Constitutional Conundrums

Labour must deliver on the promises made to Scotland argues HARRY BARNES but difficult and complex constitutional puzzles remain.

Labour’s response to the result of the Scottish referendum and to the promise of further devolved powers to Scotland must first of all be to press to deliver what has been promised. Yet we also need to work towards a federal-style structure for the United Kingdom in which equal and co-ordinated powers will be held (as near as is possible) by Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.UK federalism image

In the meantime, MPs from Scotland should retain the same rights in the Commons as other MPs. For they will have been elected to a UK parliament. We should not even have a passing provision in our constitutional practices for first and second class MPs. It undermines the democratic process.

If Scottish MPs were to be refused parliamentary rights over matters which refer to England, then surely this provision would then have to apply to MPs from Wales and Northern Ireland. But as the powers devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all differ from each other; we would then have a confusing pattern as to which MPs could participate in what.

In moving for a federal structure for the whole of the UK we need to resolve two major problems.

First, what will the people of Northern Ireland agree to for their own internal arrangements?  Under a federal model, the province would be a small and barely viable unit within the UK, with a population of only 1.8 million. Then if they were offered a significant federal status, this would be seen as a form of detachment from the UK. This is a position that is likely to be rejected by the majority of the Unionist population. Moves to introduce a federal solution in the province, could even lead us back to major paramilitary conflict.

Secondly, what is an appropriate federal structure which should be shared across England?  If England were to become a single federal unit, then the UK pattern would become constitutionally and politically lopsided. England has a population of some 53 million, Scotland 5.3 million, Wales 3 million and Northern Ireland 1.8 million. Powers devolved to a large area such as England would need to be different from those devolved to our neighbours.

There is, therefore, a case instead for establishing a number of federal units within England. But how many and where? There are different degrees of local identity across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But what local regions do those living in England identify with? And what structures would be an improvement in terms of democracy and social justice?

Nine regions

For administrative purposes, England is currently divided into nine regions. These are the populations: South East 8.6 million; Greater London 8.1 million; North West 7 million; East of England 5.8 million; West Midlands 5.6 million; Yorkshire and Humberside 5.3 million; South West 5.3 million.; East Midlands 4.5 million; North East 2.5 million.

But how far do people operate within and identify with these regions? Perhaps an examination of traffic links could be used to give these potential federal units adjusted boundaries. Then there are other indicators of interconnections, shown in maps of the geography of UK phone and the like. It might be possible to roughly amalgamate some of those linked areas.

A pattern of major amalgamation of the above regions could give us, say, three federal units for the UK. There could be a Northern federal unit, running from say Manchester, the populations of the North West, North East, Yorkshire and Humberside coming to 14.9 million. Then there could be a Midlands federal unit running from Birmingham. The populations of the East Midlands, West Midlands and the East of England come to 15.9 million.

The largest city in the remaining Southern federal unit (of 22 million) is London, although it might be worth looking for an alternative centre for its federal unit. For Lands End is almost as far away from London as Newcastle is. Again traffic flows, phone-links, etc, might lead to adjustments of the boundaries of such three federal units.

So it looks as if we are looking for between three and nine federal units within England, which have to make sense to their populations whilst advancing democratic participation and economic and social justice. Then what is proposed for the internal powers of each federal unit? How far can we find a fairly common pattern that will be acceptable to people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions? How far will the federal powers need to be identical within each federal unit? Will these powers need to be guaranteed within a new written constitution?

None of this can begin to be sorted out on the back of fag packet. We need (a) to pass greater powers to the Scottish Parliament as a consequence of referendum promises; (b) retain Scottish MPs powers at Westminster for the time being; and (c) engage in a constitutional convention to help us establish a federal or federal-style solution.

This will be no bad thing if it eventually comes to involve something of the degree of political participation which we have recently witnessed in Scotland – as long as it does not go over the top in the streets of Belfast.


This article first appeared on Harry Barnes’s blog here.


  1. Harry Barnes
    19 November 2014

    The Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitution Reform are conducting an enquiry into ‘The Future Of Devolution After The Referendum’. It received 85 written submissions, access to which can be found via their web-site here.

    Submission number 1 is from Gordon Brown, 33 from the Hannah Mitchell Society, 60 from myself and 81 from the Mayor of London. The submissions are now the copyright of the select committee, but can be examined via the above link. My submission is a development of my above article ‘Constitutional Conundrums’. I find from other submissions that I am likely to have been underestimating the area of authority of the Northern Ireland Assembly – yet served on the Northern Ireland Select Committee!

  2. Harry Barnes
    17 October 2014

    Matters relevant to the outcome of the Scottish Referendum were dealt with three times in the Commons this week. There was also a Scottish Question Time.

    First, under the title ‘Scotland within the UK’ Ian Carmichael made a statement on behalf of the government on Monday 13 October, which was then debated. See –

    Secondly, on Tuesday 14 October William Hargue made a statement entitled ‘Devolution: Scotland Referendum’ , which starts in Hansard with references to the relevant Command Paper and to linked House of Commons papers. During the debate, Gordon Brown made a major contribiution. See –

    Finally, on Thursday 16 October, Gordon Brown had an Adjournment Debate on the situation. See –

    Anyone wishing to follow up on the constitutional conundrums which have arisen for Scotland and for the rest of the UK as a consequence of the Scottish Referendum, will find that the above links will provide them with much light as well as a quantity of heat.

  3. Barry Winter
    2 October 2014

    Harry’s thoughtful contribution clearly sets out the challenges facing any attempt to reform the UK on a more democratic, equitable and balanced basis. It will not be easy and, as yet, Labour is running scared of dealing with these issues. That’s partly understandable given the difficulties it faces but the issue is likely to become more pressing. It cannot be dodged indefinitely. Already new parties are being formed advocating the decentralisation of power.

    Calling for devolution to city regions, as Labour has done, lacks one key element – the need for real democracy. Such deals between city leaders and business people fail to tackle the growing political crisis. Nor is much, as yet, being offered to those areas outside the city regions.

    The party could help by starting a conversation both internally and externally about how to proceed. To be fair, it is taking some steps in that direction. But it needs to be a Big Conversation, reaching out into the wider society. It should involve more than submitting ideas to the centre. Party leaders should be coming to listen to party members. I recently attended my constituency party meeting where devolution was on the agenda. Half an hour was allocated to the discussion and the MP spoke for 20 minutes!

    One leading question is how we can begin to deal with the mass hostility/disinterest in contemporary politics. As Colin Crouch wrote some time ago, we are living in what he calls a post-democracy. Democracy has been hijacked and increasingly centralised. Large corporate and financial interests, together with leading civil servants and Westminster politicians, shape politics. No wonder people feel cynical and that mood is not going to be easy to overcome. What can be said is that in Scotland, when people were given a tough political choice about their future, politics came alive.

  4. […] have created. However, the constitutional legacy of the campaign will be with us for some time. As Harry Barnes has noted on this website, while the belated and hurried promises of ‘devo-max’ made by the three main parties may or may […]

  5. Ben Saltonstall
    23 September 2014

    A first rate article that puts the issue clearly and asks all the right questions.

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