Federalism: The Independence Alternative?

By: Alex Johnston

"Home Rule" is a phrase more associated with early twentieth century history classes than modern British politics. However, after over ninety years since the Home Rule Bill for Ireland was passed through government it has reared its head again, spearheaded by none other than the Liberal Democrats. To some this may come as a sort of political joke with many prophesising the spectacular downfall of Britain's third party after their somewhat less than satisfactory term as the junior coalition partner. Opposition parties will point to a failed voting referendum and a betrayal of one of their few supportive voting demographics (students) as just two examples of reasons not to give them support in 2015. But over the last few years voices from within the Party have been championing a new cause, that of Federalism, which may just gain enough attraction to save the dying Lib-Dems, particularly in the lead up to the all important Scottish independence referendum of September this year.

In essence several notable figures within the party have called for the Lib-Dems to fully endorse the concept of Federalism as one of the parties principles. In doing so they support devolved parliaments for all four constituent countries, including an English one separate from Westminster. Of course this would be the greatest constitutional change in the UK for centuries, arguably since the Act of Union itself in 1707, and as such it faces an enormous uphill battle. Not least due to the fact that it is the Liberal Democrats who are championing it. The hopes of them winning a majority any time soon are slim, but it does not require too much imagination for a similar proposal to pushed from any background. It was Labour who created the devolved assemblies in 1999 and the notion of an English parliament may fit well with the rise of more right wing parties like UKIP.

Speculation aside, it is very clear that all of this could prove highly attractive to a Scotland which is still largely on the fence about its future. The majority of the population do not support full devolution but do support an increase in power from Westminster. It is no coincidence that both the Labour and Conservative parties have promised wider tax powers to a Scotland which votes no. Federalism, however, is aimed at a different target. One gets the impression that instead of being a simple reward for the voters who chose to remain British it is actually a genuine political ideology becoming embraced by a greater number of the party. Furthermore, it gives the more progressive nationalists of the SNP and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh national party) another stepping stone to stand on, on what they might see as the more gradual route to inevitable independence.

But the mainstream parties themselves could perhaps also look at the value of a more federalised government. Not only would it set back independence movements (possibly by a generation), it would also give the nations of the UK control over their own land, a point particularly important to many in an England which seems to be losing its national identity. Some vague opinion polls have been done regarding a separate English parliament and support seems fairly promising. Most importantly, it would demonstrate a true commitment to this county as a union as opposed to one dominated by its South Eastern corner.

All being said, federalism at the moment is bit of a Liberal Democrat dream, and whilst it is easy to see the merits of such a proposal the obstacles to its completion are almost endless. It may take some time for anything like their report to emerge into any sort of reality.

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