Federal Britain: Some Historical and Contemporary Reflections

Federal Britain: Some Historical and Contemporary Reflections

This week, Dr Colin Reid (Northumbria University) discusses a possible future for the United Kingdom through the idea of federalism. 

The Scots may have voted against independence in September past, but there can be no return to the constitutional status quo. The widespread and inclusive political debate that Scotland enjoyed in the run up stands in stark contrast to the largely apathetic attitude that greets political issues in other parts of the United Kingdom; more pertinently, the promise of further powers for the devolved Scottish parliament throws contradictions of the twenty-first century Union into sharp relief. The sovereign continues to reside in London, but the English don’t have ‘Home Rule’; the Scots will – once ‘devo-max’ is implemented – have a substantial measure of self-government; the Welsh and Northern Irish continue to press on with more limited devolution. The Union has become a patchwork quilt covering the component parts of the Kingdom. Whether the malleability of the Union represents an uncanny ability to modernise and change with the times, or is a sign of terminal decline, will become clear only in the fullness of time.

One possible future for the United Kingdom lies in federalism. The idea of a federal Britain has a long history, as documented in John Kendle’s pioneering work.[1] Nineteenth- and twentieth-century advocates of federalism stressed its utility as a constitutional mechanism to balance the unity of the state and the separate and distinctive politico-cultural personalities of the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. Indeed, its utility was particularly championed by those seeking imaginative ways to deal with the Irish demand for self-government within the broader contexts of Union state and Empire.

One such proponent of federalism was Isaac Butt, the founding father of the Irish Home Rule movement. The first definition of Home Rule, as laid out by Butt, envisaged the United Kingdom as the political unit that had to be transformed to address Irish alienation from the state. Butt opposed the idea of treating Ireland as a unique and special case, pointing out that the constitutional problem was not because of the Irish, but the nature of a highly centralised and unresponsive Union. In 1870, he proposed a federal constitution that would have created parliaments with substantial powers in England, Scotland and Ireland (the needs of Wales were left rather vague in his scheme); they would be equal partners in a decentralised Union that balanced local needs with national unity. This would remove the congestion of local issues from Westminster, which would be transformed into a genuinely imperial parliament, charged solely with foreign affairs. Butt’s proposal was a creative attempt to reconcile Irish ideas of self-governance with the British state; its intricacies were, however, lost with the rise of a more militant nationalism under Charles Stewart Parnell, who ultimately replaced Butt as the Home Rule chief.

I’ve written about Butt’s conception of federalism and his wider political and intellectual contexts elsewhere;[2] my wider research programme at the moment concerns the history of the Irish political imagination, with a particular focus on reconstructing ideas that later became distorted and/or forgotten. What is interesting about the research is how some ideas don’t go away: despite never being implemented in the United Kingdom, federalist thinking remains a striking part of British political discourse. There is a world of difference, though, between the centralised Union to which Butt was responding and its modern day manifestation. For one thing, today’s Union appears to rest on the principle of consent: each component part of the United Kingdom can vote to secede. The principle of consent is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, meaning that constitutional change can only occur if a majority of people in Northern Ireland desire it. The September referendum applied this logic to Scotland; without it being explicitly stated, the United Kingdom is held together not by the sovereign power, but the peripheries. Ironically, because it lacks formal structures of Home Rule, the only country that apparently doesn’t get a say in the future of the Union is England. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could elect to leave the Union in the future; there is no mechanism for England to do likewise, which is an interesting twist on accepted ideas of sovereignty and power. Isaac Butt would be puzzled by how the Union has developed, with all its contradictions and paradoxes; perhaps it’s time to reconsider his federal proposal in light of today’s challenges. Equality across the Union would be a good start to ensuring its sustainability.

Colin W. Reid is Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University. He is the author of The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864-1950, which will be republished in paperback by Manchester University Press in 2015.

[1] John Kendle, Federal Britain: A History (London, 1997).

[2] Colin W. Reid, “An experiment in constructive Unionism’: Isaac Butt, Home Rule and federalist political thought during the 1870s’, English Historical Review, vol. 129, no. 537 (2014), pp. 332-61.


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