A Federal UK: A worthwhile pursuit or another liberal pipe dream?

Last week saw the British Government extend an offer of more powers to the Welsh assembly, including plans for it to determine its own income taxes. Could all-out constitutional reform toward a federal system be a worthwhile objective? Or is it just another liberal pipe dream?

For someone who is vehemently opposed to any form of big government, I have long opposed the concept of federalism. The core argument, I supposed, was that more government meant better government. A premise that I immediately refuted and as such, I at first ultimately discarded the prospect of a Federal UK.

However, I have come to realise that our cousins across the pond may have the right idea. It is staunchly defended by both the G.O.P and Democrats alike, and even the United States Libertarian Party ardently support and defend the federal system. You see, federalism creates a new range of checks on big government that prevents it from acting, and thus limiting the power and scope of government. The federal government, and the state governments alike, create a mutual and consistent check on one another, ensuring they do not impinge on individual rights. The question is however, is such a system compatible with the UK?


I would argue not only yes, that it is compatible, but that it is in fact desirable.

For instance, it would rectify a number of issues we face today, such as dissident republicanism in Northern Ireland, the rise of Scottish nationalism (and to a lesser extent, even Welsh nationalism), the West Lothian Question, and a profusely inefficient health service.

Take Northern Ireland for example. A nation beleaguered by division for nearly 100 years. If it governed itself, these troubles would largely be laid to rest, leaving nationalist parties such as Sinn Fein with little to grumble about. It would be the ultimate settlement, even surpassing that of the Good Friday agreement. A Northern Ireland that, in effect, governs itself (other than areas such as defence and foreign policy), but remains resolutely within the United Kingdom.

Over in Scotland there is a similar story. We see with the rise of the SNP that the Scots crave more say over their own affairs. They aren’t content with the status quo, but as the polls suggest, they do not want independence either. Consequently, a bill giving them ‘Home Rule’ would allow them to govern their own internal affairs, from taxes to healthcare. With a federal union, Scotland is free. But furthermore, the other constituent parts of the UK are free from them. No more subsidising their health care, no more Barnett Formula, no more cries for Independence. Yet we can still call them our countrymen, and have many reasons to be proud to remain in Union with them. Thus the Union would in fact be stronger than it is at present.

In terms of identity, there is a change in the winds emerging in Britain. Recent polls suggest more identify as English/ Scottish/ Welsh rather than British. This needs to be both accepted and addressed at the same time. National identity is not at all a bad thing. But people must also feel they belong, and can consequently identify themselves as citizens of the UK.  A federal union would do this, giving credence to national identities and grievances, i.e.  through acts such as the establishment of an English parliament, or bequeathing control of Northern Irish corporation tax to Belfast.


Healthcare, in the disastrous shape it currently is in in Britain, necessitates a Federal structure. As unions prevent any potential reform of the NHS, despite how abundantly necessary it may be, perhaps a constitutional reform is the way forward. Healthcare would be reformed ‘through the back door’, a necessary result of a constitutional reform. The NHS would be reformed drastically in to a much more decentralized arrangement, one that would help stave off inefficiency, and thus work best for the areas it serves. No more will the treasury merely throw money at it and hope for the best.

The federal model of course is up for debate. Whether it is divided nationally as I have detailed above, or it is split more regionally, with regions such as Cornwall and Greater London also obtaining the ability to govern them. Similarly, one might argue the U.S. version, especially with the recent Shutdown is not one to replicate. I would personally envision one similar to the Canadian model, one actually derived from our own system of government. A bicameral federal legislature within which the executive sits, and is drawn from. Furthermore a legislature in which the upper house isn’t as powerful as the lower, preventing any potential gridlock, allowing fluidity the necessary for good governance.

In effect, a federal government does not mean more government. On the contrary, it can mean less… more checks means less power and less freedom for the government to act as it pleases. Federalism merely means a decentralised government, closer to the people, one that is more easily limited, and is consistently checked by the Federal government on high. Such a change may be a long way off, and perhaps slightly alien for us Brits. However, with devolution progressing slowly but surely, it could well be the direction in which we are inevitably heading- and I see no reason why we should stop.

Sean Coley


  1. The Liberals have had a federal UK as part of their makeup for a hundred years and the minute they had a chance to attain their dreams….they bottled it..so it will never happen, neither do I want it to happen. The NHS in Scotland has always been separate from England’s.

  2. Cornwall has already produced a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a devolved Cornish assembly. Being a state within a true federation would, of course, be even better. By the way, Cornwall is a Celtic nation not a region.

  3. Would you favour the English people having a say, via a referendum, on the governance of England, just as our ‘fellow citizens’ in the Divided Kingdom’s other nations decided via referenda? No? No, I didn’t think so.


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