The suitability of a federal Bundesrat model for Britain

by Rt Hon Lord Owen

21 Nov 2016

This blog argues for a focused, cross-party investigation of the suitability of a German federal Bundesrat model for Britain. A Federal UK could be designed in such a way as to appeal to the many Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish people spread across the UK who sense, post-Brexit, that we need a new mechanism to hold the UK together by common consent.

The asymmetry of the UK is well recognized, but a design can be found which accommodates this, building on the technique of ‘degressive proportionality’(1). Running a Federal Council in tandem with our exit from the EU offers such an opportunity. The creation of such a Council is both feasible and proper. There is no overload. Different people and different issues are involved in the two negotiations, but they fit together. Postponement risks missing a moment in history when the British people are well aware that our unity is at risk and yet most want it to be maintained.

Prime Minister Theresa May should appoint a Convention on an all party basis to examine whether the Bundesrat model, with adjustments, could be the best way of establishing a Federal UK. If the Prime Minister does not start to consult before the end of this year on the issue of a federal UK then the Labour Party and SNP should forge an initial agreement during 2017 to build a cross party Convention capable of involving other UK parties to sit in 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile an unprecedented Constitutional dialogue is developing between the SNP led Scottish Executive and David Davis’s new Department in Whitehall about the European Economic Area Agreement, EEAA.  The argument appears to be not so much about whether to leave the EU and the Treaty of Lisbon, on which there are strong disagreements, but what can shape the future UK’s relationship with the European Economic Area (EEA). There are a lot of subtleties within this which need teasing out before any UK negotiation under Article 50.

Some will ask: can the SNP negotiate a federal UK or are they only committed to separation? The answers lie in a speech Nicola Sturgeon made in 2012 when not yet leader of the SNP. Her speech in Strathclyde recorded how Neil MacCormick, the son of one of the SNP’s founders and a distinguished academic at Edinburgh University, had distinguished between “existentialist” and “utilitarian” varieties of Scottish nationalism, the first demanding independence simply because that is what nations should have, and the second seeing it as a route to a better society. Sturgeon backed the latter.

Would Jeremy Corbyn agree that Labour should play a constructive role in establishing such a Convention with the SNP in 2017, well before the 2020 General Election? I believe Corbyn could agree to a Convention as the UK Labour Party leader more easily now that Labour’s Scottish Party has been given greater freedom.

Almost every psephologist agrees that the SNP are most likely to remain the third largest party in the Westminster Parliament after the 2020 General Election. That may be wrong but it must be an inescapable factor in Labour’s own calculation of their chances of outright victory in 2020.

This blog contains a suggested pattern for the UK in order to focus discussion and it follows, to a large extent, the Bundesrat model, though there is considerable scope for adjustments and different groupings. These are only initial suggestions and will no doubt change as a result of wider debate and consultation.

The boundaries chosen to represent the City regions in this table are the five existing and three proposed combined metropolitan authorities. The existing combined authorities area are South Yorkshire (which includes Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield); North East (which includes County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle Upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland); Greater Manchester (which includes Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan); Liverpool/Merseyside (which includes Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral); and West Yorkshire (which includes Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield).  The three potential combined authorities are Bristol (which would include Bath and North East Somerset, City of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire). These boundaries are in line with discussions occurring locally around greater joint working. For Nottingham, the boundaries chosen reflect those in a proposal that has been submitted for approval by government (to include Ashfield, Bassetlaw, Broxtowe, Gedling, Mansfield, Nottingham, Newark and Sherwood, and Rushcliffe). The West Midlands (would include the existing metropolitan area of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Walsall with Wolverhampton).  (This information and figures have been drawn from the Office for National Statistics, City Regions July 2015, p.12)

The formula for a ‘blocking mechanism’ over changing the federal structures is particularly difficult. My personal wish is for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be given a uniquely low threshold of 16% of the UK to be able to block legislative changes affecting a federal UK Council. But there is a strong case for that to be raised to 20% which would involve the need for a further 4% of the population coming from England which ensures working across all groupings. In the Bundesrat, a built-in blocking vote of a third of the Chamber is required on some constitutional matters. This is a delicate mechanism to devise and will need a lot of discussion but if the correct balance were to be achieved it could become a powerful unifier for the UK - as the US Senate has been over the centuries.

At least until a Federal UK Council is established, it would be better to retain a non elected House of Lords to scrutinise the non federal legislation from the House of Commons. But since federal legislation will pass from the Lords to the UK Federal Council, members of the Lords would have to be very substantially reduced in size, eventually no more than 200 members and legislation would have to limit age and length of tenure. The advantage of letting the Lords continue is that with reduced legislative coverage it could be reduced in size by nearly three quarters without generating a huge controversy and would not impact on support for a Federal UK Council. The House of Lords shared its space with the Law Lords for centuries until they were transformed into a Supreme Court and this dual functionality could continue particularly if adaptation coincided with the renovation of the Parliament building. This approach fits with not introducing elections by proportional representation. Better to focus and to succeed in creating a UK Federal Council. The Federal Council should, while having its base in Westminster, hold meetings in Belfast, Cardiff and Holyrood and could expect to start its life in the Westminster Conference Centre complex opposite Westminster Abbey in 2023.

Referendums will not be in fashion at Westminster after the 2016 EU referendum. A federal UK Council could become a post-Brexit priority with broader support than would have been conceivable before 2016. If the Prime Minister does not form an all party convention to consider a Federal UK Council, every possible step should be taken by Labour to negotiate key elements of a Federal UK Council with the SNP first. Then both parties must include as many MPs from all the other parties as possible so as to create legislation for a Federal UK Council as soon as possible after the 2020 General Election.

(1) Degressive proportionality is an approach to the allocation (between regions, states or other subdivisions) of seats in a legislature or other decision-making body.

Find out more here: Lord Owen sets out proposals for a Federal UK Council.


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