The outcome of the UK elections: towards a federal UK?

, by Francesco Violi

The outcome of the UK elections: towards a federal UK?
The EU & the UK: Dissection, reflection, direction Image: Union of European Federalists (

The outcome of the General Elections 2015 gives us the picture of a Disunited Kingdom. A yellow-coloured Scotland is bordering a blue-coloured England, with the exception of most of the urban constituencies, in which Labour prevailed.

It seems that the previous referendum for Scottish Independence and the General Elections led to a split in British public opinion: on the one hand a Social-Democratic and pro-European Scotland and on the other hand a more conservative and Eurosceptic England. Many journalists and political scientists are now stating that many English voters defected from Labour and the Lib Dems to the Tories to prevent a possible Lab-SNP or Lab-SNP-Lib Dem coalition. If this analysis was true, the rift between English and Scottish voters would be even deeper. Local identities combine with different political preferences and put the constitutional status quo in peril. The new Conservative government must now keep the promise made during the referendum campaign even if this could enrage many Welsh and English voters, who are now asking for more devolution after the Scottish example. Just a few days ago, an online petition asked for Northern England to join Scotland and it was signed by over 5000 people. [1] Even if the petition will remain a joke, it is clear that discontent is growing.

It is the last effect of the so called “West Lothian question”. The fact that Scottish MPs have the right to speak and vote on England-related topics, while English MPs have no say in Scottish issues even if those may involve topics concerning England, is less and less tolerated by English voters. This unresolved question is triggering a split between the two nations and therefore an answer must be finally found. This implies that a long run comprehensive and coherent constitutional reform is required in order to prevent further internal tensions, to keep the UK nations together and to restore a common ground which could keep the country united. It is foreseeable that the UK should move from the current situation, which could be somehow defined as “asymmetrical federalism”, towards a full federal framework. The implications of this reform could be potentially revolutionary.

Which solution is most suitable for the UK?

According to federal theory, federalism is based on territoriality. This means that a symmetrical federalisation of Britain should be based on a regionalisation of England, because its weight in comparison to the other nations is overwhelmingly disproportionate. More than 80% of the British population lives in England and England alone is more than 50% of the UK area.

Were there to be created an English assembly, with decisional and tax-raising powers similar to Holyrood, it would quickly become a competitor of Westminster and this rivalry would cause more institutional conflicts then ever seen before. It would be the path towards the implosion of the UK.

Due to these conditions, the only alternative is moving towards a region-based federalism. In that way, there would be granted devolution to the English regions, which could be divided into at least nine regions. In that way each region would have more equal numbers of inhabitants and GDP level. At the same time, laws should be implemented in order to grant to counties and great urban areas major levels of decisional autonomy.

With an increased level of tax-raising power and fiscal autonomy and responsibility, regions and nations could have the possibility to decide their economic policies on the basis of the citizens’ preferences.

In this way, Westminster should become the “Federal Lower Chamber” of the Kingdom, on the model of the US-Congress and the German “Bundestag” and responsible for all federal issues. The future of the House of Lords would be uncertain. In traditional federations, the Higher Chamber is normally the Chamber which gathers the representatives of each unit, of each state. This implies that the House of Lords would hardly remain the same in a federal UK and that the Lords should be locally appointed (similarly to Germany) or locally elected (as in the USA). Although this is the historical praxis in the traditional federation, it is not impossible that in Britain different solutions could not be found, which could maintain the current form of the House of Lords or link the Lords to mechanisms of local representativeness.

Even though the narrative of devolution and federalisation had been for a long while part of Labour’s electoral manifestos, while Conservatives are normally seen as the centralist party, it is to be expected that the government will undertake to restart the devolutionary process. It seems that the recent announcement by George Osborne regarding devolving powers to the Greater Manchester [2] region goes in this direction. In addition, Mr. Cameron has already promised that he would implement the outcome of the Smith Commission into law.

The rise of regionalist parties across England.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are not alone. Along with the Nationalists many localist and regionalist parties have arose over the last few years throughout England. Like nearby Scotland, the North of England seems to be a fertile ground for regionalist parties. In the last few years many local parties have been founded: for example “Yorkshire First” - promoting a Scottish-like devolution in Yorkshire & the Humber - and the “North-East Party”, which similarly advocates devolution in the North-East. Both parties were founded in 2014, while the Scottish referendum campaign was still ongoing and both took part in the General Elections in 2015.

This might sound strange when looking back to recent history, the process of progressive devolution started by Tony Blair and his government with the 1998 Scottish and Welsh devolution referendum, actually ended up with the failure of the 2004 one, which would have granted to the North-East the creation of a democratically elected assembly based on the Welsh model. The overwhelming rejection by North-Eastern citizens (around 77.9% voted against) actually stopped this process, since the scheduled referenda for devolution in Yorkshire & Humber and in the North-West were then postponed and eventually cancelled. With new regionalist parties being created and now more North-Easterners asking for a Scottish-like devolution, it may suggest that, if the devolution referendum was put again on the agenda, it would probably have a successful outcome.

In addition to those cases, others should be taken into consideration. Historically, Cornwall has a long-standing tradition of autonomy and a strong regional identity. According to recent research, Cornwall is the region where local identity is strongest. [3] It has one of the most long-lived autonomist parties in the political arena, the Mebyon Kernow, and before the General Elections Lib Dem MPs managed to undertake autonomist and regionalist aspirations in Cornwall and in the Devon.


Over the next five years, the Conservatives will have to face many challenges, but the main one is to keep the country united, accepting that there are different sentiments throughout all the areas of the country. Therefore it is time for the Conservatives to abandon the Eurosceptic rhetoric they have wheedled over the last decade and to concentrate on a federal path to keep the country united and to give life to a more cooperative approach and relationship with the EU, recognising it as an element of stabilisation and unity. EU membership had been a key issue during the Independence Referendum and it remains the element which is still boosting Scottish nationalist aspirations.

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