The British Confederation of States

The desire for Scottish ‘independence’ may now be irresistible but the opinion polls suggest an outcome still in the balance. What would independence mean in practice? Joining the European Union, which is Scottish National Party policy, would entail the same border problems with England as those experienced in Northern Ireland. And currently the Scottish economy is more tied to the rest of the UK than it is to the EU. Exports to the rest of the UK are worth three to four times those to the EU. Switching from one customs union to another would involve considerable disruption and at least a temporary decline in business.

On top of that, pre-Covid-19, the annual government deficit in Scotland was 8.6% of GDP, over three times the gap for the UK as a whole. Overall public spending was nearly £2000 higher per head in Scotland than the UK average, while tax receipts were £300 lower per head compared with the UK average. Without transfers from the rest of the UK, an independent Scotland will not be able to maintain current levels of public spending. And yes, that includes assuming Scotland gets its share of North Sea oil.

Economics aren’t everything. The claims of dignity and identity may be stronger. Yet in the privacy of the voting booth the economic facts of life will make some Scots hesitate. If they are not to vote for independence, however, they will surely need an alternative that satisfies the desire for national recognition.

Photo by Jesús Gorriti on flickr
Creative Commons

A partnership of equals

That alternative must be complete home rule within a British confederation of states. There would be no ‘reserved areas’ of policy to Westminster. Everything would be the responsibility of the nations (we are discussing Scotland; the status of Wales and Northern Ireland could be similar but needs separate discussion). The confederation would be defined by what the constituent states had agreed to do together. Importantly, therefore, it would be a partnership of equals, not a grace-and-favour arrangement implied by ‘devolution’. Moreover any constituent state would have the unchallenged right to leave it.

What could the nations agree to share? A customs union would make sense and a currency union too, with Scottish representation on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. A social-insurance union with a basic national insurance and basic benefits would also make sense and allow some continuing transfers from England, should it agree. That would still allow the Scots to top up coverage and benefits when they wished.

Defence is an obvious area for cooperation but the Scots could well disavow the nuclear deterrent and seek its removal from their waters. Foreign policy could also be ticklish; the Scots might want their own representation in Brussels and one or two other places. Nevertheless, the confederation would probably have to be the legally recognised body for conducting international affairs. That would certainly be necessary to preserve a British entity with a United Nations Security Council seat. The confederation would therefore be the responsible signatory for defence treaties and trade treaties. But these would be subject to ratification or veto in state parliaments. That would compel member-state interests to be considered at every stage – something notably lacking in Brexit negotiations. If Scotland and Wales had had vetoes, Brexit would not have meant leaving the single market.

Once the scope of the confederation had been agreed it would need its own governing arrangements. A Council of Ministers from constituent governments would be essential, with its own secretariat. The chair would be prime minister of the confederation and would rotate according to a formula that acknowledged the different sizes of member states. A supreme court would be necessary only for adjudicating the foundation agreements of the confederation and any law common to all member states, such as the Human Rights Act. There would have to be a Board of Trade, a defence establishment and perhaps a Social Security Board. These would be responsible directly to the Council of Ministers, each member of which was then responsible to her state parliament, but there could also be a small, elected confederation body for scrutiny purposes.

Scottish representation in the House of Commons and House of Lords (if it survived) would cease, as neither body would have any authority in Scotland. They would become, in effect, the English legislature. The arrangement would resemble, in some respects, early-20th-century ‘dominion status’, which would have kept Ireland on board if offered any time before 1914. While the dominions adopted their own currency, they were part of the sterling area until the 1960s. They accepted the monarchy, but that could now be optional too since the commonwealth now includes republics. The monarch would reign in England and in the British confederation too, if agreed.

Confederations seldom if ever last. As time went by, competing dissipative and integrating forces would be at work. In all probability the states would either drift apart or coalesce into a federation. The Swiss confederation, for example, became a federal republic in 1999, centralising tendencies having grown since its inception. The beauty of the confederation is that it is consistent with either development.

The task for Labour

The trouble with all this is it will seem impossibly radical to British political parties at present, just when it might satisfy a majority in Scotland. When it is too late and independence has been voted, British politicians will avoid responsibility by claiming a scheme like this would never have satisfied Scottish aspirations anyway. That course can certainly be predicted of the Conservative Party. The mistake over Ireland will be repeated, therefore, unless the Labour Party summons the necessary imagination and daring to make the policy leap required now.

The essential elements of a Labour policy declaration would be:

  • The right to self-determination of national societies
  • The evident need for the nations of the British Isles to cooperate and work together in numerous areas
  • That cooperative arrangements should be worked out on a basis of legal equality and no constituent state or nation should be coerced into an arrangement that does not suit it (which does not preclude of course that it may have to give as well as take in negotiations for mutually beneficial arrangements).

