No Federal Finale

Officially, the Coalition doesn’t do regions. Much play is made of the apparent deconstruction of the institutional legacy heaped up by successive governments. Yet too much remains in place for the spin to be taken seriously. The regions still exist for statistical purposes and for European elections and are still used by numerous organisations, both inside government (such as English Heritage) and outside (such as the National Trust).

We have even witnessed the creation of new regional institutions, as when on the 1st February this year the two ambulance trusts in ‘The South West’ merged under the name of – you’ve guessed it – the South Western Ambulance Service. There remain two ambulance trusts for the two very different arms of the mainland ‘South East’, with the Isle of Wight sensibly retaining its independence. How long these latter arrangements will last is open to question. Elsewhere, the amalgamations have already delivered pure, unamended Prescottism.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realise that Lord Prescott may have good grounds to smile at the persistence of the regional tier in English administration. However much English nationalists may rant to the contrary, regions are needed if a country the size of England is to be governed effectively and efficiently. They’ve been around in one form or another for thousands of years. The Romans had them. And the Saxons. And everyone since who has tried to manage without a regional policy has either relented, or sat back and let its absence ruin huge swaths of the country as power, wealth and talent gravitate to the bloated centre of government in one small corner. Those who inhabit the peripheries of England are to be congratulated (or is it pitied?) for their patience. Less craven folk would have run up the flag of separatism long ago.

How must this be viewed abroad? Probably with some bemusement. ‘We’re all English, so, obviously, all decisions of more than local importance must be taken in London’. That’s a fair summary of English nationalism. Imagine how contested the equivalent statements would be in France, Italy, Germany or Spain. And how upset the Eng nats would be at the idea that ‘we’re all European, so, obviously, all decisions of more than local importance must be taken in Brussels’. So what still holds it all together, this Norman-derived view of a one-size-fits-all England?

Fear of more cost? Yes. But is that rational? Regions already exist, for sound, practical reasons. (They just don’t have sound, practical boundaries.) The only additional cost is democracy and that can be offset by reducing the number of MPs at Westminster. How do you measure in advance the savings that would flow from better co-ordination of services regionally and better scrutiny of regional budgets? The elimination of waste and duplication? Does England need nine regions? We could probably manage very well with five. The reason we have more has a lot to do with Whitehall divide-and-rule, with not wanting powerful challengers in ‘the provinces’. All these things would be exposed if we could only have the debate that is needed, unconstrained by politicians from the London regime setting parameters we aren’t allowed to question. Exposed too would be the cost of the status quo. We shall be paying £73 billion (or more) to build HS2, the rail route ‘needed’ (in the face of all commercial evidence to the contrary) to maintain London’s grip on the northern peripheries.

Fear of less power? Yes. But is that rational? English nationalists online frequently pop up in discussions involving the Celtic countries, never to put a positive case for England but always to belittle their neighbours. ‘You wouldn’t be viable without money from English taxpayers.’ Look into it and you’ll find that it’s England that’s being subsidised, not the other way round. Those who believe, despite the evidence, that England subsidises the other parts of the UK and that that’s a bad thing should, far from criticising the Celtic nationalist parties, surely join them and work to put a stop to it. It’s an odd sort of argument that defines Englishness mostly in terms of ability to influence what happens in other parts of the UK. The white man’s burden and all that. But it’s very revealing of the true nature of English nationalism as British nationalism’s last stand, still clinging to Greater England. While resisting all bids for territorial reform within because they concern issues and areas that don’t ‘matter’. London is heavily subsidised by the rest of England and it has an elected assembly too. That’s fine, because we’re all English. Let’s whine about the Barnett formula instead.

Fear of less sovereignty? Yes. But is that rational? The case for a regionalised England would be the same even if the continent did not exist. The fact that our neighbours over there are regionalised should at least cause us to ask if we’re not missing something important. The way in which Europe and the regions have become tangled in the popular imagination is shocking. The politicians responsible for spreading misinformation should be ashamed of themselves. The fact that they don’t care about the truth tells us all we need to know. Regionalism has a long history in England, among folk who are not by any stretch of the imagination anti-English.  And if regions round the edges do start talking to their foreign neighbours, what business is that of London’s?  Why should the abused peripheries not trust foreigners more than they trust the callous representatives of the London regime?

Cost, power and sovereignty are three significant cards. How does an establishment under attack play them to best effect? By proposing a federal Britain of four states: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (Cornwall is missing, obviously, but academics and politicians alike who ponder constitutional questions are steeped in 19th and 20th century history; they’ve yet to catch up with the 21st.) Federalism can be argued for on the basis that only one more parliament is needed, though it would be interesting to see whether that’s cheaper than a set of regional ones, once travelling costs are compared. It can also be argued for on the basis that power remains largely centralised and that it’s a different set-up to the one that Johnny Foreigner has, so a very British way of doing things. There are even Commonwealth parallels, in Australia, Canada and Malaysia, all federal constitutional monarchies.

