Federalism is not a brand new idea to the United Kingdom, but the inaptitude of devolution seems to be an essential prerequisite to the adoption of a federal system by the UK. As a solution to possibly a few different 'questions' that are being encountered by the UK, the idea of a federal system sounds even more appealing. The proposal of a federal UK reflects at least two states of current affairs: the dissatisfactions with devolution in the UK and a possible response to 'questions' such as the independence of Scotland and the English (West Lothian) question.
There has been much debate on whether a federal system is a better option for the UK and this paper will seek to evaluate those arguments, leading to a conclusion that the proponents of a federal UK have a stronger case. A new impetus to the idea of UK adopting federalism emerges in recent years when the increasing demand for devolution which leads to the subsequent call for independence of the constituent nations signals the prospect of a disintegration of the UK. Thus, one of the main arguments in favour of a federal UK presents federalism as an alternative to the disintegration of the UK.
Federalisation of the UK would be a response to demands for independence of constituent nations, especially that of Scotland, by giving them 'virtually all the advantages of full independence with none of the disadvantages'. 1 Considering this argument, it is easy to perceive the idea of a federal UK as a knee-jerk response to the Scottish independence referendum which is to be held between 2014 and 2015. However, even if a federal system is adopted, the 'knee-jerk' response would not be quick enough to serve its purpose due the fact that federalisation is a slow and lengthy process which may take years, if not decades, to complete.
The pressing need for the UK to address the question of independence especially that of Scotland suggests that unless the Scottish citizens are contented with a 'promise' of federalisation of the UK the idea of a federal UK would not prevent disintegration if independence referendums gain popular support in the future. It has also been argued that disintegration of the UK would be less likely with the adoption of a federal system as national identities will flourish, with more flexibility in national governments and less English interference2. This view is over-optimistic.
The high degree of flexibility also implies the susceptibility of the federal state to abuse of local power by regional governments3. The English question, exacerbated by the English resentment of the exclusion of England from the devolution settlement, has offered another opportunity for the advocates of a federal UK to argue their case. It has been argued that an English parliament, the corollary of a federal UK, would solve the English question by ensuring the right to vote on matters affecting England remains the prerogative of English MPs.
Nevertheless, this 'question' would be solved at too high a price! An English parliament is likely to pose problems which are more complicated than the English question due to its huge representation (85 per cent of the UK's population), such as creating an unbalanced therefore unstable federal system. 4 Federalism is an invaluable solution to the English question but it is definitely not worth paying so high a price to solve a 'question' which has been offered alternative 'answers' ,for instance the proposition of 'English Votes on English Laws'5.
However fair and balance it may seem for England to derive an equal share of local power from the federal structure, the outcome would suggest otherwise as England can easily assume predominance through its size and its account of more than 80 per cent of the GDP6. The proponents of federalism argue that it is a better option for the UK because a federal system promotes higher level of efficiency and democracy. The claim that a federal UK would be more efficient is attributed to the principle of subsidiarity which provides that local issues can be tackled more effectively by regional governments at a lower level.
However, it should be noted that this is equally achievable through devolution. The degree of devolution in the UK, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, may suggest that a federal system is unlikely to make much difference in term of efficiency. A federal UK is said to have a better claim for democracy as national authorities would be directly elected and this would 'bring citizens closer to the decisions which most affect their lives'7. This tends to be an overstatement of the outcome of federalisation.
Whether a federal system offers a greater degree of democracy would, in some way, depend on the willingness of national authorities to embrace democracy in exercising local powers. The opponents to the idea of a federal UK view a federal system as being too revolutionary for the UK. Considering the necessary characteristics of a federal state proposed by Dicey i. e. the supremacy of the constitution, the distribution of powers among different bodies and the authority of the courts to act as interpreters of the constitution8, the opponents argue that the prerequisites of a federal UK i.
e. a written constitution and a 'powerful' judiciary, are incompatible with the UK constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Federalisation of the UK would involve a 'constitutional revolution'. However, this may not be entirely true. The fundamental principle which underpins parliamentary sovereignty is democracy (parliament is sovereign because it comprises of representatives of people) and a federal system is not undemocratic, given the structure and the constitutional principles upon which it operates.
This means it is not necessary for democracy to take the form of 'parliamentary sovereignty' and the ingredients of a federal state are not substantially different from what the UK is embracing now. Contrasting the argument that a federal system can effectively prevent the disintegration of the UK, those who resist the idea of a federal UK maintain that federalisation would deepen the divisions among the member nations of the UK. Dicey believed that '[i]n a federation every citizen is influenced by a double allegiance'.
9 The 'double allegiance' here refers to national allegiance and local allegiance. Dicey argued that due to this 'double allegiance', a conflict of interest between the federal government and the regional governments would cause divisions in the federation unless 'the national sentiment predominates'. 10 Nonetheless, the areas in which a conflict of interest could happen are limited as the allocation of local power to regional governments has greatly reduced the scope of authority of the federal government.
If a federal system would lead to an increasingly divided UK, the current system of devolution is not more successful than the federal system in fostering unity among the member nations. In conclusion, the idea of federalism may seem ideal if the UK decides to abandon the system of devolution. The idea of a federal UK is likely to be more favourable mainly because the UK is already quasi-federal in nature as a result of the process of devolution and the federal features which have been reconciled with the UK governing system seem to offer an optimistic prospect of the UK adopting a federal system.
However, as the devolution system has not completely lost its support in the UK, there is still a likelihood of further devolution. In fact, the UK parliament may respond to the Scottish independence referendum by further devolution or 'devo-plus' and this can indeed be perceived as a gradual step of the UK towards the adoption of a federal system.