Is the UK becoming a Federal State?

By: Ethan Miller, Student Voices Writer

The United Kingdom has always been classified as a Unitary State, this is because it has a unitary constitution. This means that power is centralised in a main body which is sovereign over all parts of government as determined in the constitution. In terms of the UK, this means that all the political power is centralised in the square kilometre that is Whitehall. However as greater devolution processes have taken place, are we becoming a federal state? This would mean divided power between national and regional, and each part cannot abolish another as they are protected by a federal constitution. We see this example of Federalism in the U.S.A where each state has a state legislature which makes specifically regional legislation, but still work together in a national body of representatives to make national laws.

Over the last nineteen years, the UK has seen mass devolution. During the 1997-2010 Labour governments, Britain saw the implementation of a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and increased power to the Northern Irish Assembly. Their reforms also introduced an elected mayor of London and London assembly and the ability for elected local mayors. Powers these bodies possess contradicts the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, the idea that parliament has the highest authority and its decisions may not be overturned. When smaller areas are given exclusive law making abilities, it challenges parliaments absolute rule over those areas. However, these powers still have their limit and the devolved bodies are confined to mostly budgetary management, deciding what to do with the money Westminster gives them. Therefore, judging by those reforms alone, Britain can be classified as only a Quasi-federal state. This is where central government devolves some power to subnational governments, this supposedly keeps parliamentary sovereignty but in reality Parliament has lost the ability to make supreme domestic policy.

Most recently however, parliament has become increasingly divided. Scottish Parliament is almost completely made up of Scottish Nationalists who threaten to further divide the British Isles into multiple nations, and with a powerful devolved parliament comes new precedent. There has been huge debate on regional votes for regional laws, something which Scotland has always had in its parliament, and something which is very new to England. Westminster has now created English votes for English laws where English MPs control their own domestic policy. The very first of these occurred on the 19th of January on the vote to cut student maintenance grants, which only added to the controversial nature of that debate. After a close first division the house went to a second division where either side would have to have a majority vote in both national and English MPs, which was won by twelve national, and eighty-eight English. Shortly after, Alex Salmond raised a point of order addressing the key issue with this: How do you define regional law? He argued that these cuts would have repercussions on Scotland, and there is no true law that only affects the single region but will always cause ripples. This is what is leading us to becoming a federal state, being ‘Quasi-federal’ leaves us in a state of limbo and the lines of legal supremacy are blurred. Stigma towards English votes for English laws will only increase as more controversial policies are decided this way, this could push Britain to defining its boundaries and making the leap to federalism.

The reason this question is important now is because of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. Introduced by Baroness (Susan) Williams of Trafford, a Conservative life peer in the House of Lords, this bill made its way through the summer of 2015 relatively unnoticed, but has recently opened up the federal/unitary debate since it’s royal assent in January earlier this year. It will devolve housing, transport, planning and policing powers to publicly elected mayors. The important areas to consider here are Greater Manchester, Sheffield, and West Yorkshire, these three northern areas that now have greater power over domestic policy similar to that of the London Mayor. This is absolutely a step towards federalism with local governments challenging Westminster’s sovereignty over all of Britain. However, this is also a step away from a complete federal state. Where Wales and Northern Ireland are too small to have their own parliaments, there are in-fact three areas that are large enough to have devolved legislatures: Scotland, Westminster, and the Northern Powerhouse. This Conservative made bill, grants northern cities some devolved power in the form of mayors which satisfies their need for decentralisation and prevents the plea for a Northern Powerhouse. Tories do not want a Northern Parliament because they have no power there, if there was a secondary parliament then it and Westminster would be split between Labour in the North, and Tories in the South. Although we are moving towards federalism, the conservatives have made a clever move by preventing greater devolution, with minor devolution.  

Meet the author:

Ethan Miller
Ethan Miller is 16 and is currently studying Politics, English Literature, and Music A levels at Liverpool College. He had lived in Norwich all his life before he moved to Liverpool in September, and is now settled in to life here in the north. Coming from Norwich South, he enjoys remaining in a Labour constituency and his politics follow very close to his party
Is the UK becoming a Federal State? Is the UK becoming a Federal State? Reviewed by Admin on 07:00 Rating: 5


  1. I think the writer seems to have over overlooked the fact that the devolved powers are constitutionally engrained. The UK Parliament can withdraw all the powers whenever it see's fit and, theoretically, even overrule the decisions made in the regional bodies. The reality of that happening is, obviously, incredibly unlikely due to the political consequences. But the simple fact of the matter is that constitutionally the UK is unitary (all supreme sovereignty still rests with Parliament). And given that federalism is a constitutional matter (ie, the regional states have their independence from the central government protected under the constitution) the UK cannot be considered a federal state until the independence of the regional assemblies/parliaments are protected in the constitution. To add even further complexity, that protection would have to be given in a codified constitution, which the UK does not currently have. No law can truly protect the independence of regional powers because, under the convention of our uncodified constitution, Parliament will always be supreme and have the ability to get rid of/overrule any previous laws. Therefore, for the UK to be truly federal, we need a codified constitution.

    Therefore, in a legal sense the UK is nowhere near federal. In a practical sense I would ever deem it to not really be that federal. Although the way Scotland now works does certainly draw questions over that.

    1. Sorry, in first line, the devolved are NOT constitutionally engrained.


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