Thursday, 18 September 2014

What could a federal UK look like?

Assuming that the “no” vote prevails in the Scottish independence referendum, the next question for the United Kingdom is to consider constitutional reform to implement a quasi-federal system and resolve the West Lothian question once and for all. In some ways, it may also provide an opportunity to resolve the stalled reform of the upper house as well. Here’s the rough outline of a proposal that might work.

  • Devolve identical powers to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with the proviso that local self-rule can be suspended if necessary by the federal legislature (by a supermajority).

  • The existing House of Commons becomes the House of Commons for England, which (along with the Sovereign) shall comprise the English Parliament. This parliament would function much as the existing devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales; the consociational structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly (requiring double majorities) would not be replicated.

  • The House of Lords is abolished, and replaced with a directly-elected Senate of the United Kingdom. The Senate will have authority to legislate on the non-devolved powers (in American parlance, “delegated” powers) such as foreign and European Union affairs, trade and commerce, national defense, and on matters involving Crown dependencies and territories, the authority to legislate on devolved matters in the event self-government is suspended in a constituent country, and dilatory powers including a qualified veto (requiring a supermajority) over the legislation proposed by a constituent country’s parliament. The latter power would effectively replace the review powers of the existing House of Lords; it would function much as the Council of Revision in Madison’s original plan for the U.S. Constitution.

    As the Senate will have relatively limited powers, it need not be as large as the existing Lords or Commons. To ensure the countries other than England have a meaningful voice, given that nearly 85% of the UK’s population is in England, two-thirds of the seats would be allocated proportionally based on population and one-third allocated equally to the four constituent countries. This would still result in a chamber with a large English majority (around 64.4%) but nonetheless would ensure the other three countries would have meaningful representation as well.