Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Federal Model and the U.K.

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The results are in and the United Kingdom “no’s” have won a modest but decisive victory in the referendum on Scotland’s independence. The choice was clear, as proven by the sudden resignation of First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP).  In his parting remarks, Salmond closed by saying the “dream shall never die;” proving that the tension about whether Scotland will remain a part of the U.K. has not completely disappeared.

No one expects the Scottish nation to abandon its heritage, its pride and its hope for a better future. The SNP believed that this better future would be guaranteed through an independent, sovereign Scotland, rather than as part of the U.K. However, opponents of this option, acting under the umbrella of “Better Together,” made the case for continuing the union. And when opinion polls began to tighten in the latter half of the campaign, U.K. political leadership promised extensive reforms.

It was not long before other constituent parts of the U.K.—Wales and Northern Ireland—jumped at the occasion, asking to be a part of the process for reform. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron responded positively by referring to a wide-ranging constitutional reform effort. Considering that the U.K. has no written constitution and is organized as a unitary state (with one level of government, as opposed to two levels of government with sovereign powers as in a federation), intensive and prolonged discussions regarding the extent of the reforms and some acrimonious debate about jurisdictions are to be expected.

In Canada, we have had our share of constitutional battles, largely provoked by the pro-independence Parti Québécois, including two referenda on Québec independence in 1980 and 1995. While the Canadian model has had little success in stopping the quest for independence by the Parti Québécois, the fact that Canada has had a successful go at making a federal state work for nearly 150 years may be a useful reference for the post-Scotland referendum period.

Moving from a unitary state to a federal state with two levels of government (a central government and subnational governments with sovereign powers) and independent taxation power may be a huge leap into uncharted waters for the U.K. political class.

The federal idea, however, is not unique in itself. Some major players on the world stage are federations—the United States, Germany, Australia, and of course, my own country, Canada. Federalism is often described as a system best able to cope with diversity, foster pluralism, and ensure the co-existence of national identities. It is associated with values and institutions, a strong democratic culture, providing a framework for discussion, and fostering debate and the possibility for some accommodation.

Even though Canada failed to achieve a constitutional package with Québec’s consent in the post-1980 referendum period, it would be inaccurate and misleading to say that Canada has not made important accommodations to meet Québec’s aspirations. Examples of some of the changes Canada has made include greater immigration power, fiscal adjustments, asymmetrical arrangements in healthcare and manpower retraining, , and the recognition of Québec as a nation by the federal Parliament in Ottawa and the Québec National Assembly—thus illustrating that federations can bring about positive change, even outside of  formal constitutional talks.

Federalism is not a one-size-fits-all concept of government. The German model has a strong central government, the Australian model has gone through phases of centralization and decentralization, the U.S. model has evolved into a much stronger central government than originally intended. The Canadian model today is arguably the most decentralized federation that I have observed.

U.K. political leadership would be well advised to examine existing models of federalism, and adapt an approach that best fits the political culture of the players involved. In the Labour Party/Tony Blair period, the word “devolution” (delegated powers, not sovereign) was used by the political leadership to describe the granting of additional powers to some of the constituent parts of the U.K. The “Better Together” promises, however, have raised expectations that the concept of devolution will not be sufficient to please Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The latter expect real sovereign powers as associated with subnational governments in a federation.

Should the U.K. become a federation and abandon its unitary form of government? It is clearly a path to consider, and one that can better accommodate the affirmation of national identities with the recognition that working together to promote larger interests requires cooperation among the constituent parts. I believe Scotland’s choice on September 18 showed that it prefers to remain a part of the U.K., but that it also expects change that is more in line with the federal idea.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Alex Salmond, Federalism, Scotland
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