Expect to see the federal solution pushed hard in the run-up to Scotland’s referendum on independence. The UK establishment are desperate to play it cool. The idea that they might lose the referendum isn’t one they want to talk about. No doubt the civil service has a plan. Delaying tactics. Negotiations over the split of assets and liabilities. Currency. Sovereign bases. A new UK-wide mandate to halt change. Anything just to make it go away. And if they win the referendum – as polls still suggest they will – quell the Scots just like after 1979. How? Why not try locking everyone into a federal constitution?

Try it and see. It might at least shut them all up for a while. Buy some time. The Welsh would have to accept more powers than they’re ready for but so what? It might have to mean a written constitution, which would be dangerous for the old order, but it’s possible it might not come to that. Some fudge involving the Supreme Court as arbiter might work…

It’s doomed. Folk from all parts of the UK, but especially from England, imagine that a federal solution is an easy one. It isn’t. There are no examples of stable democratic federations in which one state accounts for over four-fifths of the total population. Prussia and Russia were able to dominate Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union respectively because neither federation was truly democratic. It was possible therefore for the Prussian and Russian governments to be enmeshed with the federal governments to the point where any distinction became merely formal. Prussia’s experiment with a democracy all of its own, under the Weimar Republic, was abruptly terminated in 1932. The federal government cynically suspended the regional government and installed its own commissioners, setting precedents that the Nazis were then to exploit over the following two years.

Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are further examples of federations that didn’t work out, because one ethnic group was usually in charge. Within the common law tradition, we remember the balanced colonial federations that held together (Australia, Canada or Malaysia), not the unbalanced ones that fell apart (the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland or the West Indies Federation).

Federalists place great faith in the constitutional division of functions (along with an apportionment of revenues to fund them). So: this area is British (defence, foreign affairs); this area is English (health, education). Simple, in theory. But in practice, dividing lines are hard to draw, even with the aid of a constitutional court, because the areas of responsibility tend to flow into one another. What enables lines to be drawn, in most federations, is the difference in scale between state and federation. Each recognises the limits of what is practical, of what is too big for the one to handle and too detailed for the other. But where state and federation are evenly matched, continuous dispute over competences is inevitable. Add in the possibility that they could be under different political control and the fuse is lit. Add in the fact that in the EU context a British government would be responsible for negotiations over matters affecting English competences and the gunpowder is ready to explode.

A four-state federal solution will not work. A federal solution with England partitioned into regions might have been popular with theorists a generation ago. England didn’t exist in those days, as something politically distinguishable from Britain. Now it does. Celtic nationalism has created it. (It never had any reason to stir itself.) Since it won’t go back in the bottle, the challenge is to accommodate it. Dissolution of the UK may be one way to achieve a better relationship between the five nations but since not all are ready to demand their independence that remains a painful option.

By itself, separatism-all-round does not answer the question of what sort of England works best for those who live here. It transforms a debate that has long been largely between London and the peripheral nations into one solely between London and the peripheral regions. English nationalists appear to assume that once borders are in place with Cardiff and Edinburgh, England will settle down to a new Golden Age of national unity. It’s at least equally likely to fuel the fires of discontent in Bristol and Newcastle, with envious glances across those borders. Envious because Wessex and Northumbria are at least as capable as their Celtic neighbours of managing their own affairs. An England that wants stability will be an England wise enough to devolve most questions of less than national importance to a new breed of regional parliaments. And that, in practice, can mean almost everything.

Federalism works where everyone wants the same degree of autonomy. It comes under strain where some have greater aspirations than others and falls apart where the range of aspirations becomes too great to accommodate within a single framework. Often, that’s down to geography. Remote islands, for example, are clearly capable of exercising wider powers simply because what they do doesn’t impinge much on others. Peninsulas – like Cornwall and Scotland – are almost in the same position.  England forms a more compact block, though still a huge one, where opportunities for federalism or something like it have yet to be fully explored.  It is one nation, in theory.  But it’s also a nation whose geography has moulded long regional histories and deep-rooted cultural differences. The one-size-fits-all crowd have yet to recognise the damage done to real English lives by ignoring this.

Different laws, languages and administrative frameworks are no obstacles to a political union within the same commonwealth, any more than different religions, classes or individual outlooks. The only means to unite them is precisely to respect them. So wrote Yann Fouéré, in L’Europe aux Cents Drapeaux. Federalists have their work cut out if they think they can manage that in the Disunited Kingdom.  They’d be far better off looking beyond it.

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