The Principles of Radical Federalism

By Liam Payne

In the recent Remaking the British State report, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard in Scotland sought to give a coherent structure to the long-held Labour left project of democratising the archaic and ossified British state. Beginning by analysing the historical and current contexts of the existing UK constitutional settlement, and describing various advances that could still be made within this, the report advances to proscribe a possible governmental solution for the socialist project of democratisation and reformation – radical federalism.

As a preliminary, a section is dedicated to exploring the general concept and several examples of federalism. The report then expounds on the principal framework that would form the ideological structure of a left wing federal settlement in the UK. In a chapter titled “Towards Progressive Federalism for the United Kingdom”, the report’s author Seán Griffin lays out the foundational principles that would underlie any codified federal constitution, in detail and with conviction.

Although the prospect of the socialist left gaining control of the levers of government necessary for this sort of holistic transformation have severely receded recently, the constitutional issues that have dogged the UK for almost the past decade show no sign of abating. As this is case, it is politically crucial that the left remains armed with the knowledge and policies of its own possible answer to the failing UK state structure. Without this, we risk being side-lined in a crucial area of struggle, and further marginalising the still-substantial surge in support for the left political platform overall.

The Current Context

Unlike comparable democracies across the world, the UK constitutional settlement has not been born out of a societal rupture, such as a revolution. Instead, it has slowly grown over many centuries – centuries of nearly uninterrupted elite rule. In the current epoch, this largely passive and unaccountable process has been rocked by two unexpected irruptions in the UK body politic. Starting with the near-miss of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, this modern dissatisfaction culminated (for now) in the narrow vote to leave the EU in 2016.

A third, overtly political, irruption in this period was the swift rise to power of the left within the Labour Party, and it’s near-upset of the political-power consensus in the snap UK general election of 2017. Griffin’s report is an attempt to fuse the grievances and hopes expressed by all these moments into a coherent blueprint for a radically reformed UK constitutional settlement.

Crucially, the report acknowledges that these irruptions contain the apparently contradictory combination of a distrust in existing political institutions and structures, with a greater interest and involvement in political issues by the general populace than has been common in recent times. 

What these irruptions and the reactions to them demonstrate, according to Griffin, is not only a growing “crisis of democratic legitimacy”, but also the underlying inadequacy of the “current UK constitutional settlement”. This has also spread to other UK institutions, such as the media and the rule of law.

Echoing the trenchant criticisms of Ralph Miliband, albeit in a more positive tone, Griffin avers that: “The Labour Party is completely committed to parliamentary democracy and achieving socialism using the British state as the vehicle.” (p.148). However, in order to adequately achieve socialism in the UK through the aegis of the state, the Labour Party would need to radically re-order the existing structures of state power.

A codified constitution should be enacted – to curtail the age-old foundational principle of the Sovereignty of Parliament – which would embed a radical federalist structure in this reformed UK state. This would not replace other foundational principles such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and ministerial responsibility to Parliament. Accounting for these, this structure must however be based on the principles of “federalism itself, subsidiarity, solidarity, the redistribution of power and wealth, agency of all citizens, and parity of esteem between the different institutions of a federal UK.” (p.148).

Radical Federalism as Ideology

Griffin importantly accounts for these ideological principles that would underlie such a codified constitutional reformation in more detail. Enlightenment ideals of democracy, republicanism and liberalism would continue to contribute to the formation of a radical federal settlement, but would be embellished with the socialist principles listed previously.

The UK state as currently formulated is largely an imperial hangover. Due to this, constitutional recognition of the vibrant diversity of the country is heavily under-represented. Griffin proposes that: “The British state must therefore be reconstructed in a way that binds the peoples of these islands together in a spirit of unity strengthened by its diversity, and not divided because of it.” (p.145). The most progressive way to achieve this, in the estimation of the report, is through the creation of a new federal system of government in the UK.

Through the principle of federalism, “each part of the state is given equal recognition and status within the constitutional order and given legal protection of that recognition and status to form distinct constituent units within the nation state.” (p.145).

