Federalism: A fix for Scotland and the UK in crisis, or something more?

With Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale saying that federalism could be the solution to Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, CommonSpace speaks to two long term Labour supporters of UK federalism

“FEDERALISM should not be seen as a concession to nationalism, and it mustn’t be just a fix,” says Ewan Gibbs, co-author of a recent paper on the economic potentials of a federal UK.

Gibbs, a sociology and social policy lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, is part of a group of economic and social thinkers, the Red Paper Collective (RCP), who have spent years investing intellectual effort in the case for a federal UK structure that economically and politically empowers the people of the UK.

For the longest time they gained fairly little traction in the Labour party they viewed as the natural vehicle for the project, but in the wake of Scottish Labour’s brutal 2016 Scottish election trouncing, and the constitutional crisis bred by Brexit, federalism is now the party vogue and the fight is on to define its meaning.

For some in politics, federalism is imagined as a proliferation of parliamentary type structures across the UK. The creation of mayors for English cities like Manchester is seen as a step in this direction, perhaps towards an English parliament in the shape of Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

“The biggest worry is that you still have people thinking that federalism is some sort of answer to the national question. Once that [national question] is parked, you get back on with ‘real politics’,” Gibbs says.

“The biggest worry is that you still have people thinking that federalism is some sort of answer to the national question.” Ewan Gibbs

The possibility of a federal Britain vaunted by Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale following an EU referendum that saw Scotland (as well as Northern Ireland) vote to remain within the UK while the rest of the UK voted to leave, was clearly intended as a salve to national antagonisms.

In a speech following the shock vote for Brexit (8 July) Dugdale said that “Scotland could retain its place both in the UK and in the EU” with “a potential federalist solution”.

On 7 December Dugdale repeated this message but with more urgency, telling the Institute for Public Policy Research in London that it could act as an alternative to “rightwing populism and nationalism”.

But for Gibbs and his colleagues this is not enough. Their federalism, which would see greater formal political control in the UK’s nations as well as in English regions, would be meaningless without the social and economic levers that make ‘control’ more than a campaign buzzword.

“Those of us on the left who have advocated federalism for some time, that wasn’t just an answer to a particular question at a particular juncture, it was a vision to recalibrate the British state, precisely to deliver on economic and social issues,” Gibbs says.

“Scotland’s industrial decline meant a transference of control away from Scotland, sometimes to the British state, but mainly to multinational corporations and to the financial sector.” Ewan Gibbs

Elements of this new federal structure would include a new UK state-run investment bank, with national and regional access for the purposes of strategic industrial planning. These measures could roll back what Gibbs sees as being behind the push for greater national autonomy in the UK, de-industrialisation and the subsequent disenfranchisement of working communities.

“Scotland’s industrial decline meant a transference of control away from Scotland, sometimes to the British state, but mainly to multinational corporations and to the financial sector,” he says.

“Our model of federalism would not be about breeding greater competition between regions, but giving regions greater economic decision making,” he adds.

What’s more, Gibbs says, a federal UK solution must be brought about by a UK-wide process.

“If it just comes from within Scottish Labour, then it’s just another item of Scottish exceptionalism.”

He shares this view, at least, with Scottish Labour’s Lord Foulkes, another long-time advocate of a federal approach by the Labour party.

Foulkes is frustrated by the pace of UK events and their apparent inability to keep-up with the pace of the debate in Scotland

“The first stage [towards federalism] is to set a UK wide constitutional convention,” he says.

“I’ve spoken to Jeremy Corbyn, to Jon Trickett, to Kezia Dugdale and other leaders of the party and I think we should have moved quicker and more decisively.” Lord Foulkes

“I’ve spoken to Jeremy Corbyn, to Jon Trickett, to Kezia Dugdale and other leaders of the party and I think we should have moved quicker and more decisively,” he adds.

It’s fair to say that in speaking to Labour’s UK and Scottish leaders, as well as Trickett, tasked by Corbyn with organising a future constitutional convention, Foulkes was eager to arrive at solutions to national questions.

“While the SNP has a clear and well-articulated position in favour of independence [for Scotland], the Tories have a very clear and understandable position on defending the union.

“We’ve been caught between positions and it’s confused people.

“We need a solution which is neither the status quo nor separation, and the only way to do that is to move towards a federal or quasi-federal solution,” he says.

But he agrees with those on the left of his party that federalism has to take in more than merely national dilemmas and party political problems.

“We need a solution which is neither the status quo nor separation, and the only way to do that is to move towards a federal or quasi-federal solution.” Lord Foulkes

“What we are talking about is institutionalising Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution and giving more power to the people of the regions of England, who feel just as alienated from London as we do.

“But it also means replacement of the House of Lords with a second chamber with clear purpose and clear accountability. And that also means looking at the electoral system as well, and the way the Commons and the second chamber are constituted and what power they have,” Foulkes says.

As the UK state chaotically unwinds in the background, in the foreground so does the Labour party, and both Gibbs and Foulkes seem troubled by party developments for the project of federalism.

“I’ve spoken to Jeremy twice about this and I know he’s in favour of it in principle. I think he would have liked to press ahead with it. But there has been other things on people’s minds,” Foulkes says.

Gibbs agrees that the victory for Corbyn and his leftwing of the Labour party has created more support for the federalist project.

“The people who have been attracted into Labour by Corbyn are the ones most interested in taking up these ideas,” Gibbs says.

Gibbs now thinks the increasing pace of developments, with Brexit bringing both new economic and political uncertainties and a new prime minister in Theresa May to the UK, makes the case for federalism more urgent.

“The game has changed in that May's throwing out all the usual rules regarding austerity and even courting major state investment.” Ewan Gibbs

“The game has changed in that May's throwing out all the usual rules regarding austerity and even courting major state investment,” he says.

“The left needs a programme about empowerment, economic democracy with full employment and house building at its core. Federalism will be a necessary framing,” he adds.

Foulkes agrees that the UK’s exit from the EU has only sharpened the national questions that make federalism vital.

“The top priority now is to address the English democratic deficit and find a plan for England which includes legislative and administrative devolution,” he says.

“It is impossible now for Scottish Labour to survive without an answer to the constitutional question.”

Pictures courtesy of UK Parliament

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