A federal system for Britain

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Recent political developments in Britain have stimulated interest in establishing a federal system in that country as a way of forestalling the rise of secessionist sentiment in Scotland and bridging the growing ideological divide between relatively conservative England and more left-wing Scotland and Wales. Philip Booth, a professor at St. Mary's University, has recently written a proposal for an extensively decentralized form of federalism for the United Kingdom, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a prominent libertarian-leaning British think tank. Booth's paper has attracted a good deal of attention in the British media, and could potentially have a real impact on the debate over these issues. Here is an excerpt from the summary:

The UK's current devolution settlement leads to unrepresentative government and has an inbuilt bias towards "big government". This situation is exacerbated because nations with devolved government are over-represented in the UK parliament compared with their population when it might be expected that they would be under-represented.

The UK has the most centralised government of the G7, as measured by the proportion of revenue raised by sub-central government….

The UK needs to reform in two areas. Firstly, a federal state should be created with Scotland and either the rest of the UK (RUK), or England, Wales and Northern Ireland separately, becoming nations within a federal union. The federal government should have a very limited number of powers including defence, foreign affairs and border control and a small parliament and executive. No other proposed solution to the "English question" can provide the same stability or beneficial economic outcomes. Secondly, there should be radical decentralisation of powers within Scotland and RUK to local government. The principle that should be followed is that of "subsidiarity": this does not mean central government pushing powers downwards whilst keeping ultimate control. Rather, control should be at local level unless functions cannot be performed locally….

Two crucial principles must be applied when implementing these proposals. Firstly, revenue must be raised by the layer of government that is undertaking spending. Secondly, one layer of government must not bail out the debts incurred by any other layer of government.

The Institute of Economic Affairs asked me to write a brief foreword to Booth's paper, in which I discuss its significance for broader debates over federalism and devolution of power. Here is an excerpt:

In recent years…. the future viability of the UK has been called into question by the growing conflict
between relatively left-wing Scots and the more right-of-centre electorate in England. Although independence was
defeated in the September 2014 Scottish referendum, secessionist sentiment might well be rekindled in the aftermath
of the Conservative Party's surprising victory in the 2015 UK election, which also saw massive gains for the pro-independence Scottish National Party in Scotland. As English and Scottish views on the role of government in society become increasingly divergent, the pressure on the UK political system might well increase, perhaps even to breaking point…

These developments have led many to consider the possibility that Britain might need some more formal system
of federalism to survive… The ultimate resolution of these issues is important not only to the peoples
of Britain, but also to many elsewhere. A successful settlement of the UK's constitutional issues might well be a model from which others can learn. It might also create important benefits for Britain's partners in the European Union, and its overseas allies… Failure might have ripple effects on the European Union and beyond.

Philip Booth's important contribution to the debate over Britain's constitutional future is both timely and insightful. As he effectively demonstrates, a greater decentralisation of power in Britain might not only reduce the intensity of political conflict, but also strengthen the economy, and offer English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish alike a greater range of political choice through foot voting. Britons of all national groups would have enhanced opportunities to live under the policies they prefer by voting with their feet for those jurisdictions that adopt them.

While not everyone will agree with Booth's proposals, I very much recommend his paper to anyone interested in the current debate over federalism in the United Kingdom.