The perfect storm is brewing

Nigel Farage claimed yesterday that the European Union is facing a ‘huge existential crisis’ but the truth is that as he spoke, it was a different union, the United Kingdom, that appeared to be at ever greater risk of a colossal collapse under the weight of Brexit, in spite of the fact that negotiations are yet to begin and Brexit itself is still at least two years off. Continue reading “The perfect storm is brewing”

Devolution: a flawed process exposed by the Supreme Court

When the Supreme Court published its ruling on the Article 50 case, it was one of the most significant developments in the UK’s recent constitutional history. The sovereignty of parliament was upheld, and Britain’s established model of representative democracy was reaffirmed, placing a clear constitutional limit on the executive power of the Prime Minister and the government. The case, which was brought originally by Gina Miller to the High Court who had argued that the Primer Minister could not use executive powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in order to begin the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, also upheld another established point of Britain’s constitutional framework. The judges of the Supreme Court found, unanimously, that the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland do not have to be consulted and therefore do not have the power to veto decisions taken by the UK parliament at Westminster, even when those decisions ordinarily would require consultation of devolved legislatures by Westminster.  Continue reading “Devolution: a flawed process exposed by the Supreme Court”

On Brexit and the future for federalism in the UK

On June the 23rd 2016 the government of David Cameron finally fulfilled a pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union which he had arguably been gradually cornered into by the eurosceptic quarter of his Conservative party and the threatening rise of UKIP. The validity and applicability of the result of that referendum has been, and will continue to be argued back and forth for some time. As the result became clear it was hailed as an overwhelming victory for the Leave campaign, mandating the British government to begin the process of withdrawal from the EU. This appeared to be validated by Cameron when he stood on Downing St the following morning and announced his resignation as Prime Minister, effectively conceding a total defeat. Whoever was to take over the leadership of the Conservatives, and by default become PM, would have the heavy responsibility of implementing the Brexit mandate, the ‘will of the people’ as it has been so frequently lauded. And that is just the role that Theresa May has taken up. But the truth is that the only overwhelming feature of the result was its unexpected nature. Most pollsters and political commentators, even politicians, indeed even on the night of the 23rd, Nigel Farage himself, had expected a victory for Remain. But Leave’s win, surprising and shocking though indeed it was, was in fact only by a very narrow margin. The referendum revealed a nation divided, and not at all some kind of all-empowering mandate for an absolute reversal in the country’s relationship with Europe and the world. Continue reading “On Brexit and the future for federalism in the UK”

‘English Votes for English Laws’ cannot deliver devolution for England

The 2015 General Election left us with a new balance of power that has the potential to massively transform the way British politics works and fundamentally reshape the relationship between Westminster and the nations and regions of the UK. This week the Scottish National Party, empowered by their election success and the strength of their contingent of MPs at Westminster, appears to have landed a significant blow in favour of devolved democracy by forcing the government to postpone a vote on its proposed reform of the Hunting Act, a law which applies only in England and Wales and does not directly affect Scotland. It is precisely the kind of law that David Cameron is thinking of with his plan for ‘English Votes for English Laws’ which he claims would deliver a measure of devolution for England and finally address the ‘West Lothian question’.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP argue that such a proposal would leave Scottish MPs as ‘second class’ parliamentarians, unequal to their counterparts from England, and so undermining their authority in Westminster and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. But whilst it might look bad for Scotland, for the rest of the UK, and in particular England, the prospect of English Votes for English Laws is much worse. Scotland already has a devolved parliament with substantial powers over Scottish affairs and they may soon have ‘Home Rule’, meaning further powers including over taxation. The extent of devolution to other parts of the UK is limited at best, and in England it is nothing but a fantasy.

As English Votes for English Laws might leave Scottish MPs at Westminster in an inferior position, it is the voters in England who will find themselves short-changed by a proposal which pretends to offer English devolution, but in reality preserves the centralisation of power in a super-parliament at Westminster which will be supposed to act as both a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom whilst simultaneously taking on the role of a devolved parliament, legislating for England alone. Whilst on the surface we could argue that there is no direct contradiction between these two roles, in practice England and its regions will miss out on having a dedicated legislature with its own MPs which could dedicate their time to devolved English issues (such as fox hunting). Under such an arrangement, the UK parliament at Westminster would be free to focus on areas relevant to the United Kingdom as a whole and its place in the world.

If the Westminster parliament, as it is today, is indeed a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, then it is important that all MPs elected there are of equal status and standing. Rather than addressing the democratic imbalance that the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not in England has left us with, the English Votes for English Laws plan risks further straining the unity and stability of the UK, and seeking only to counter one inequality with another, rather than removing the inequalities inherent in a system of asymmetric devolution, and replacing them with a fair and functional system of federalism, where each part of the UK is empowered to determine its own affairs and its own destiny whilst remaining comfortably anchored within the union.

As things stand, the government appears determined to push ahead with its plans and the SNP’s ‘intervention’ in English policy on the Hunting Act is likely to reinforce the determination of those in Westminster who, some argue, merely seek to strengthen their own position in parliament rather than deliver some kind of meaningful democratic settlement for the United Kingdom as a whole. Never before has the need for a serious and thorough overhaul of the UK’s constitutional arrangement been more urgent, and never before has the opportunity offered by federalism been so relevant, offering to deliver clear and democratic institutions and a fair political structure which can both accommodate and fulfil the diverse needs, identities and aspirations of all the peoples of the United Kingdom.

By Robert Jones

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.

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