In order to secure a “no” vote in the Scottish independence referendum last September, the major British political parties promised the Scots extensive devolution of political power. The SNP’s massive success in the current election, combined with their alienation from a Tory-led UK government, will heighten the pressure to deliver on those promises. Otherwise, the Scottish independence movement might pick up steam again. Conservative leaders like Boris Johnson are already talking about adopting a federal system for the United Kingdom in order to stave off possible Scottish secession.
Public opinion in England – particularly Conservative opinion – is unlikely to support greater devolution of power to Scotland, while simultaneously giving Scotland large amounts of central government money. Many in England believe that the current “Barnett Formula” for distributing central government funds is unfairly biased in favor of the Scots. Even Lord Barnett, the former Labor Party minister after whom the formula is named, holds that view. He has said that the formula is “is unfair and should be stopped… it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well.”
Any federalist devolution likely to get Conservative English support would probably put strict limits on the amount of central government funding that goes to the Scots, quite likely stricter than what exists today. Some Conservatives would prefer that the Scots be required to themselves raise the tax revenue they spend. In addition, many English Conservatives are advocating greater devolution to regional governments in England itself, including perhaps even a system of “English votes for English laws” under which only English members of parliament would get to vote on issues exclusive to England. What counts as an “English” issue, as opposed to a national one, is far from self-evident.
In sum, there is broad support in Britain for moving towards some form of federal devolution. But it will be difficult to figure out an approach that is acceptable to both English Conservatives and much more left-wing Scots. If negotiations over these issues fail, Scottish opinion might turn in favor of independence, and there could be another referendum on secession with a different result from last year’s. Watching BBC election coverage tonight, I heard a couple of commentators speculate that David Cameron could turn out to be the last prime minister of a United Kingdom that includes Scotland.
Federalism can be a valuable tool for mitigating ethnic conflict, and for enabling people with divergent ideologies to coexist in the same polity. It is certainly possible that adopting a more federal constitutional system could help the UK achieve those goals. As compared with some continental Europeans – and perhaps also Americans – the British are famed for their ability to settle political conflicts through compromise. But the devil of federalism is often in the details. Whether Britain can get the details right remains to be seen.
At this point, the only safe prediction is that Britain’s political evolution over the next few years will provide a lot of interesting material for scholars of constitutional federalism.