The case for a federal UK

Much has been made of Cameron’s surprise opportunity to re-cast his legacy as a significant Prime Minister, instead of as a brief place-holder who governed in coalition. His victory comes thanks to the Scottish National Party’s extraordinary rout of Labour in Scotland, obliterating all but one of their MPs north of the border and driving fearful voters in England to the safety of the Conservatives.

But this victory comes at a price for Cameron, and the lead he has achieved over Labour in the Commons could turn out to be a poisoned chalice. With 56 SNP MPs at Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon’s party has genuinely become a force to be reckoned with. And why should it not be?  The constituents who sent the SNP MPs to Westminster are full citizens of the United Kingdom, and have the right to have their views heard in their country’s parliament.  If Cameron ignores the SNP – now the third largest party at Westminster – he will give credence to the Scottish accusation that they are treated politically as second class citizens in the UK, ruled from afar like a colony with no say in decisions that affect them.

The Conservatives repeatedly warned voters during the campaign that the SNP were the party of disunity and the party that wanted to break up the United Kingdom. And it is true, Scottish independence is the SNP’s primary goal, and there are many within the party who are urgent to pursue their dream with all speed, regardless of last year’s referendum defeat.

But this election was not about independence for Scotland. It was, as Sturgeon said repeatedly, about making Scotland’s voice heard at Westminster. Alex Salmond described the election result rather poetically as the “Scottish lion roaring at Westminster” – is Cameron really so foolish as to block his ears to their democratic voice, or worse, attempt to crack a whip over the lion itself?

Many in Scotland voted for the SNP because of a deep feeling of betrayal by Labour. The phrase “we were promised” crops up again and again all over the SNP’s output. Mhairi Black MP’s biography on the SNP’s website reads “I am running as a candidate for the SNP as I truly believe that the only way to bring the powers we were promised, and the social justice that Scotland so desperately needs, is to have a strong group of SNP MPs at Westminster to ensure our voices are heard”.

Last September Scotland voted decisively – not overwhelmingly, but decisively – in favour of remaining in the Union. But many voters only voted No because of the desperate last-minute promises of extra powers offered by the main parties, not because they wanted things to remain as they were.  For these voters, a vote for No was a vote for change, not the status quo – a vote for a new Scotland, a Scotland that remained in the Union but that was not politically dominated and dismissed by the Southern parties. These voters didn’t vote for independence, but they did vote for change.

But almost as soon as the vote was over Cameron wiped the sweat from his brow, straightened his tie and stood in front of No.10 to declare that it was time to talk about English Votes for English Laws. And Labour, Scotland’s traditional champion against the overwhelmingly English Tories, failed to challenge Cameron’s apparent readiness to dismiss the Scottish question and seemed as complacent following the referendum as the government. Where else could Scottish voters turn but the SNP, who were promising to make their voice heard?

The SNP’s election landslide is not a political mandate for independence. Neither is there an economic case – the plunge in oil prices following the referendum has made Scotland’s economic position as an independent country much more uncertain in the immediate future, and has serious implications for the longer term too. But there is a very strong case for a new political relationship in the UK, and Sturgeon appears to be wisely pursuing this course, rather than squandering her position with an attempt to re-run the independence debate too soon.

That said, the SNP’s landslide in Scotland should surely be heeded as Scotland’s final warning to England: “We are shouting as loud as democratically possible, and if you still won’t listen, then the Union is finished”. What is needed is not complacency and hastily-written shoddy promises, but, in the words of Boris Johnson, a “grown-up discussion” about the possibility of a federal UK.

The single biggest difference between a federal and a devolved political system is the direction of flow of power. In Britain, a unitary system with devolved centres (excluding England), power flows down from the top, giving a situation where the Scottish Parliament derives its legitimacy from and can feel unjustly dominated by Westminster.

In America, a fully federalised system of states, power flows up from the bottom, meaning that the President governs with the permission of the fifty states, his office is constrained by checks and balances, and the equal political status of the states is codified into law. Congress reflects the populations and constituency voting of the states, while the Senate gives each state from the largest and most populous to the smallest two Senators and an equal voice. America is hardly an exemplary political institution, but given its extraordinary geographical size and demographic diversity, its democracy and stability for the last century and a half is genuinely laudable. One only has to look at Russia to see how such a revolutionary, anti-monarchist state could have turned out.

Why not for the UK? The constituent countries are different sizes, but so are the states of America. Nationalism threatens to break up the Union, and devolution merely fed the beast instead of silencing it. But federalising the UK could be not a half-hearted answer to nationalism, nor a lame attempt to shout it down. Federalism should facilitate the peaceful coexistence of our nations while answering both nationalist complaints of unjust domination from Westminster and English worries about the West Lothian question. A federalised UK would also have a codified system for democratically resolving disputes between the constituent nations.

Cameron and his advisors will want to consult federalist constitutionalists at length over the coming weeks and months. Federalising the UK would be a radical step with many issues to resolve – the question of whether to have a federal chamber in addition to or in place of the House of Lords is a difficult one, and the position of the monarchy may similarly find itself in question – but this does not mean it should not be considered and discussed. At the very least, it would be better to debate the issue and decide against it than continue to ignore or (worse) attempt to shout down the roaring of the Scottish Lion.

Nationalism is a poisonous and, no matter how much of a charm offensive Sturgeon wages, wholly negative political movement. Scottish national pride is a positive force, but it is the distrust, even for some the hatred of English politics that defines modern Scottish nationalism, and the feeling is rapidly growing mutual among the English. A federal United Kingdom could give a real opportunity to answer the concerns of millions of citizens, and set the stage to heal the increasing divides in our nation.

If Cameron ignores this opportunity to genuinely consider the Scottish case, then he runs the risk of being the man single-handedly responsible for losing the Union – single-handedly, because thanks to the SNP he will not even be able to blame it on a coalition partner.