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How a federal republic could keep Britain united

August 8, 2016

There’s been a lot of speculation that the UK’s impending exit from the European Union might lead to the break up of the longer lasting union of nations on these islands. Scotland voted most strongly to remain, while England voted most emphatically to leave. Northern Ireland voted to remain while Wales voted the same way as England, albeit by a smaller margin. Nationalists in Scotland are planning a second independence referendum. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have called for a border poll on union with the south, rather than facing a hard border on the UK’s only land border with a European Union country.

Brexit has already caused turmoil in both the Conservative and Labour parties. It may lead to the realignment of British politics, at least on the centre-left. There are renewed calls for electoral reform. But might Brexit also provide an opportunity for a more fundamental recasting of the British state? Is there a way to hold together the British union while allowing for more self determination by the Celtic nations and more decentralisation in England?

Since the 1970s when devolution to Scotland and Wales was first seriously mooted there has been no answer to Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s “West Lothian Question” about how to resolve the democratic deficit of MPs from English constituencies having no say on NHS reforms in Scotland but MPs from Scottish constituencies being able to vote on all matters before the House of Commons. The current Conservative government has tried to solve this with English Votes for English Laws. I heard a lot about their obsession with “EVEL” when I was a member of the cabinet committee on devolution during the coalition. In the aftermath of another referendum, on Scottish independence, EVEL was more important to them than delivering more powers to Edinburgh or reforming local government in England.

The intractable problem with the current House of Commons is that it is effectively both an English Parliament and the body that decides UK wide macro-economic policy and Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world. Removing Scottish MPs altogether or solving a West Glamorgan Question by stopping the MP for my home town of Pontypridd from voting on the vast majority of issues would be untenable. The Prime Minister of the UK would not be able to speak for the whole kingdom. And it’s the kingdom that is the blockage to solving this democratic conundrum. We have a head of state with no real political power. The monarch is also at the pinnacle of a network of an unelected establishment that includes the absurdity of the House of Lords, a body of people that still includes a smattering of hereditary Earls and Barons. Former Prime Minister Cameron has just made the institution look even more absurd with his resignation honours list. The gilded chamber also has places reserved for bishops from one denomination of one religion from one part of the United Kingdom on its red benches.

I believe that the best way to hold our country together and renew our democracy would be to abolish the United Kingdom and replace it with the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The short name would be Great Britain, which seems to be acceptable to everyone watching the Olympics in Rio at the moment. We would elect our head of state who would rule in conjunction with four national parliaments and a British Senate. Everyone who makes laws in Great Britain would be elected. Here’s how I think it could work:

The FEDERAL GOVERNMENT of the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shall consist of a President and Senate.

The PRESIDENT of Great Britain shall be elected by all British citizens aged 16 and over, using the alternative vote system. British passport holders in the various offshore dependencies such as the Isle of Man and Gibraltar shall also be able to vote for the person who would be their head of state. The President’s term of office shall be five years, with one option to stand for re-election. The President will be head of state and head of the federal government of Great Britain. The President will be primarily responsible for macro-economic policy, foreign and defence policy and international trade. There will also be some residual social welfare powers and a duty to arbitrate on cross border issues. The President will be the authorising signatory of all federal and state laws and will be the civil commander in chief of the British armed forces.

