There is another problem with a supposed federal solution that neither Professor Ciaran Martin nor Sir Tom Devine appear to have identified. (‘Virtually impossible’: Experts pan LibDem plans for a federal United Kingdom) Although having identified so many other issues that kill the federalism idea stone dead, it may have been considered redundant to seek more. The horse was killed by the parliamentary sovereignty issue. Further flogging may have seemed excessive.
As a point of academic interest, however, it may be worth noting the problematic matter of who would negotiate a federal arrangement on behalf of the annexed territories. It may seem obvious that the Scottish Parliament would speak for Scotland in such matters. But as the experts observe, the Scottish Parliament is a creature of Westminster and daily beholden to the parliament of England-as-Britain for its continued existence. We have to wonder how a devolved parliament could freely negotiate a federal settlement; or be regarded as able to do so whilst effectively under the heel of the parliament negotiating on behalf of England.
Consider the starting point for these negotiations. Constitutionally, only Westminster can conclude a new federal arrangement for the UK. Only Westminster can negotiate such a reform of the Union. The parliament that speaks for England also speaks for the periphery. That at least is is the position as it would be stated by British politicians. Rather obviously, it is a far from satisfactory situation from the perspective of the annexed territories. However it might be dressed up, there would always be justifiable concerns that negotiations were being dominated by England. Or England-as-Britain. There could be no confidence in Scotland that any settlement had been freely negotiated. There could be no assurance that Scotland’s interests had been adequately represented. The expectation would be that the Union was doing what it was always intended to do. Namely, ensure that England’s interests were prioritised at whatever cost to ‘subordinate’ parts of the UK.
A federal settlement could only be acceptable to the people of Scotland, or any other part of the UK periphery, if it was freely negotiated among parties of equal status in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In other words, a federal settlement could only be negotiated and agreed after Scotland’s independence had been restored. I’m sure there’s no need to spell out the problem with an ‘alternative’ to independence which is only possible with independence. It makes no sense.
Let’s assume for a moment that Willie Rennie MSP and part-time ram-wrestler is not stupid. Work with me, please. Surely he must be aware of the problems that make federalism ‘virtually impossible. Surely somebody has explained it to him even if he is incapable of working it out for himself. So why does he persist with what is so evidently a daft notion? We know Rennie is not averse to embarrassing himself in the name of service to the Union. But this obsession with federalism is exceptional even for an ardent British Nationalist such as he. How might we explain it?
A clue to the underlying motive for the endlessly repeated effort to resuscitate the dead horse of federalism might be found in the fact that it is not only the LibDems who try to breathe life into the dessicated corpse. British Labour in Scotland have been known to attempt a bit of whip-based CPR from time to time. Which would seem to confirm that the federal solution is not a serious proposal. By which I mean not only that it is a proposal which we needn’t take seriously but that it it is not intended as a serious proposal.
It doesn’t have to be a serious proposal. It serves the purposes of British Nationalism simply by being talked about as if it was an alternative to independence. It muddies the waters. It generates doubt. It provokes debate among those persuaded of the need for constitutional reform but unsure of what form this should take. Debate that merely by happening places a question mark over the need for independence in the minds of a certain part of the electorate. It plants the idea that it may not be necessary to restore Scotland’s independence in order to find a workable constitutional settlement. Set this alongside a barrage of propaganda portraying independence as a risky proposition and talk of an alternative – however unworkable in practice – will tend to reinforce any wavering on the constitutional question.
Whether or not it is the case that talk of federalism is merely a ploy, it is as well that we assess everything that the British parties do and say in the context of the British Nationalist aim to subsume Scotland into the latest – and arguably the ugliest – iteration of the ‘Greater England’ project. We must be constantly mindful of the fact that the British state is not benign. We must never lose sight of the fact that the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state are antithetical to the pooling of sovereignty which is the foundation of practical democracy. That is the real reason federalism is ‘virtually impossible’.
Far from incidentally, it is also the reason devolution could never be a long term resolution of the conflict inherent in a risibly anachronistic, grotesquely asymmetric and self-evidently dysfunctional political union.