The ‘F’ word rears its head again: Federalism and Labour

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 13th 2019

One political principle unites not just the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn to Tom Watson but also the Conservative Party – from Theresa May to the most ultra-Brexiteers in the Jacob Rees-Mogg faction.

That principle is a belief in parliamentary sovereignty: which for all its elevated sound actually means the right of governments to do what they like and not be bound by things like the rule of law, human rights or what previous administrations have done. It is of course a shibboleth, a fantasy and delusion, because in the real world, governments are actually constrained by all of these factors and cannot live in a world of absolutism.

The mirage of this particular fetishism was one of the driving forces in Brexit and the allure of ‘taking back control’. But it can also be seen in part of the Scottish independence debate with some talking about a version of undiluted sovereignty rather similar to Westminster, and equally impracticable. Indeed, these sorts of debates and the clinging to certainty they entail has risen as the world has in political and economic power become more about shared, fluid sovereignties.

Despite all this at regular intervals in Labour some mood music and vague assertion emerges that the party might be interested in embracing UK-wide federalism. The party made such noises in the late 1980s in the face of high Thatcherism. Similarly at the tailend of the indyref Gordon Brown talked of the UK ‘moving quite close to something near to federalism’ and then of course there was the hype of ‘the Vow’. And now at the Scottish Labour conference meeting last weekend we have similar unspecific aspirations of heading towards federalism, this time from Baroness Pauline Bryan of Partick (who is a Labour constitutional reform spokesperson).

Considering we have been round the houses several times Labour’s attitude to moving towards federalism seems at best glacial. What was actually said at the weekend by Bryan was that Labour would take steps to make sure the Scottish Parliament was ‘no longer subordinate to Westminster’, abolish the Lords and replace it with a Chamber of the Nations and Regions, and add a couple of people to a working group.

This was enough to get some very excited indeed. Leave aside that Westminster cannot actually ensure the Scottish Parliament isn’t subordinate to it without a written constitution. That is due to that old totem of parliamentary sovereignty that Labour clings to. Only a fully-fledged constitutional revolution or independence could deliver what Bryan was pledging, and it is clear neither of these are on offer from Labour.

Hence we had the Times Kenny Farquharson state that all of this was very significant indeed. When I asked him what evidence he had to show that Labour was prepared to overthrow its deep seated commitment to being anti-federalist, he replied, ‘Things change. Otherwise the Labour Party would still be fighting, like Keir Hardie did, for all pubs to be closed.’

Labour activist Aidan Skinner chronicled the list of Labour constitutional reforms: ‘Labour has created institutions like the Supreme Court, independent central bank, national legislatures etc. which would be part of the journey to a more federal UK’. Former Unison official Dave Watson told me that a transformation was coming: ‘Watch this space Gerry, there are a lot of things that are changing.’

All of these people seem to want to believe that something significant is happening. But the only significant thing really happening is that people think that something is happening. The British Labour Party has existed for 119 years from its founding in 1900 and throughout all these years – from Keir Hardie to Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and now Jeremy Corbyn – the party has opposed federalism, believed in parliamentary sovereignty and a unitary state Britain.

What these coalesce into is an interpretation and understanding of political power and legitimacy focused on the political centre. This is based on the notion of a Labour Government winning power and then with unchecked power being able to railroad far-reaching change through the system overcoming resistance because it has captured control of the central institutions of political power. This is the traditional Labour way of understanding politics from Attlee through Kinnock and Hattersley and John Smith, and uniting left and right in the party, including the present Corbyn leadership.

Much of the political talk of federalism never really grapples with what federalism is, or talks imprecisely about progressing towards it, or that age old myth of quasi-federalism. Federalism isn’t just about the powers or entrenching a Scottish Parliament, it is about a framework and set of relationships for how you do wider politics. This has to entail a process of completely changing the political centre and putting formal limits on its power, and creating binding relationships between the centre and other political bodies, such as the Scottish, Welsh and other devolved bodies.

The two main political parties have never in their history shown any serious interest in this kind of reform because it would undercut their alternating monopoly power. The Tories have historically believed they own and can make up the British constitution as they go along. Labour have taken the view that the British system can provide a unique way of radical governments having the untrammelled room to effect transformational change.

The current Corbyn leadership have little want to disperse and spread political power, with the main luminaries all having roots in a commitment to authoritarian left centralist politics where they and the party elect around them know best and mould the people’s will.

The Highlands campaigner Jim Hunter put it well when he asked of this debate: ‘Has any state with a single, sovereign legislature like the UK voluntarily and peacefully become a true federation?’ And observed that: ‘Federalism occurs when previously distinct polities/colonies merge (US, Canada, etc) or when a country experiences catastrophe (Germany).’ The only real exception to this principle that can be cited is Switzerland. But even here it became a federation in 1848 after a 27 day civil war; and it hard to see a country of 26 self-governing cantons as the inspiration for a future UK.

Labour have clung to believing in an avowedly anti-federalist idea of political power throughout its entire existence. It is a case of faith politics. But it also an example of counter-faith to pretend that this is away to somehow easily change. In this worldview,  a speech from a Labour Baroness, working party looking at some of this, and Scottish Labour prominent figures such as Richard Leonard (current leader) and Kezia Dugdale (previous leader) occasionally mentioning they aspire to a ‘federal Britain’ in the odd speech, amounts to a fundamental sea change in how Labour proposes to do politics and power and sees Britain.

This is not what motivates and drives their politics. They aren’t like the Lib Dems embodying constitutional reform with every breath they take. Labour have in the past few years of floating federalist mood music offered no details, no plans and no commitment to develop proposals for a federal Britain.

Instead of dreaming of a different but fictitious Britain we do need a reality check of recognising that Labour as it is currently constituted has no real interest in federalism. If that were not enough federalism does not address the deep seated divisions which disfigure British society and which require huge redistributions of power, income and wealth, and which require a different kind of political centre, state and capitalism.

Apart from the issue of how does federalism change everyday life there is the question of what to do with England? Either England is divided up into regions or an English Parliament is created which would speak for 85% of the UK population. The first has little support; while the second would create the sort of unbalanced federation which has never lasted anywhere in the world.

We are living in an environment where past Britains either cannot be returned to or have failed us. The post-war settlement which humanised capitalism and saw an explosion of working class standards of living has gone for good. But the unrestrained capitalism that followed has shown that its promises of greater prosperity and freedom were complete shams. That puts us in uncharted waters – not just in the UK but internationally.

If that were not enough there is a huge chasm at the heart of the British political classes. The old Labour and traditional Tory ways of governing Britain no longer work or feel appropriate for the disunited kingdom the UK has become. Federalism and the mood music some in Labour regularly raise offer little guidance or reassurance for how we develop a different political credo for governing the nations and territories that are the UK. The times call for much more radical thinking than that – perhaps embracing ultimately a confederation across these isles.