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Federalism is an issue for the whole of the UK

To protect ourselves from the agenda of the Johnson government, regions and nations should not wait for the outcome of an elite-led lengthy review but start the process now, writes PAULINE BRYAN

BORIS JOHNSON came to power in 2019 with a commitment to significant constitutional change: the Tory manifesto pledged that a Conservative government would hold a constitutional review to restore “trust in our democracy.”

This review would tackle the purpose of the House of Lords, prerogative powers, the role of the courts and the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The Labour Party also pledged a “constitutional convention” which would focus on the future of devolution and proposed replacing the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions.

The SNP made a commitment that SNP MPs would continue to oppose the undemocratic House of Lords and vote for its abolition. The Greens were committed to a fully elected House of Lords. The Lib Dems have a long record of supporting a federal arrangement. Even the Brexit Party was committed to reforming the House of Lords.

Polling conducted in the run-up to the 2019 general election for the Electoral Reform Society reported that 85 per cent of people felt dissatisfied with the political system and felt that they had little influence.

The ERS response was that “Parliament is in urgent need of an overhaul… From a warped voting system to an unelected House of Lords, our 19th-century levers of government are in desperate need of an upgrade.”

All this contributed to a sense that, regardless of the outcome of the election, there would be some change to the way the UK Parliament operated.

Eighteen months from that election, what has happened? There was an opportunity for a wider debate around the Dunlop Review which was commissioned by Theresa May in July 2019 as a short, focused independent review to ensure that the devolution settlements were working effectively.

It was completed before the end of 2019, but it was spring 2021 before the review was made public. The main finding was that Whitehall had little understanding or interest in devolution. It has been proved correct.

It was apparent by then that constitutional issues had fallen off the agenda and it was back to business as usual, except for Johnson making himself Minister for the Union. The imposition of the Internal Markets Act has only further centralised power in 10 and 11 Downing Street.

The issue has not gone away. Across Britain there have been renewed discussions within and between the nations and regions.

In Wales in January 2021 there was the launch of We the People: The case for Radical Federalism. Supported by the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, it made the case for the shared governance of the UK.

It argued that radical constitutional reform is a necessity. It stated that the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England should be offered the opportunity to make a positive choice to envision, and contribute to the creation of a modern, collaborative, distributed and open democracy.

In Scotland the Red Paper Collective has continued to make the case for progressive federalism. It argues that any constitutional arrangement must ensure the redistribution of wealth throughout the UK, be built on democratic control of the economy — as without that real power is not devolved — and be based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity with working people everywhere, but ensuring that power is held at the most local level where it can be delivered effectively.

It is not just the nations that are calling for greater powers locally and a real say in central decisions. The past five years have given voices to regions through their elected mayors.

Jamie Driscoll is the elected mayor for the North of Tyne Combined Authorities area covering Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council and Northumberland County Council. He is in favour of devolution to the level of the functional economic area. That’s the city region.

He is opposed to the idea of an English executive, or an English parliament. He argues that in Newcastle, he has more economic common ground with Glasgow and Edinburgh than the south coast or Home Counties. Subnational bodies such as a “northern powerhouse” should be confederal, where city regions choose to collaborate. He says he would not have chosen the mayoral model, but we have to start from where are.

Elected mayors have been a counterweight to the growing authoritarian Tory government and give a glimpse of what a federal arrangement could mean.

Federalism means more than simply devolving power to the nations and regions, it must also include the opportunity to establish common interests and by uniting together have the power to resist the imposition of damaging policies by the centralised cabinet dominated Westminster Parliament.

Constitutional Commissions and Reviews are loudly announced but quietly disappear. We should not wait for the outcome of an elite-led lengthy review but start the process now.

The regions and the nations all face a battle to protect themselves from the centralising agenda of the Johnson government. This should be the basis for working together in our common interest.

Devolved administrations, elected mayors and council leaders need to combine to resist the imposition of unacceptable policies and mobilise alongside the trade unions and campaigning groups to build solidarity across borders. This should prefigure a federal approach laying the ground for a radical restructuring of the British state.

This approach may not appeal to independence parties, but it would appeal to their voters, who recognise that a future promise of a better life under independence is not a substitute for fighting for a better life here and now.

Pauline Bryan is a Labour peer and convener of the Red Paper Collective.


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