Britain’s insistence in the removal of the clause from the Maastricht Treaty stating that the EU would be of “federal character” is testament to the nation’s complicated relationship with the concept of federalism. From the struggle to retain the “United” in “United Kingdom” to the question of what would happen to the Queen, federalism has historically been viewed with suspicion by the UK.
But could this election signal a turning point for federalist British politics?
In recent years, the UK has seen power devolved from Westminster and passed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, giving the newly-created assemblies varying degrees of autonomy. In many areas, the devolved parliaments are now able to create legislation independent to that passed in London – very reminiscent of federalism, indeed.
Last year’s Scottish independence referendum, too, displayed a push towards a more federal UK. Whilst not succeeding in creating a sovereign Scottish nation-state, the vote did show a mass willingness for greater independence – sentiment echoed in Wales and Northern Ireland, also.
The aftermath of this general election looks to accelerate this trend.
A brief glance at a colour-coded constituency map of Britain confirms that federalist tendencies are evident post-election. The mass of yellow that now covers Scotland represents the monopoly that the Scottish National Party (SNP) now holds there – gaining 50 seats since the last election. Similarly, Wales has distanced itself from the England’s overwhelming Conservative rule by electing members of the regional Party, Plaid Cymru. Could this signal a move away from the two-party system of modern British politics and towards a system where regional parties are more important?
The post-election backlash calling for electoral reform puts federalism firmly within British sights. Since the election, 227,000 people have signed a petition calling for a reform of the existing first-past-the-post electoral system, citing the disparity between seats and votes (caused by geographical distribution) as a major hindrance to democracy within the UK. More proportional representational (PR) systems are being recommended in order to achieve a better relationship between seats and votes.
A move to a PR system would potentially lead Britain to a far less parochial parliamentary system. Since members of parliament would no longer represent strictly-defined geographical areas, that responsibility would be devolved to local authorities as is seen in cases such as Germany. With more power in the hands of regional bodies and Westminster serving only to govern at a general level, would the UK be on the way to becoming a federal nation?
On top of calls for voting reform, prospects for British federalism look even more promising in light of the debate about the newly-devolved parliaments’ relationship with Westminster. The “West Lothian Question” refers to the discussion about whether or not MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be allowed to vote on matters in Westminster that affect only England. This debate is not new, but with the overwhelming success of the SNP in this election, it has begun to surface one again.
So what does it mean for federalism? If calls for an “English” parliament are answered, then the UK will have been broken down entirely into regional parliaments who have responsibilities over their respective areas. Westminster would continue to govern at a higher level on matters which affect Britain overall. Once again, then, federalism would seem to be the answer to a problem produced by the outcome of this general election.
Finally, this election has proved the increasing importance of regional parties in British politics. In modern times, UK politics has traditionally favoured a two-party system. These two partied did not draw support from specific geographical areas, nor did they tailor their policies to particular regions.
This time, however, the electorate have woken up to the benefits of voting for representatives who promise to serve them at a local level, not merely issue general changes for the whole country. If this trend continues, support for a more federal system will, too.
Overall, then, the unanticipated Conservative majority was not the only surprise to come from this election. The results have raised important questions about devolution (and the prospect for further transfers of power away from Westminster), as well as encouraged a mass movement towards an electoral system which will favour a federalist model. The rise in the popularity of regional parties is also a promising sign for Britain’s progress towards being a federalist state, and combined, these factors call into question what form the UK’s next election will take in five years’ time.