other. I’ve represented this on the above diagram in the form of the two red arrows pointing either way between England and Britain: England both identifies with, and sees itself as the ‘owner’, of the British state; and the British state and establishment sees itself as the civic expression of the English nation (hence, it identifies with / officially ‘owns’ Englishness). In addition, through the medium of the British state, England effectively rules Wales, Scotland and, at one further remove (through the UK), Northern Ireland. The ideas of the ‘nations’ of England and Britain consequently overlap; while any national consciousness / identities of Scotland or Wales are subsumed within, and submerged by, England-Britain.

In other words, before devolution, England was effectively a sovereign democratic nation, in charge of its own destiny through its own state, which was Britain.

Devolution radically changed all that, as illustrated below:

Devolution broke up the organic unity, in the English national consciousness, between England and the other nations of the UK mediated through England’s identification both with the British state and with the ‘Britain’ that England ruled ‘as its own’ through that state. The weakening of this identification with, and ownership of, Britain is indicated above by the broken red arrow from England to Britain. Instead, England-Britain was parcelled up into separate ‘nations’: England itself then effectively becoming just another British nation like the other three. The difference, however, was that these other nations have acquired a measure of self-rule (indicated by the broken white arrows from the British state to each of the devolved countries).

England, on the other hand, now perceives itself all of a sudden as subject to direct British rule. In formal constitutional terms, the relationship between England and Britain has not fundamentally altered: England is subject to the rule of British parliamentary democracy, just as before. However, what has changed is that England – or many in England – no longer identifies with, and feels it owns, the British state and government, which is what had made British governance one and the same thing as English self-governance. Now England perceives itself as something separate from Britain that is directly governed by Britain, in contrast to the other UK nations, which have gained semi-autonomy from Britain. Not only that; England’s identification with Britain may have weakened, but the British state’s identification with, and official ownership of, England has not been shattered. This means that Britain still sees itself as the civic expression of Englishness; but this is not counterbalanced by an investment of belief, on the part of the English, that Britain is its ‘property’ and that the British government is answerable to it for how they rule Britain, and England.

(Incidentally, this alienation of the English from what was once ‘their’ British government is probably the main reason for the much discussed disaffection of the ‘British’ people with politics and their scepticism about parliament. It’s the English who feel that parliament no longer represents them. And indeed, it doesn’t: not just in its composition (both disproportionate to the votes cast, and including Scottish and Welsh MPs that can vote on England-only matters for which they are not accountable to English voters) but also in the fact that it refuses to represent itself as an English representative body, even on England-only issues: referring to itself officially only as British.)

In other words, as England divests its sense of nationhood away from Britain, Britain takes over a role as a nation in its own right as well as that of the state: previously, Britain had been the state of the English nation. ‘Britishness’ therefore takes over from English nationhood as the symbolic, psychological, political and spiritual centre of the UK; and England becomes the sub-national property and realm of Britain, rather than Britain being the property and realm of the English as before. The final expression of this demotion from nation status is the plan to break England up into a number of devolved regions: totally abolishing and denying the national consciousness and aspirations of England. Meanwhile, the degree of autonomy away from English-British rule acquired by the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish begin the development, or re-flowering, of distinct national consciousnesses in those countries: they become semi-liberated nations at the same time as England’s nationhood is (sub)merged into Britain.

I should stress that this ‘take-over’ of England by Britain is still not perceived by many in and out of government as having introduced any fundamental change. From the perspective of government, there was no such thing as ‘English governance’ even before devolution: officially, there was only the British state, parliament, constitution, civic institutions, etc. The fact that these were unofficially – but also, very often explicitly referred to as – English is therefore, from this official perspective, irrelevant. But the present-day censorship of references to these things as being English is profoundly significant in that it suppresses the previous English consciousness of Britain as the English state. This perception still exists, albeit in weakened form (and hence, represented by a broken arrow in the above diagram). And the government relies on this popular English absence of discrimination between the officially British and the informally English to propagate its suppression of Englishness as something distinct from Britain. English people simply assume that so many areas of ‘British governance’ that are reported on in the news (education, health, housing, etc.) relate to Britain as a whole; whereas they are in fact merely English matters that could and should be dealt with by a parliamentary body comprising representatives elected only in England.

