Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class. Yet it may be the only solution to the deep imbalances which will come with radical new powers for the Scottish Parliament if the Smith Commission proposals are implemented, writes Stephen Tierney.
The Smith Commission Report issued on Thursday promises a restructuring of the United Kingdom which may prove to be more significant than the devolution settlement of 1997-98 itself; the acquisition of extensive tax and welfare powers would make Scotland one of the most autonomous regions in western Europe.
Notably the UK’s economic and fiscal coherence has hitherto been a key factor in allowing the asymmetrical and ad hoc nature of devolution to embed itself without any great disruption to the constitutional structures of the central state. With the dismantling of this system it seems that a tipping point might well be reached for our lop-sided and messy system of territorial government. The Smith Commission proposals, if implemented, will have knock-on consequences for several fundamental features of the UK constitution: parliamentary supremacy, the idea of the House of Commons as a national chamber for Britain, possibly the nature and composition of the House of Lords, and the relative freedom of the UK Government in its dealings with the devolved executives. It is perhaps ironic therefore, but I believe also inevitable, that a process which was designed studiously to avoid the federal question will now bring federalism to the table as possibly the only medium term solution to the deep imbalances which will come with further, radical powers for the Scottish Parliament.
How does Smith raise the federal question?
Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class, and its feasibility as a constitutional project for Britain is certainly not beyond question. But some kind of federal solution will surely be needed to deal with two related issues: the extent to which Scotland’s representation within the House of Commons, so far only marginally affected by devolution (reduced from 72 to 59 by way of the Scotland Act 1998 as amended), will appear ever more anomalous as the Scottish Parliament’s powers expand; and the very real risk that as Scotland becomes ever more detached from Westminster, the Union will become largely irrelevant to many Scots. The latter is far more dangerous since it could well mean that Scottish independence is in the longer term now more rather than less likely. If this is true the unionist parties, which make up the majority of the Smith ‘Commission’ (which was in reality an inter-party bargaining group), risk seizing defeat from the jaws of referendum victory.