The President shall appoint a cabinet of ministers from the members of the British Senate in order to administer the federal government. There shall be a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Defence Secretary, International Development Secretary, Trade Secretary, Pensions & Welfare Secretary and a Federal Relations Secretary and Federal law officers. The British federal government will set and receive the revenues of a federal income tax (including employee national insurance) and will be the sole controller of corporation tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax and all international customs and tariffs. The British government will also control the rules but not the rates and thresholds of all taxes levied in any of the four constituent states. The President and the president’s staff shall occupy Buckingham Palace and Number Ten Downing Street but will also have a physical presence in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The British SENATE shall consist of 200 members, elected by the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies of 5 Senators for a period of 5 years, with no term limits. England shall elect 110 senators, Scotland 40, Wales 30 and Northern Ireland 20. The Senate will occupy the chamber of the Palace of Westminster currently used by the House of Lords, an abolished institution. Senators will set federal law, pass a federal budget and scrutinise the actions of the President and ministers. The President shall choose federal ministers from among serving members of the Senate. A Senate committee shall scrutinise each federal department. Senators shall elect a Speaker at the outset of each five year term. The Speaker shall assume the office of President pro-tem on the death or resignation of a President, pending a by-election to elect a new President for the remainder of the former President’s term, unless there is 6 months or less until the next scheduled election.

The Federal Treasury, Foreign Office, Defence Department and Home Office shall be based in London. The Office for Federal Relations shall also be in London. The Pensions & Welfare Department shall be located in Edinburgh, the Trade Department shall be in Cardiff and the International Development Department shall be in Belfast. The Home Secretary will be responsible for British immigration law and the domestic intelligence and security services. The Pensions and Welfare Secretary shall be responsible for pensions law, the state pension and other benefits including those for disability and parental responsibilities. The Trade Secretary will be responsible for competition law, international trade agreements and will work with the four national governments on inward investment and strategic economic development funds to facilitate economic convergence across the federal republic. The Secretary of State for Federal Relations will assist the national governments on cross border issues on areas such as transport and will hold responsibility for federal institutions of a cultural and scientific nature.

There shall be 4 national parliaments for all aspects of domestic law and administration that are not expressly reserved for the federal government. The PARLIAMENT OF ENGLAND shall have 450 members, located in London, based in the chamber of the former House of Commons, an abolished institution. The PARLIAMENT OF SCOTLAND shall have 129 members and be based in Edinburgh. The PARLIAMENT OF WALES (SENEDD CYMRU) shall have 80 members and be located in Cardiff. The PARLIAMENT OF NORTHERN IRELAND shall have 108 members and be located in Belfast.

The four Parliaments will all sit for five years. The Members of Parliament in England, Scotland and Wales will be elected by the Alternative vote in single member constituencies plus a regional top up to give greater proportionality. The accumulated first preference votes in a group of constituencies will be used to allocate top up seats, with the number of constituency seats won being taken into account. The English Parliament will have 300 constituencies and 150 top up seats drawn from 25 regions each with 6 top up MPs. The Scottish Parliament will have 73 constituencies plus 56 top up MPs drawn from 8 regions each with 7 MPs. The Welsh Parliament will have 45 constituencies plus 35 top up MPs drawn from 5 regions each with 7 MPs. The Northern Irish Parliament will have 108 MPs elected by the single transferable vote in 18 constituencies each with 6 MPs.

The four Parliaments will have primary responsibility for all domestic law and administration within their national boundaries. The existing laws of the UK will be the basic law of each territory until amended by the national parliament. The national parliaments will each control the rates and receive the revenues of national income tax (including employee NIC), employers’ NIC, VAT, excise duties and stamp duty. Income tax and NIC will be allocated on the basis of the primary residence for tax purposes of the individual.

At its first sitting after an election each Parliament shall elect a Speaker and then a First Minister. The First Minister shall appoint a Finance Minister, Justice Minister and ministers for education, health, welfare, transport and culture plus law officers. The Finance Minister will be responsible for the national budget and economic development. The Justice Minister will be responsible for policing and all aspects of the criminal justice system and will have a duty to cooperate with the federal Home Secretary on security issues.

The national parliaments shall pass laws for their territories in the areas for which they are competent and are not reserved for the federal Senate. Bills passed by the parliaments shall become law on the signature of the President. The President may, in exceptional circumstances where it is believed the proposed law would be prejudicial to good relations between the four nations, veto the law. The veto would give the national parliament up to one year (or the expiry of the 5 year term if less) to submit a new proposal. If the new proposal is vetoed for a second time it is referred to the Senate. The Senate may uphold the veto, nullify the veto or amend the law, which is then sent back to the national parliament before referral to the President for signature.

