Unpacking the F Word: Why British Federalism is a False Promise

In early 2020 I had a discussion with a member of Britain’s Young Communist League (YCL) about Scottish independence. While the tone of the discussion had stayed (mostly) comradely, I felt that there was a certain point where we had reached an impasse. The YCL member would repeatedly attempt to advocate a kind of all-Britain federalism in opposition to the various SNP proposals for independence referenda planned for the 2020/21 period. I felt myself growing very exasperated, alongside the other left-wing Scots in the groupchat. But, to their credit, the YCL member was actually arguing in good faith – they were genuinely unsure why we were not enthusiastic about this federalism, while to us on the pro-independence left it seemed so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning. 

Clearly this impasse extended far beyond that particular conversation. From this discussion, and several others I had with Labour-aligned leftists after it, it became clear to me that there is a disconnect between what the unionist sections of the British left think about federalism in the abstract, and the realities of “federalism”  as practiced in the peripheries of the UK. The former exposes the limits of left-unionist thinking around constitutional issues, and the latter forces us to reckon with the rapidly growing contradictions of “Britain” as both state and idea. This is not meant to be an open letter to the British left, nor is it an attempt to paper over the very real need for serious calls to uproot the Westminster constitutional system outside of Scotland. However, I suspect that much of what I discuss here will be obvious to many Scottish leftists, so comrades from outside of Scotland may learn far more from this discussion. 

In the Scottish context, there are essentially two kinds of “federalist” arguments deployed by parts of the left. The first is what we might call Unserious Federalism. By this I mean calls for “federalism” brought up specifically and solely in opposition to Scottish independence, usually with very little actual detail about what this entails for Scotland, let alone the rest of these islands. Usually this kind of “federalist” argument boils down to a repackaged version of the pre-2013 Devo Max argument, albeit wielded far more cynically. The second kind of federalism proposed is a wee bit more substantial. That is, federalism with at least some vision of how it would affect the rest of Great Britain rather than just a cynical rhetorical tool to use against Scottish or Welsh separatists. While most examples of this are clearly argued in better faith than Unserious Federalism, it is important for the pro-independence left to highlight the limitations of these proposals in light of the current political trajectory of the UK. To this end, pro-independence leftists should unpack both “federalisms” in more detail. 

Unserious Federalism

“Why don’t Scottish voters take proposals for federalism more seriously?” This is a question I have seen asked (and been asked) many times, especially in circles dominated by Labour Party members from outside of Scotland. The short answer is fairly simple: Scottish voters rarely take proposals for federalism seriously, precisely because the proposals for federalism that they encounter are themselves rarely serious. The best examples of the Unserious Federalist argument come from senior Labour Party figures, for whom this plea comes as standard with any public statement made in Scotland. As recently as December 2020, Sir Keir Starmer made a speech which peppered vague appeals to a renewed devolution within a love letter to Britain and its Armed Forces. Starmer’s supposed commitment to federalism is actually far less explicit than that of Scottish Labour leadership only months ago. Richard Leonard’s recently-ended tenure as leader of the Scottish party was characterised by repeated appeals to federalism made in opposition to the independence movement. Leonard even advocated a federal solution beyond Scotland, calling for UK-wide constitutional reform as early as 2018. 

Why, then, don’t Scottish voters view these proposals as serious? For both independence hardliners and right-wing unionists, federalism is compromised beyond repair at best, or a step back from their actual goals at worst. For many of those less inclined to hard-line constitutional positions, especially those on the left in Scotland, federalist promises still fall flat. Regardless of how passionately Scottish Labour argued – and how genuinely Leonard might have believed in it – the same passion was simply not there in Labour’s Westminster leadership, even under Corbyn. The unseriousness was so blatant precisely because UK Labour never actually articulated a vision for serious Britain-wide constitutional reform which corresponded with Richard Leonard’s proposals. Meaningful constitutional reforms, such as regional devolution, an English parliament outside of London, or the restructuring of local government systems, have been absent from election manifestos under both Corbyn and Starmer. This dissonance does Labour no favours when trying to win back independence supporters. 

