Friday, 15 January 2021

Chasing a phantasm


A few days ago, a group of members of the Labour Party published a report setting out the case for something which they’ve called ‘Radical Federalism’. To call it underwhelming would be to understate the degree to which it fails to provide answers to any of the real questions. One of the biggest problems is that, as a member of Labour for an Independent Wales put it, “…the premise of the report is focused not on what reforms are necessary to improve peoples’ lives, but rather what is necessary to protect and preserve the union”. The continuation of the union is axiomatically assumed to be ‘a good thing’ with no real attempt to justify using it as a premise, an approach which necessarily constrains the ability of the authors to truly consider alternatives.

Perhaps my favourite sentence in the whole report was the first bullet point describing what a transformed UK might look like, which states that “The UK state would perform only those strategic tasks which could not be performed at a more local level”. It’s hard to disagree with that – the problem is how one decides what fits into that category. Any objective comparison with other independent states the size of Wales could only conclude that there is precisely nothing which fits that description; states the size of Wales across the world happily decide all matters for themselves. How they later in the same section arrive at the conclusion that the UK Parliament would be “responsible for the key areas of defence, macro-economic, trade, fiscal and foreign policy” is nowhere explained; it’s a conclusion pulled out of thin air. It’s a conclusion which goes a long way to justify Adam Price’s response that such a federation would commit Wales to “right-wing economics and illegal wars”, although that does also depend to an extent at least on who wins elections, rather than solely on the constitutional structure. Structures, in themselves, never determine policy.

The report says that there would be a ‘UK framework’ (presumably agreed by the UK Parliament?) which would “guarantee minimum and common standards” in a range of fields, imposing immediate limits on what any of the constituent parts can decide to do (even ignoring the minor little question as to whether standards can be both ‘minimum’ and ‘common’). But how does that setting of standards work, in practice, in a union of unequals, where one ‘member’ can always outvote the others when it comes to setting or changing those standards? How does that federal parliament work? It’s a question which goes unanswered – and it’s easy to understand why!

On this issue, the report – like most proposals for a federal UK – ignores the giant elephant, otherwise known as England. How does a federation of four parts, in which one accounts for 85% of the population, work effectively without that single part dominating and outvoting the other 15% whenever it chooses? One potential approach is that the federal parliament contains an equal number of members from each of the four states – so England, with 85%, gets the same voice as Wales with 5%. Another potential approach is to break England up into 9 mini-states (based on currently recognised regions, although other configurations are possible), each with their own parliament exercising the same functions as the Welsh or Scottish parliaments, turning a very unequal union of four into a much more balanced union of 12 (or 13 if Cornwall were given separate recognition).

Just noting that there are only two potential approaches which are workable is enough to explain why that which might appear theoretically attractive turns out to be the stuff of fantasy in the real world. It requires either that English politicians accept that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England are equals or else that they agree to dismember England. And in both cases, they must accept that sovereignty does not reside exclusively in Westminster and that the UK parliament and government will have no control or influence over huge swathes of policy. Neither the English nationalist Tories currently in charge nor the Anglo-British nationalist Labour Party who seek to replace them (the key difference seems to be a question of how many union flags must be visible in the background when their leader speaks – Anglo-British nationalists only require one, but English nationalists always require two) are ever going to do either of those things.

A federalism which had considered these issues in detail and come up with a solution to them thirty years ago might, just, have staved off (or at least delayed) the demise of the UK. Perhaps. But coming up with a half-baked proposal which is just the vague wish list of a few fringe elements in the Labour Party but which can’t answer the key questions, despite such a proposal having been regularly floated for decades, and when the union is already on its deathbed, just doesn’t cut it. It looks like what it is – a last-minute and panicky attempt to protect a union for which they can’t even advance a half-decent argument in the first place. This ‘radical’ approach to preserving the union is almost the very definition of conservatism – protecting and preserving that which exists simply because it exists. When Scotland dissolves the union of 1707, Wales will face a choice between following Scotland or being more tightly integrated into England. The idea that ‘federalism’ offers some sort of third way is nonsense – Labour must, eventually, decide which side to support. Chasing irrelevant phantasms can be nothing more than a holding operation.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

The Welsh Labour proposals say nothing about Wales. They appear to leave things as they are, and to urge the rest of the UK ie England to catch up. This will be done by a reorganisation of Local Government not, for example, by another shot at Geordieland, or a real shot at a devolved Liverpool say. The Welsh paper might, for example, have suggested giving Wales powers over police and justice, so as to catch up with Scotland or N.Ireland. Does mention citizens' assemblies, which are fashionable just now. But these are just the start of a true Indy process of any kind, which is a hard process and not tackled by this report.