But while, politically, this represents a kind of theft of English sovereignty on the part of British parliamentarians seeking to uphold their power and privileges, it is also true to say that this repositioning of Britishness as the centre of meaning and values at the heart of the UK state is largely a response of English people to the separation and disengagement of the English consciousness from the British project. Something had to fill the vacuum at the heart of Britishness left by England’s departure from it; and that something was ‘British values’ that were effectively just a new name for the old English values anyway, re-packaged as ‘British’, which – officially – was what they always had been, when England and Britain saw themselves as one.

One of the other options to redress this intolerable state of affairs (and, indeed, affairs of state) would be a devolved English parliament like those of Scotland and Wales. This is how that might look:

While this is an improvement on the current situation – certainly, in that England now has a degree of democratic self-rule in devolved matters – it is highly doubtful whether it could provide a permanent solution. This is because it satisfies the aspirations to sovereign, national self-rule of neither the Scots nor the English. It is highly questionable whether the English would be content to be effectively only a semi-nation subordinate to the UK state. For the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, such a devolution settlement – essentially unchanged from the present-day situation illustrated in the second diagram above – still represents an improvement from pre-devolution days when their countries were sub-national, subordinate units within the English-British nation state. But this semi-independence will not be sufficient for the Scots with their justified aspirations to sovereign self-determination. Similarly, the English are not going to swap their former sovereignty as masters of the British realm for a subordinate role, albeit one that is an improvement on their present submersion and subjection within Britain.

One possibly viable alternative would be the federal model, illustrated below:

This diagram differs from the inclusive-devolution model in two essential respects. 1) The red arrows are pointing from the individual nations to ‘Britain’, or the ‘Federation of British and Irish Nations (FBIN)’, as I’ve called it. This means that the new federal state is now not the ‘owner’ of the four nations but that they own the state. This would be a new state whose forms of governance and parliamentary structures could be radically different from the present set up. It could even be a republic if the people in all the nations decided this is what they wanted. And this is the essential point: the forms and powers of the federal state would be determined by what the people in each nation decided, in a bottom-up process of democratic delegation of power. So the new state would dance to the tune of the nations, not the other way round. The federal state, by definition, would still have powers and responsibilities over and towards the four nations (or five, if Cornwall also became a separate nation); but these would be conferred on it by the countries in a process of ‘shared sovereignty’ analogous to the way in which the EU has been given sovereign powers in certain agreed areas by its member states. The member states of the new FBIN would also be sovereign nations, joined together in a formal supra-national federation of mutual interest. 2) The other main difference is that Northern Ireland joins the three other countries in complete parity: there is no distinction between ‘Britain’ and the UK – indeed, both names disappear as obsolete, in political terms. Whether the two communities of Northern Ireland wished their province to assume national status as part of such a federal arrangement would be down to them.

Something like this, I feel, is about the only way to accommodate the centrifugal force of the growing assertion of a right to self-government on the part of the English and Scottish nations. All four (or five) nations could be virtually independent in this model; just pooling their sovereignty in strategically vital areas.

The alternative would be independence for all the nations, as illustrated below:

Under this model, ‘Britain’ ceases to exist altogether as a political entity. Now Britain is merely the territory of the British Isles inhabited by four (or five) separate nations that yet are not separate in terms of their close relationships of trade, culture, personal ties, and joint responsibility for the security, economic prosperity and ecology of these islands.

One or other of these last two options – federation or independence – is the only way forward. There certainly is no way back to the old Britain, which cannot answer the English or Scottish Questions. So let’s start looking forward to, and planning for, the ‘new Britain’ of federal or independent nations. This is indeed something to look forward to.


8 Responses

  1. Who says there is no way back? The EU-controlled puppet ‘parliament’ of Follyrood and the even more pathetic assmbly in Cardiff could be abolished overnight if Gordon Brown had the commonsense to recognise the fact that they were expensive white elephants which have created nothing but trouble from the day they came into existence. The legislation of the Scotland Act clearly states that Follyrood is a DEVOLVED legislature of Westminster and has NO INHERENT SOVEREIGNTY OF ITS OWN.

  2. Yes, the UK government could abolish the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales at a stroke – legally. Politically, it would be suicide, though, particularly in Scotland, where Labour still has pretensions of regaining its former status as the dominant party. I don’t think you could ever get back to the way things were before devolution: the aspirations for independence, or at the very least self-governance, in both Scotland and England have become too great.

