Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a constitutional convention, in a speech which was postponed from last month because he wanted to concentrate on getting Brexit done. That alone demonstrates the Labour leaders lack of understanding of the people of Scotland and their priorities. Putting aside the fact that Labour have had decades to offer Scotland more powers and have not done so, they were even less keen on offering more powers through the Smith Commission than the Conservatives were. Let’s also put aside the fact that Starmer is not in power and doesn’t look likely to be in power any time soon.
Federalism or near Federalism was offered by Gordon Brown in 2014 (someone else who has no power to implement what he is offering) and has been discussed for several years and now, with the Scottish Labour Party suggesting it as an alternative to independence, so Federalism is the expected offer should any convention ever exist (which is in itself is doubtful). We researched the facts and we found the following:
Federalism requires the agreement of all member-states of the UK, it cannot be implemented by Scotland alone. With a Conservative majority in Westminster that does not back Federalism, such an agreement is highly-unlikely. It’s also worth considering that under Federalism, Scotland’s political power would still be limited by a central government outside of Scotland. Therefore, many Scottish voters would not consider it as an alternative to independence.
- Federalism involves a mode of political organisation that distributes power between a central authority (e.g. Westminster) and the constituent units (e.g. Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland). These states are granted certain powers, while others are retained by the central government.
- Federalism cannot be implemented in Scotland without the rest of the UK also adopting federalism and this would involve significant constitutional change.
- A recent poll from Panelbase highlights that only 10% of Conservative voters support federalism. Therefore, considering that Westminster holds a Conservative majority, the implementation of federalism is practically impossible.
- It was demonstrated in the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission that there is no federal structure currently that could accommodate England as a separate entity.
- The House of Lords Select Committee on the constitution concluded that: There is no support for federalism within England. This would be essential, as a UK-wide referendum would have to take place to decide whether federalism would be implemented or not – therefore Scotland could vote yes to Federalism and be overruled by a lack of support in England.
- Under a federal system, defence (e.g. declaring war) and foreign policy (conducting foreign affairs and agreeing to trade and immigration deals with other nations) would be powers retained by Westminster.
- Other powers, such as those regarding taxation, lawmaking and enforcement, would be shared by the states and the federal government (Westminster).
For federalism to be implemented a UK-wide referendum would have to take place. However, there is neither the public support nor the political structure to accommodate this in England, or the rest of the UK. Moreover, federalism would mean that powers concerning defence, welfare and foreign policy would be retained by Westminster, again limiting Scotland.
Federalism does not appear to be a suitable political system for the UK as a whole and the only way it can work would be for UK member-states to adopt it simultaneously. The mood of the Conservative majority in Westminster seems more likely to favour removing powers from Scotland than adding to them.
As a matter of fact, federalism is nearly impossible to implement, as it would be heavily rejected by English voters, especially with only 10% of Conservative voters supporting the idea. As a concept, it falls well short of the powers Scotland would possess as an independent country and thus, would not work as a political alternative to independence. Finally in order to sell Federalism, Starmer would have to explain why the current Union is not a suitable system for governing and that would mean that English independence (currently at 49% in the polls in England and with majority support from Labour and Conservative voters) would have to be also offered to the English electorate – in our opinion England would wholeheartedly vote for its own independence were it offered.
Federalism is often confused with the term “devo-max” which we discuss in another FAQ.