Huw Davies is the deputy Chairman of the Newport West Conservative Association and stood for the Conservative Party in the 2017 Welsh local elections.
As one constitutional door closes another one opens. Now that we have finally left the European Union, federalism – or ‘home rule’ as some call it – has returned as a potential constitutional settlement to preserve the unity of our country.
This resurrection has mostly come from within the Labour Party as it picks its new leadership team. The current front-runner, Sir Keir Starmer, believes it will rebuild trust in our politics. His fellow contender, Lisa Nandy, described a federal future as ‘inevitable’. The leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, said that such a settlement is the only solution to reunite the country and defeat the SNP.
But to turn the United Kingdom into a federal state would be totally reckless. The idea that federalism will somehow bring about the demise of the nationalists is absurd. It is the same rhetoric used by those who disastrously advocated devolution in the 1990s.
Whenever I hear this argument, I hear the repetition of George Robertson’s naïve proclamation that, ‘A Scottish Parliament will kill the SNP’… we are are in their thirteenth year of power in Holyrood! If it wasn’t such a serious matter, I’d find the current situation we see in Scotland as totally laughable considering the warnings made at the time.
Starmer’s proposal for a federal state consists of a written constitution, which I’d assume will consist the new powers and responsibilities of the devolved administrations.
But will this new federation consist of an exit clause? If there were still an SNP administration in Edinburgh when Labour were creating this new federal settlement, it would be hard to resist the pressure not to create a British version of Article 50. If this flirtation with federalism continues, not only would we have given the Nationalists the institutions they wanted in Scotland and Wales, but also possibly the legal mechanism to leave the UK altogether. The UK will be in the absurd position of not just building a car for the Nationalists to play with, but also giving them the keys to drive off with it!
The fact of the matter is that if those of us who wish to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom must realise simply repeating the old line of ‘more powers’ will not kill nationalism. A federal settlement would not only strengthen the Nationalists, but further enable them to break up the UK.
I am also frustrated with proponents of federalism using modernity to sell their idea. Starmer, in a piece for the Daily Record, described how his ‘new’ settlement was intertwined with Labour’s history. He used Keir Hardie as an example of how Labour were the original proponents of Scottish ‘home rule’ when the party was founded in 1900.
But his proposals do not tell me that that the idea is ‘new’, it tells me that the those who have advocated devolution have ran out of ideas, so they are looking to the past. I’d hardly regard it as a ‘modern idea’. Jane Dodds, the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, also proposed reviving the old Liberal Party campaign of ‘Cymru Rydd’ (Young Wales), the original campaign for devolution/federalism in Wales founded in 1886. Her idea for federalism was challenged on the basis that it was an old idea, she admitted that it was but said that old ideas can be good ideas.
But I doubt her party would say that if anybody proposed the reversal of devolution process. I’m sure anybody who would dare suggest such a thing would be accused of ‘taking Britain backwards’ – yet our federalists friends look as far back as the late Nineteenth Century for inspiration. Devolution’s proponents are in denial that it has failed to tackle nationalism and provide better public services in the devolved nations. Federalism is the next stage of their refusal to admit its failure, therefore they continue along with their project walking the UK into constitutional oblivion.
Those who advocate federalism are, I’m sure, thinking in the best interests of the future of the UK. But unfortunately, they are mistaken – they are putting the needs of the devolved institutions over and above the needs of the people of the United Kingdom.
If we were to have an American-style federal system, then we can assume that there will be a principle of ‘states rights’. This would mean that if a certain power isn’t reserved by Westminster specifically, then the devolved institution would solely be in control over it with no interference. In the US, this has meant that many states have tried to undermine abortion laws, make voter registration more difficult, and most famously, engaged in gerrymandering.
I am not suggesting that this would all happen in the UK, but it is an example where a central government cannot get involved to right certain wrongs because of their federal system. Such a system in Britain would have meant the legislation which rightly brought Northern Ireland into line with the mainland regarding abortion and same-sex marriage simply wouldn’t have happened, because the rights of the devolved institutions would be more important than the rights of UK citizens.
I want every person is our country to be treated equally under the law. That is the essence of my conservatism and more importantly my unionism. I regard myself as a ‘One Nation’ Conservative, in the sense that I believe that we should be governed as one nation, and I’m pleased at our party’s commitment to levelling up our country.
But in order to level up the UK we must fight against a system of government which would prevent us from doing this. The British Government must maintain the right to build new infrastructure across the UK – if it had had greater control over it then my patch of Newport may have had its much needed M4 relief road. Parliament must also remain the guardian of the rights of the British people, and if they seem them abused in any part of the country it must have the power to intervene.
For real decentralisation, we need to focus on empowering local government to ensure that power is truly in the hands of the people, not the ever-centralising devolved institutions which show no signs of giving up that power. Our country must begin a period of reunification, not waste time entrenching our constitutional divisions with ideas of federalism. Its proponents are making the same arguments as the advocates of devolution in the 1990s. And we know what happened there.