Scottish independence: Why federalism is no longer an alternative to quitting the UK – Kenny MacAskill

Federalism once again rears its head, notwithstanding Boris Johnson’s outburst.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for the UK to become a federal state (Picture: Scott Louden)
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for the UK to become a federal state (Picture: Scott Louden)

To be fair, Neil Findlay and others have long argued for it and there’s a growing sterility in the independence versus the union debate. However, there are still good reasons why it’s unlikely to get traction.

Firstly, there’s a clear perception that it’s a ship that’s sailed. It might not have been on the ballot paper in 2014 but that was Westminster’s choice, not the Scots. David Cameron’s insistence on crushing independence ruled it out and has polarised the situation. That’s compounded by “the Vow” that he and other unionist leaders gave just days before the vote.

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Whether it changed the outcome who knows but it has changed attitudes north of the border. Federalism and other pledges made have failed to materialise. Worsening that further, the Smith Commission and other iterations are now being usurped by the Internal Market Bill. Rolling out Gordon Brown simply reminds many of pledges made and deepens nationalist distrust.

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Secondly, it needs to come from south of the border. Scottish voices like Neil Findlay are genuine in their calls but it’s not echoed by their London leadership. Starmer doesn’t seem interested in visiting Scotland, never mind endorsing federalism, while the animus that English Tories have for even modest devolution seems clear.

Similar calls have been made before, but the flesh has never been put on the bones. Labour and Tory remain thirled to centralism and Lib Dems are nowhere.

Of course, there are constitutional stirrings in England as Covid highlights the London-centric nature of the country. Andy Burnham and other north of England political leaders have raised the profile of a different world outwith Boris Johnson’s metropolis and even challenged London. But whilst it may have moved on from when devolution was comprehensively rejected two decades ago, it’s still far from ignited passions within those areas.

Going forward at a pace to suit English regions is simply unacceptable in Scotland. Yet the complexities there, about just what and where, are huge in the English regional debate. A written constitution and an unelected House of Lords further add to the questions. It might be the right thing to do but it’ll take time and Scotland can’t wait on a commission.

Finally, just what is federalism, as it has numerous iterations around the globe? Providing for numerous provinces, states or Lander is one thing, dealing with just two vastly differing entities’ quite another. Asymmetrical federalism as it’s called, proved problematic as Serbia and Montenegro discovered.

Red Clydesiders called for what to all intents and purposes was an equivalent of the Irish Free State. Everything bar defence and foreign affairs, though it was anticipated that they’d come in due course. But the world’s a more complex place now with globalisation and governments have far a greater role.

EU membership, Trident, social security and macroeconomics are all core issues. Yet it’s hard to see how federalism could broker an accord given the diverging views.

Federalism – maybe once, but not now.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian

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