That would lead to a Labour government which would propose a confederation with details to be agreed by consultation.

Gerald Holtham is Hodge Professor of Regional Economy at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

5 thoughts on “The British Confederation of States

  1. A Scotland/England border would NOT have the same challenges as RoI/NI – because there is no GFA equivalent promise not to have a border. This is very important and also highlights the difference between the Irish border and any other EU/non-EU land border.
    Otherwise, great piece, thanks.

  2. If, however, there were to be a W-I-S-E Federation – (Wales-Ireland-Scotland-England) – we could solve the Irish problem at the same time. Sadly, such sophisticated ideas will rarely be discussed for as long as people think a referendum question has to be binary. But the UK legislated for a multi-option vote in 1948 for Newfoundland, so the precedent has already been set. And New Zealand had a five-option referendum in 1992; pluralism is possible. So let’s have an independent commission or citizens’ assembly or some such to look at all the options. And then, hopefully, a preferential points vote on a multi-option referendum;

  3. The room does actually contain an elephant, which is that just about every discussion of the Scottish National issue that originates outside Scotland seems to start from the principle of “how can we stop Scotland becoming independent?”

    I know why the right with its unending belief in entitled empire thinks like that, but why do progressives do so? We cloak it it, like the writer of this article in a concern for the welfare of Scotland post-independence – which all too often ends up in the patronising “too poor, too thick and too wee” that only make sit worse – but our assumption is always about how to preserve the UK.

    Why do we seem to assume that the best thing for a progressive agenda in the UK is to maintain the current number of member countries? Why, when progressives have supported the dismantling of empires and the right to national self-determination across the world and in Ireland especially, do we shy away from it when talking about Scotland? Why is our talk always about how can we preserve the union, never about how we can support Scotland as it establishes itself as an independent country?

    That’s not rhetoric, it’s a genuine question – is there a reason or is just that the idea of the UK not being, well, the UK, is too difficult for us to conceive?

  4. I don’t understand the last comment. A confederation starts with the assumption that each component has the full rights of self-determination. They come together to do only those things that it makes sense to do together. An “independent” Scotland would be looking to join a larger trading bloc and to pool its sovereignty in several areas. The EU may be more emotionally appealing and somehow less claustrophobic than a British confederation but it would be considerably more expensive. Surely it would be good if the Scots were able to face that trade-off and make a choice.

  5. This paper is strikingly similar to a paper written by the late Jo Grimond in the early 1970’s … when the SNP were enjoying their first great surge in support. I don’t know whether any copy of this paper survives. But such an idea is the option which never seems to be discussed (to the disappointment of this particular admirer of the Swiss constitution) and seems worthy of further research and development.
    There is a pressing need for a constitutional process throughout the UK. We have a hotchpotch of different authorities with different powers and different electoral systems which makes a dog’s breakfast look like Tea at Tiffany’s!
    It makes very strong sense in a small island to have close co-operation on a range of issues. These would be trunk roads, rail, energy policy and the energy grid, university and FE entry system, health, agriculture, migration and population policy and social security. In a confederal system there would, for each such policy area, be a council of ministers and policy decided by QMV. Whether there would be any veto powers is a matter for further thought and discussion.
    In effect there would be four states operating like a small version of the EU. Each state would nominate members to the supreme court, the central (presumably renamed) bank. As regards defence and foreign policy there would again be QMV and possible veto powers in certain areas. As with the EU all revenues would be sourced within each state with relatively small contributions towards pooled schemes and competences (to use the EU term). This could include a ‘levelling up’ agenda.
    As regards the Irish question, the French experiment of external constituencies at large … which seems to work well … may set a useful precedent. People throughout the British isles could be given the choice as to whether they wished to be Irish of British (or, for that matter, English, Scottish or Welsh), and pay taxes to and receive benefits from the state of their choice and their identity. In effect there would be two sovereign polities but without a fixed border. This would give the nationalists what they want … the removal of the border … and the Unionists what they want by remaining British. It would also
    provide for the very large Irish diaspora in this side of the Irish Sea the opportunity to be full Irish citizens in every sense. In that circumstance the Irish republic might have some ex officio status on certain issues regarding the rest of the confederation.
    Identity creates a problem not for those who see themselves as English, Scots, Welsh or Irish but for those millions whose recent heritage crosses those boundaries. Is the offspring of an English father and a Scots mother, born in Nottingham but has lived much of their life in Aberdeen English or Scots? Total separation risks creating several million orphans, quite apart from the problems incurred in managing a small island.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Compass started
for a better society
Join us today