In effect, the calls for federalism made in Scotland but without support from the Westminster parties turn “federalism” into a political euphemism for Devo Max. Before the 2013 Edinburgh Agreement took so-called Devolution Max off the referendum ballot, this proposal for greater powers for Scotland short of independence was taken seriously. In fact, polling in 2011 indicated that it briefly had greater public support than independence. However, its removal from the 2014 ballot pushed it to the back of public discourse in the wake of a heightened Yes/No referendum campaign. Furthermore, the disappointment of “The Vow” – an 11th hour “promise” of more devolved powers following a No vote – would leave an embittered cohort of independence supporters convinced that nothing short of full independence would deliver serious constitutional progress for Scotland. When Labour’s calls for federalism can only be reasonably interpreted as Devo Max repackaged, the limitations of Devo Max itself in Scotland’s current climate creates little public enthusiasm. 

For Scottish Labour, the great irony of this is that Leonard’s federalism was the high-water mark of the party’s constitutional ambitions. Anas Sarwar’s recent election as Scottish Labour leader, beating the second referendum-supporting Monica Lennon, indicates a return to business-as-usual constitutional politics in line with Starmer’s soaring ambitions at Westminster. This Unserious Federalism has rarely been less convincing, and Labour’s uncritical oscillation between hard and soft unionism will no doubt continue its track record of defeat in Scotland. 

“When Labour’s calls for federalism can only be reasonably interpreted as Devo Max repackaged, the limitations of Devo Max itself in Scotland’s current climate creates little public enthusiasm.”

This all leaves out the elephant in the room: even if the UK Labour Party were serious in its commitment to British federalism, with the current political landscape and party leadership it looks unlikely that they will be anywhere near government even after the 2024 election. Ioan Phillips and Jac Brown, writing in Nation.Cymru, correctly emphasise that both Labour and the Lib Dems are “in the political wilderness, and will likely be for the foreseeable future”. The Tories will fight tooth and nail to defend the current system which benefits them, and Boris Johnson is even less willing to compromise on constitutional issues than previous Tory governments. Moreover, even if one pretends that the independence debate has not moved well past federalism by this point, it certainly will have by 2024. On its current trajectory, Labour runs the risk of hopelessly tailing behind the upcoming confrontation between emboldened pro-independence forces on the one hand, and an increasingly hard-line and erratic Tory establishment on the other. 

What Road to Socialism Goes Through Britain?

Scottish Labour may deploy “federalism” as a trite euphemism for Devo Max, but what about genuine proposals for British federalism from the left? While no doubt made in better faith (and arguably with better foresight) than the cynicism of Unserious Federalism, these proposals share some flaws with the latter. The most comprehensive and serious proposal for British federalism from the left is arguably the Communist Party of Britain’s 2020 Programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism. To its credit, this programme goes far beyond the questions of federalism and constitutional change in Britain, and I cannot do justice to all of its arguments here. However, while its analysis of economic conditions and changes in Britain and the EU is extensive and well-researched, some of the political conclusions it draws in relation to federalism and separatism are sadly lacking. 

In particular, the introduction to the section entitled “Working-class and Progressive Unity” highlights this limitation. The (correct) argument is set out that the majority of Britain’s economic activity is internal, despite increasing foreign capital ownership and external investment, and that “monopoly capitalist political power is exercised primarily through the apparatus of the British state” and managed at a Britain-wide level. Accordingly, “That is why the labour movement and its allies must propose an alternative economic and political strategy (AEPS) to that of the capitalist monopolies and the British state.” This is a fair analysis – British capitalism is highly centrally managed and relies extensively on internal markets for profit and on the British state as a support mechanism. The centralised dominance of the City of London over the British economy growing while export manufacturing declines is not lost on the CPB, especially not in terms of the increasing dominance that a London-based business elite has on Britain’s political economy. The conclusion that follows this analysis, however, is bizarre. 

“The struggle for such a strategy will undoubtedly be weakened if it is divided separately between Scotland, Wales and England while the ruling capitalist class remains organised and united at the British level. That is why the type of AEPS favoured by the Communist Party emphasises the need to maintain and enhance unity between the labour and progressive movements, across the three nations of Britain.” 

The CPB have put the cart before the horse here. If the British ruling class is so centrally organised around the British state and the UK’s internal market, then it follows that the disruption and crisis caused by successful separatist movements would negatively impact that ruling class in a significant way. Instead, if the CPB’s conclusion is to be believed, only the working-class struggle for socialism will be split apart by this possibility. Therefore, instead of disrupting the ruling class in Britain with these separatist movements, communists should instead leave this opportunity be and organise where and while our enemies are at their strongest. This conclusion is circular and contradictory, and in fact the opposite argument in favour of a socialist separatism can be strongly presented using the CPB’s own analysis of British capitalism.

