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.
The ruling on January 24th exposed a key flaw in the process of devolution in the United Kingdom. Historically, Britain has been very resistant to decentralisation, and even today has been described as ‘almost the most centralised developed state in the world‘, with the vast majority of power concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall. The process of devolution has meant a gradual shift in a new direction, moving power away from the centre in London and distributing it around the country, empowering different communities around Britain much greater say in their own governance. Devolution for Scotland and Wales has seen the creation of new political institutions which can act independently of Westminster in certain areas, and have opened up British politics to a new level of citizen participation which offers the potential to invigorate democracy and restore public confidence in the entire political system. The process of devolution has continued, with further powers devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, the seat of the Scottish Parliament, following the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, and a successful referendum in Wales on further powers for the Welsh Government.
However, devolution has progressed in fits and starts, taking leaps forwards at times, and steps back at others. It has also been marked by considerable unevenness. Scotland possesses powers that go far beyond those of Wales or Northern Ireland. Yet England, thus far, has seen only very limited devolution, such as the planned creation of ‘metro-mayors’ in some urban conurbations based on the model of the mayoralty of London, and the so called ‘English Votes for English Laws’ law which allows English MPs at Westminster to veto certain bills. Indeed, demands for devolution in some areas such as Yorkshire and Cornwall remain largely ignored. Due in part to this unevenness and inconsistency in the progress of devolution, the process has yet to fully unleash its renovating and empowering potential for British democracy. On the contrary, disengagement, a strong sense of disenfranchisement, and anger at the political system remains a significant feature of public attitudes towards politics in the UK in 2017. This is perhaps most strongly felt in many of the areas around Britain which voted for Brexit on June 23rd 2016. It is little coincidence that those same areas are the ones which have experienced the least devolution and where the dominant political power over people’s lives is felt by many to be the distant and disconnected centres of London and Brussels.
In spite of the decentralisation and devolution which has occurred over the last three decades, the ruling by the Supreme Court in January, in particular its refusal to recognise the power of veto or even the right of consultation of devolved governments around the UK, shines a bright and revealing light on the true nature of devolution in Britain. Under this process, power has been delegated, rather than truly devolved. The UK Parliament at Westminster retains the final and ultimate authority. It can act at will, with or without the consultation, let alone consent, of any of the other parliaments and assemblies. This is the true nature of parliamentary sovereignty in the unwritten and barely legible constitution of British democracy in the 21st century. Devolution as we have it today is merely the illusion of self-determination, and it is insufficient to meet the needs and demands of the people, or to engage millions of disenchanted people with the political processes that govern their communities and their lives.
The solution to this fundamentally flawed system of decentralisation is an alternative system which puts all of the different parts of the UK on an equal footing with each other and with the central government in London. A system which truly empowers the nations and regions of Britain to govern their own affairs without undue interference from Westminster or having their rights and dignity trampled upon or completely ignored as if the days of Empire, when to be British meant to be English, were still with us. Today we live in a new era, where English and British are not synonymous and we have built an overwhelmingly open, tolerant and cosmopolitan society. It’s time our political system reflect our society and the nature of political relations within it. This is what federalism can offer Britain. But much more than this, federalism offers the possibility of a genuine political renewal, capable of gradually transforming public attitudes towards our democracy and our politicians. It can do this by putting power in their hands, moving it away from the Westminster bubble and out into the nations, counties, cities, towns and villages of Britain. By making local politics more meaningful it will garner trust and bring ordinary people to engage in politics.
Devolution as we have it simply cannot deliver this kind of vision. It is illusory, hollow and transparent. Ordinary people see through it and know who really wields the power. Federalism, on the other hand, offers us empowered local communities that maximise public participation and deliver better governance to the people, whilst maintaining the cohesion and identity of the United Kingdom nationally and internationally. To continue along our current path of limited devolution where the central government retains final control on every issue, will inevitably drive wedges between the peoples of Britain and push our historic and proud nation towards greater depths of nationalism, populism and social disintegration.
By Robert Jones, Federalist Party Board member.
Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.