England’s continued existence as a pseudo-country within the UK is a massive existential political threat to the future of the UK. If the United Kingdom is to remain a united, functional nation-state, England needs to break up.
The United Kingdom’s devolution process is probably the most confused federalist project in history. Neither the British political class nor its population seem aware that they live in a federalist state, which goes some way to explaining the bizarre nature of UK federalism. The regional parliaments - Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - all enjoy differing degrees of autonomy and decision making power, and there is no seperate parliamentary body for England, although the Westminster parliament does restrict the ability of MPs from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to vote on some bills that are deemed to only impact England. While other federal states have a constitutional settlement outlining what level of government is responsible for particular issues, and who takes initial responsibility for any new policy areas, the UK’s unwritten constitution means that a simple majority vote in the Westminster parliament can grant extraordinary powers to devolved parliaments, or abolish their existence entirely. It is a precarious state of affairs, and reduces regional parliaments to the play-things of other political forces.
The biggest obstacle to a properly federal United Kingdom is England. Large states or provinces within a federal state can cause substantial problems for policy-makers, and their greater degree of influence can cause resentment in the other subnational administrative areas. Flander’s has 57% of the Belgian population and the Russian SFR’s had a little over half of the USSR’s population in 1989, and in both countries the outsized influence of those regions has caused problems. Even California (12% of the US population) and Ontario (38% of the Canadian population) are large enough to create policy problems in their respective states. By comparison, in a federal United Kingdom, 84% of its residents would be in England. England, and the England-centric nature of much of the UK government and society has already helped fan the flames of Scottish nationalism and an English parliament would only make things worse.
Consider the population per England region as used by, amongst others, the ONS, Eurostat and the European Parliament. The most populous of these regions, the South East, has a mere 13.7% of the UK’s population.
|Name||Population||Percentage of UK population|
|East of England||5,846,965||9.3%|
|Yorkshire and the Humber||5,283,733||8.4%|
There is no Englishness that binds the people of England together. While substantial numbers of people think of themselves as English, rather than British or European or (for example) Geordies, they are few in number in many parts of England, and there is no value or belief that is shared across their Englishness. What is more, regional governments will allow for regional social, economic and cultural variations to be reflected in policies and services. Looking at the nine regions of England, it is likely the Conservatives would win elections in the South East, South West and East of England, while Labour would form governments in the other six regions. If the national political parties are sensible they will allow the regional parties a relatively free hand in setting out their political positions. The priorities and ideology of Labour supporters in London are vastly different from Labour supporters in the North East, to name just one example.
Shifting policy making to regional, sub-national levels has the potential to vastly improve the effectiveness of those policies, particularly social policies. It makes sense for the national government to set parameters and standards for social policies, while allowing regional governments some leeway in how they make that happen. There are substantial regional variations in health outcomes, educational attainment and access to public transport, amongst other issues, that would be better addressed by a government focused on that region. Cities outside the South East and London have massive skills deficits compared to similar sized cities in mainland Europe, and struggle to compete economically with London. And even London isn’t all that great compared to its most similar cities elsewhere in Europe. Regional policy making can better take account of the needs and priorities of that region, rather than the limping, centralised policy making that has left great swathes of England under-developed, economically backwards and isolated.
An effective regional government needs a legislative body and a civil service to enact policies. Much of the administrative framework is already in place for these regions. Data collected by the ONS and government departments already follows the regions of England, as does the internal organisation of some areas of the civil service. The administrative reforms necessary for proper federalisation are much less drastic than the impact of austerity programmes, and the hollowing out of the civil service presents an opportunity to rebuild it along regional lines. Nine new parliaments (eight if London keeps using its city hall or takes over Westminster) represent a hefty investment, but also provide a chance to rebalance economic and political structures within each region. Placing the regional capital in a relatively deprived and smaller city can bring investment, jobs and skilled workers. Transforming West Bromwich or Salford into a government town could do wonders for the economy, with infrastructure construction creating a myriad of employment opportunities, in addition to the administrative needs of the new government.
The government’s regional ongoing ‘devolution deals’, with elected mayors soon to arrive in Greater Manchester, the North East and the West Midlands, may appear to provide some of the opportunities I have outlined above, but they are a false dawn. These new mayors are not always locally popular, and will have relatively little political power. The Mayor of London, the most powerful mayor in the country, is little more than a glorified transport commissioner. Regional devolution, like devolution in Scotland and Wales, is confused and appears to be focused on satisfying short term political interests or fulfililng pet projects, rather than building robust and effective regional governments that can better respond to the needs of their region.
Actual federalism, as I am arguing for, requires a constitutional settlement, requires the people of the United Kingdom to actually write the damn thing down and decide what kind of country they want to be. Britain needs a formal written constitution, outlining what is ultra vires and intra vires for each level of government, how wealth and tax income will be redistributed from wealthier regions to poorer ones. The process of thrashing out a constitutional agreement, painful as it may be, is absolutely necessary for the UK to survive. It also provides a chance to address the creaking political edifices of the House of Lords and the Westminster constituency system and to formalise the existence and role of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within the UK.
 (#ref1 “Jump back to footnote  in the text.“) This legislation often relies on requiring certain policies in exchange for federal funding or redistribution payments, which subnational governments can ignore, although in practice they rarely do. Examples of this include the Canada Health Act and the American National Minimum Drinking Age Act; Louisiana held out raising its drinking age to 21 for a decade after the passage of the NMDA with the reduced federal highway funding as a result contributing to the continued poor condition of roads within the state.