Above all, this analysis also feels deeply uncharitable to the capacity of progressive movements to organise and strategise on an internationalist basis. Despite increasingly harsh border regimes, social movements are still remarkably capable of organising across borders around a multitude of issues. In Europe, the anti-G8/7/20 movements saw extensive cross-border planning and participation, including many activists from Scotland. The Palestinian and Kurdish freedom movements in Europe have similarly kept strong international ties, aided by shared languages and effective organising, and in spite of state racism and ramped-up border violence. Even now, the links already developed between both liberal and socialist Scottish and Welsh separatist movements, as well as the small but growing links with movements in Ireland, Catalonia, and beyond, indicate that the capacity for international socialist coordination in these islands is developing. Contrary to the apparently foregone conclusion in Britain’s Road to Socialism, working-class and progressive movements fighting against the same enemies are not inherently weakened by being in different nation states. A socialism which takes a realistic view on the place of separatist movements within progressive movements, and the constitutional crisis emerging in the British establishment, must be posited to overcome the limitations of the CPB’s position. 

That said, there are salient points made in Britain’s Road to Socialism regarding the current state of the liberal separatist movements. The neoliberal economic outlook of the leaderships of both the SNP and Plaid Cymru should concern any leftist. The likelihood that the Scottish and Welsh economies will be kept subservient to the Bank of England and to EU fiscal policy must also be challenged passionately by the socialist movements in both countries. Furthermore, a reintegration into UK/NATO military and foreign policy ambitions must be avoided at all costs. As fellow RSP member Séamus McGuigan writes, if the likes of Stewart McDonald are in charge of post-independence foreign policy then we can expect Scotland to return to our 19th-Century position of “punching above our weight” as the bully-boys of western imperialism. Additionally, and unlike the Labour Party, the CPB actually offer a clear plan for federalism within England, including regional parliaments, reforms to local government, and the end of tax havens in the Channel Islands and on Mann. Rather than opposition to independence, as the CPB and other left-unionist parties enact in practice, this instead presents a case for principled socialist intervention into Britain’s separatist movements. While the neoliberal party leadership of these movements cannot be ignored, there is a genuine mass base outside of direct party control which will be crucial for determining the outcome of any move towards constitutional change. The political terrain in Scotland has shifted dramatically in such a way that many left-unionists have been left behind – not only is independence increasingly popular among working-class people, young people, and ethnic minorities, it is now being spoken of as an inevitability rather than as a possibility in mainstream discourse. The political make-up of the separatist movements, therefore, will have a colossal impact on the conditions faced by the left upon independence. As socialists we cannot be caught out and enter an independent Scotland brought about by a movement where reactionaries and neoliberals have a disproportionate influence. Instead, we in the Republican Socialist Platform advocate a socialist intervention into, and international cooperation between, the movements in these islands seeking to challenge the existing British constitutional order. With this cooperation, where Scottish, Welsh and Irish comrades strive to dismantle the UK in tandem with and on equal footing to the English left, we can take the first steps on our own road to socialism. 

The Post-Federalist Terrain

As much as I did not intend this to be a letter to the English left, given the current trajectory of the UK it is vital for leftists in the centre to understand what is happening on the peripheries of this country. Solutions proposed in the centre, such as Labour’s cynical Devo Max promises repackaged as “federalism”, will simply not prevent the constitutional shift unfolding in these peripheries. Nor will solutions proposed in the peripheries, but which rely on support from the centre (such as Richard Leonard’s federalism), fail to fall flat. The proposals for a radical federalism by British left formations such as the CPB, while well-intentioned, have fallen behind the political realities of the situation outside the centre. In Scotland, independence is now treated as a question of when, not if. Support for independence in Wales is at an historic high, as is support for Irish reunification among young people in Ulster. These movements may disrupt the British establishment on a greater scale than anything in decades. As leftists, we have to understand the role that these movements will play, and the fact that the dynamics of these movements will shape any post-independence settlement for years to come. Instead of waiting in the margins, we must act and seize this tangible opportunity. Rather than “federalism”, we must adopt the watchwords of independence, the end of the United Kingdom, and a socialist future for these islands. 

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