  3. Absolutely right.

    The point that the politicians are missing in their Westminster Bubble is that the longer they leave it, the less likely that federation will remain as an option – attitudes hardening on all sides all the time.

    And especially in England.

    We imbibed Unionism with our mother’s milk, so when the English start turning away from the Union in significant numbers you’d think the politicians would take notice. What they also seem to be missing is that “breaking” with the idea of Union is a significant step, not taken lightly, and unlikely to be reversed.

  4. Gordon abolish the Scots parliament??
    He was the prime mover in setting it up, as evidenced by his signature on the Scottish Claim of Right.
    He and his co-conspiritors knew exactly what the consequences would be, and were recognised, controlled and pre-planned. The perpetrators still cannot believe their luck that they still have the keys to England’s pantry.

  5. There is nothing unnatural about the United Kingdom. Our histories are intertwined and so are our destinies. All this talk of ‘independence’ is deeply worrying and a load of nonsense. Let’s not fall into the trap the EU has laid for us.

    I can’t see how federalism would work though seeing as England is out of all proportion to the rest of the Kingdom. There would have to be regional parliaments in England.

  6. Barry,

    Your other comment (about the fact that there shouldn’t be a referendum, in your view, as the UK is your country and no one should be allowed to take it away from you) hasn’t appeared on the site, even though I can see it in the administrator bits of the site. The obvious riposte to that is that that’s the whole point of a (or multiple) referendum(s): it gives the people the choice about the future for their country / -ies, rather than their having to accept what the politicians impose. It’s the same the other way round: why should people have to accept what they see as ‘their’ countries (England, Scotland, etc.) being ruled by another state (Britain) if they’d rather be independent, or joined in some other type of relationship such as federation?

    You ask how federalism would work given the dominant size of England. I think you’d have to have some sort of qualified majority voting in the federal parliament, dealing with matters such as defence and security, international affairs, immigration, the environment, etc. This effectively amounts to a veto, which could be limited to significant changes in policy or legislation, and major votes such as decisions to go to war, not relatively minor bills and regulations. In other words, there’d have to be a majority among each of the nations’ representatives (or whatever the ‘MPs’ would be called) in such matters. This would force the parties to work together across national lines to build majorities in favour of important bills. This should help to ensure greater cohesion in the new federation, in that it would be important to make the new parliament work and cross-national alliances would need to be forged among the parties, meaning that there would have to be a strong level of commitment to the process as the expression of a continuing and strategically vital union of the nations of these islands.

  7. How to make a county disappear:

    Well I don’t have the exact formula but if you study this website from the Duchy of Cornwall Human Rights Association you’ll be able to see exactly the constitutional loops the establishment and Duchy authority have jumped through to turn Cornwall, an extraterritorial crown possession legally separate from England, into a supposed English county.

    This site explains how a British territorial possession became someone’s private estate.

    It makes great and fairly easy reading and should be studied by all those interested in the UK constitution. For more details of the Duchy scam you can listen to the person behind the Duchy of Cornwall Human Rights Association, John Angarrack, in interview on BBC radio Cornwall talking about his new book here:

  8. Excellent post.

    Fully agree that only a federal solution or independence are the only sensible answers to the West Lothian Question.

    Independence though is the far more practical solution.

    Bring it on!

    An addendum to Barry’s point about the Holyrood Parliament not having sovereignty. Of course thats true, but Westminster does not have Scottish sovereignty either.

    The sovereignty of Scotland lies with its people as attested by Scots Law:

    ‘The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law…I have difficulty in seeing why it should have been supposed that the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish Parliament, as if all that happened in 1707 was that Scottish representatives were admitted to the Parliament of England. That is not what was done.’

    – McCormick v Lord Advocate 1954 (1953 SC 396)

    The principle was also defended by arch-unionist Michael Forsyth as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997.

    “We are sovereign within the Union and we can walk out any time we want”.

    Of course that was just before the devolution settlement, but it was testament to the fact that Westminster did not – and still does not – hold Scottish sovereignty.

    It may wish – or even legislate – that Holyrood has no powers to implement an Independence referendum but in practice, once the sovereign will of the people have spoken in Scotland it will be seen as powerless on the matter.

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