A New Incorporating Union: The UK's Future

July 29, 2017


Unionism is a very broad church and encompasses many different viewpoints. Views on what exact form the Union should take vary between Unionists to a certain degree and there is nothing wrong with vigorous debate as it helps to clarify problems and can help to identify solutions. A political situation without dynamic discussion tends to be a moribund one. Increasingly it’s become clear to observers of the current debate on the constitution in the UK that the Unionist camp is largely divided between two differing standpoints-supporters of incorporating union and supporters of a federal union. The distinction between the two is significant, but in no way irreconcilable.


In an incorporating union all parts of a country, which may have been separate independent states previously, agree to pool their sovereignty and resources into one joint authority that becomes a single unitary state. This joint authority holds complete and supreme national sovereignty and has the power to make national laws that hold force in all parts of that state. However, it is also within the power of such a state to devolve power to any constituent part of itself whilst still completely retaining sovereignty to itself. Any devolved executive or body is granted power over certain areas (it's devolved remit) and nothing else, but the granting authority, which as previously stated fully retains sovereignty, can withdraw these devolved powers at any time, without the permission or consultation with, the devolved institutions simply by abolishing the parliamentary acts that set them up in the first place.


In a federal system of union there is a mixed or compound form of government which combines a general government (the federal or central government) with sub-unit governments at the state or provincial level. It differs notably from incorporating union, or indeed devolution in a unitary state, in that in a federated system the central government no longer retains ultimate sovereignty and the state is no longer unitary in nature. Thus the central authority is no longer able to maintain national unity as it can't curtail aggressive nationalists' attempts to break up the state by removing the regional executives, as it can in a unitary system. Thus a federal system of union carries inherent dangers that render it inimical to the maintenance of national unity. Furthermore, a federal system of union has a pronounced tendency to accentuate the differences between certain parts of a country and therefore accelerates the fragmentation of what was previously a homologous polity.


Some Unionists point to examples of federal union like Germany or the USA as examples of success, but this is misleading. You can't compare the UK with countries like Germany or the USA as they are entirely different entities politically (and culturally). Both these countries have codified, or written, constitutions that have sprung up relatively quickly as a result of some event (the revolutionary war of independence in the USA's case and defeat in the Second World War in Germany's). The UK's constitution is unwritten and has evolved organically over a period of several centuries and is based on a series of precedents. In say Germany, for instance, it is written into the laws that regulate the constitution that the federal lander (or states) have absolutely no right whatsoever to get involved in constitutional matters that are the remit of the federal authorities, This is a cast-iron rule and cannot be broken under any circumstances by the state authorities. In this way, any nationalists that are looking to separate their province from the state are firmly kept from doing so and national unity can be continuously maintained. Similar mechanisms apply to the USA and so that country has maintained a good degree of national unity.


The UK is a different case however. As previously stated, our polity is organic and the product of hundreds of years of evolution, not an artificial construct that has been quickly put together in response to a single, or just a few, events. This arrangement suits us down to the ground and has seen us develop into a mature and stable democracy and has also helped foster a sense of national unity as we have met the challenges of new times by keeping what's best from the past (precedent) and what's best from new ideas and forging a workable solution. We are neither reactionary or (overly) revolutionary (though we can be very progressive). Small 'c' conservative with a progressive outlook perhaps best describes the British approach to constitutional matters (this has been true always, but especially so since the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century). Consequently there are no similar mechanisms to those that exist in Germany or the USA that firmly regulate the constitutional relationship between the constituent parts of the state with the result that the introduction of a federal system into the UK would simply lead to constitutional confusion between the federal and state governments which would be utilized by separatists to force independence through for their particular region. In other words, in the UK, federalism would just be a device that could be utilized by nationalists to engineer the destruction of the unitary state.


Thus, authentic Unionists must reject the federalist model as it is incompatible with our belief in a unitary state. Incorporating union offers a viable alternative. Some Unionists dislike this model as they fear that it is over-centralized and that their region of the country will simply be submerged in a monolithic bloc in which they lose their individuality and control over local matters. However, this need not be true, and with a few tweaks an incorporating union can be made to serve both national unity and local democracy. It doesn't have to be an overcentralized monolith that obliterates local identity and control at all.


Both federalism and legislative devolution are inimical to the maintenance of a unitary state as they can be employed by separatist nationalists as a device to fracture a unitary country. They are a separatist's Trojan horse. The incorporating model of union however offers a way to satisfy both localism and an authentic Unionist's desire to live in a unitary country. The two are not inimical to each other. What's needed is to blend the incorporating unionist model with the administrative form of devolution, rather than the legislative kind. Under this system, there are no devolved 'national' executives (no Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont). All power that can be utilized regionally is devolved to local councils and everything else resides with the House of Commons. This way has advantages over the federal or legislative devolutionary model. It keeps power localized to the regions and so solves the democratic deficit issue inherent in legislative devolution or rule from London as local councils are voted in by local people and local councillors know far better than MSP's, AM's. MLA's or MP's in far away Edenborough, Cardiff, Ulster or London what is best for their locale. Second, it guarantees the Union, as there is no 'national' executive through which separatists can pursue independence. The problems associated with legislative devolution, such as nationalists ignoring their devolved remit and using their devolved executives to push for independence and with the old type of incorporating union, such as resentment in the regions of the UK at rule by far away London are eradicated.


When considering which model of Union to adopt it is most prudent to be practical and avoid being either too rigid or too general with your constitutional arrangements as both can lead to problems later on. The type of modified, modernized incorporating union that has been described above is a good modus vivendi between federalism on the one hand which is impractical as a system for the UK due to it's incompatibility with our type of constitution, and legislative devolution on the other with the dangers it presents to the unitary nature of the UK.



© Stephen Bailey 2017.


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