Even under the current formation of limited devolution to nations, regions and localities within the UK, the country is still ultimately run as a ‘unitary state’. All power crucially rests with the Sovereignty of Parliament, and its representation as the constitutional face of the power of the monarchy. All devolved powers have been created in such a manner that they can ultimately be undermined or even revoked by the Westminster Parliament. A new federal settlement would remove this unitary character from such a reformed UK state – giving genuinely unencumbered powers and legal protections to devolved administrations.

To turn this federal structure into a radical version, based solidly on socialist ideas and aspirations, this settlement should also enact the principle of subsidiarity “which is that decisions affecting people’s lives should be taken at the lowest possible level of government closest to the people whom the decisions affect most directly… It therefore involves the sharing of powers between several levels of authority, a principle which forms the institutional basis for federal states.” (p.145) – even the EU!

This principle would not only affect current devolved national administrations or any new regional authorities created in England, but also the position of local councils across the UK. Through the inclusion of the principle of subsidiarity in a radically federalised UK, local councils could again wield the power to engage in projects of municipal socialism – in the vein of past examples which have illuminated the history of socialist governance in the UK.

In conjunction with the radical and democratic opportunities which subsidiarity would represent, Griffin correctly points out that it is also important to recognise that the current UK state is deeply unequal. Subsidiarity without a concomitant principled dedication to solidarity would risk merely further entrenching this fact. Certain levers will have to remain in a centralised capacity to address this: “Without the retention of strong powers at the centre it will not be possible for one region or nation in need, for example the North East of England, to adequately redistribute wealth from another wealthier region, for example the South East of England.” (p.146).

This pitfall is as old as Poplarism. To address this, Griffin suggests including the Corbyn Labour proposal for a centralised National Investment Bank in any codified constitutional settlement: “The National Investment Bank would be legally obligated to ensure that investment in the UK economy is directed across the country according to need.” (p.146).

On a deeper level, the inclusion of the principle of solidarity would also aim to retain and rekindle the class consciousness and solidarity that must always inform any socialist project – regardless of geographical location or cultural background.

Griffin’s proposals then shift to a more individual level. Inclusion of the principle of agency in a radical federal settlement would allow previously atomised and marginalised citizens to engage more incisively with the democratic structures of the reformed UK state. Alongside the revanchist role of local councils outlined above, the left tenet of economic democracy must find a role in such a future. This can begin to be achieved by: “increasing public ownership of the UK’s key assets and industries, strengthening the trade union movement and giving the right to strike constitutional protection as well as increasing workplace democracy by giving workers constitutional rights to buy out their employers and to adopt cooperative models of ownership.” (p.147).

Finally, to ensure the smooth functioning of such a system, the principle of parity of esteem must be incorporated: “All of the peoples and institutions of the UK must treat each other based on a principle of mutual appreciation and respect, and the institutions themselves must give each other due deference befitting the roles, functions and various democratic mandates of those institutions.” (p.147)

As a means to ensure this equity is amply represented in the residual central UK state also, various offices and government departments should be relocated out of Whitehall, and dispersed across the whole of the UK, ensuring the continued involvement of all nations and regions in the remaining centralised governance of a federal UK state.

Too Big to Fail?

Since the defeat of Corbynism in the snap election of late 2019, and the subsequent purge of the left in the Labour Party as a whole, much of the intellectual discourse on socialist paths forward has surrounded the much-needed shift in attention to ‘base building’ throughout communities, workplaces and local parties/government. To achieve this end though, the left must have cogent and convincing arguments at micro, meso, and macro levels.

Correctly deducing that too much attention has been paid on the macro side of things does not delimit the necessity of retaining and building on these types of proposals – of which Seán Griffin’s Remaking the British State report is perhaps the most impressive institutional example. A left engaged in the vital task of rebuilding the labour movement across the UK needs to have a convincing tale to tell about the much-maligned and politically central concept of the actually-existing UK state. The principles of radical federalism are hardwired into socialist ideology – this should be a tale of necessity we are proud to tell.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: Map showing the Council areas of Scotland. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, created using Ordnance Survey data, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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