The relationship between the national parliaments and LOCAL GOVERNMENT shall be a matter for each national government. But the structure of local government shall be unitary principal authorities. Combined Authorities may be set up for city regions, with powers and revenues devolved from the national governments to be exercised by a Regional Mayor, elected by AV. Unitary Councils will set a local income tax and will control all aspects of council tax. They will retain all business rates and may introduce supplementary local taxes and levies from a menu set by each national parliament. Unitary Councils (or a referendum of a defined group of not less than a thousand electors) may set up neighbourhood councils for towns and villages. Neighbourhood councils may charge a precept on the council tax. All councillors will be elected by STV in multi-member wards. In rural councils or sparsely populated areas the AV+ method may be used.

Election of the President and Senate will take place on the third Sunday in September. The President and Senators will assume office on the Monday four weeks after the election.

Election of MPs for the four parliaments will take place on the second Sunday in June. MPs will take office on the Monday four weeks after the election. They will then elect a Speaker and a First Minister.

The creation of the democratic institutions of the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will require the abolition and phasing out of existing United Kingdom institutions. On the inauguration of the first President the monarchy will cease to have any constitutional role in law making and all prerogatives will vest in the President. The Civil List will be adjusted and accommodation rearranged for an interim period. On the death of Queen Elizabeth all royal titles will be abolished. A generous resettlement package will be provided for the remaining principal members of the former royal family together with the conferment of hereditary peerages. The Church of England will be disestablished on the same lines as the Church in Wales. The bar on same sex marriage in both institutions will be abolished, though it will be up to them whether they offer same sex marriage. The President of Britain would not be the head of state of any other Commonwealth country, other than the dependencies that are included in the presidential franchise.

The House of Lords will be abolished. The titles associated with the peerage will remain with existing holders but there will be no new creations of life peers. The House of Commons, Scottish Parliament, National Assembly of Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly will be abolished and replaced by the four national parliaments. The combined current total of Peers, MPs, MSPs and Welsh and Northern Ireland AMs is almost 1,800. The combined total of new elected law makers at federal and state level will be 968 including the President.

I believe that the institutional shock of Brexit gives us an opportunity to refresh our British democracy. Those who advocated a break with Brussels alleged a lack of democratic control over law making in Europe. The same people were largely blind to the deficiencies of the creaking machinery of British government. A national Parliament with one House unelected and the other elected by a system that fails to reflect the proportionality of the votes that were cast. The elected House with MPs having different voting rights over domestic policy. An uneven devolution settlement between the Celtic nations and emasculated local government everywhere. My proposed model allows for even handed devolution within a federal structure and a system where everyone with a hand on the levers of power is elected, by a fair votes method. Ironically, whether we actually leave or end up remaining in the EU, it is a structure that will be all too familiar to our fellow Europeans.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. nigel hunter permalink
    August 8, 2016 9:32 am

    This sounds interesting. How far have you discussed it in the party? Have the voters any interest in this sort of future? I think we need to explore this further.

    • August 8, 2016 2:38 pm

      There is no united view point on a coherent package of reform. Obviously some Lib Dems will want to keep a monarch or don’t want an elected president with meaningful powers. Most believe in an elected Senate, though some cling to the delusion that experts can be appointed rather than elected. The biggest split is between those who want an English Parliament and those who prefer the regionalisation of England.

      • August 8, 2016 5:46 pm

        Who would be the opposition to the President and Federal Govt in this scenario? I’m assuming the Senate would play host to a similar structure of collective party politics we currently have – just taking place on the red benches instead? So the Leader of the Senate Opposition would be the de facto candidate for President against the incumbent?


  1. Reducing the number of MPs is bad for our democracy | Stephen Williams' Blog

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