Will the United Kingdom now adopt some form of federalism?


We don't yet have all of the results of the just-completed British election. But it is already clear that the right of center Conservative Party has done much better than expected, and will almost certainly lead the next government. On the other hand, almost every parliamentary seat in Scotland was won by the left-wing and pro-independence Scottish National Party. As a result, the political divergence between Scotland and most of the rest of the UK is likely to be greater than ever.

In order to secure a "no" vote in the Scottish independence referendum last September, the major British political parties promised the Scots extensive devolution of political power. The SNP's massive success in the current election, combined with their alienation from a Tory-led UK government, will heighten the pressure to deliver on those promises. Otherwise, the Scottish independence movement might pick up steam again. Conservative leaders like Boris Johnson are already talking about adopting a federal system for the United Kingdom in order to stave off possible Scottish secession.

Some form of constitutional change in Britain seems likely, as I previously predicted in the wake of the referendum. But the interesting question is what form would a new federal system would take. The SNP and other left-wing Scots might welcome greater devolution of power to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. But they also want the UK government to keep subsidizing the welfare state in Scotland, and perhaps even increase those subsidies. Scotland is relatively poorer than England, and already gets a disproportionate share of UK government spending.

Public opinion in England—particularly Conservative opinion—is unlikely to support greater devolution of power to Scotland, while simultaneously giving Scotland large amounts of central government money. Many in England believe that the current "Barnett Formula" for distributing central government funds is unfairly biased in favor of the Scots. Even Lord Barnett, the former Labor Party minister after whom the formula is named, holds that view. He has said that the formula is "is unfair and should be stopped… it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well."

Any federalist devolution likely to get Conservative English support would probably put strict limits on the amount of central government funding that goes to the Scots, quite likely stricter than what exists today. Some Conservatives would prefer that the Scots be required to themselves raise the tax revenue they spend. In addition, many English Conservatives are advocating greater devolution to regional governments in England itself, including perhaps even a system of "English votes for English laws" under which only English members of parliament would get to vote on issues exclusive to England. What counts as an "English" issue, as opposed to a national one, is far from self-evident.

In sum, there is broad support in Britain for moving towards some form of federal devolution. But it will be difficult to figure out an approach that is acceptable to both English Conservatives and much more left-wing Scots. If negotiations over these issues fail, Scottish opinion might turn in favor of independence, and there could be another referendum on secession with a different result from last year's. Watching BBC election coverage tonight, I heard a couple of commentators speculate that David Cameron could turn out to be the last prime minister of a United Kingdom that includes Scotland.

Ironically, an SNP-led independent Scotland might find that it lacks the fiscal resources to pursue the big-spending welfare state policies independence advocates want to leave the UK to pursue. Instead of being a showcase for social democracy, an independent Scotland might be forced to accept the kinds of more free market policies adopted by Slovakia after it broke with the Czech Republic in 1993 . Slovak nationalists—like their Scottish counterparts—wanted independence in order to create a bigger welfare state than they could have in a united Czechoslovakia.

Federalism can be a valuable tool for mitigating ethnic conflict, and for enabling people with divergent ideologies to coexist in the same polity. It is certainly possible that adopting a more federal constitutional system could help the UK achieve those goals. As compared with some continental Europeans—and perhaps also Americans—the British are famed for their ability to settle political conflicts through compromise. But the devil of federalism is often in the details. Whether Britain can get the details right remains to be seen.

At this point, the only safe prediction is that Britain's political evolution over the next few years will provide a lot of interesting material for scholars of constitutional federalism.