Wales and England became united when Wales was conquered in 1262. The unity between Scotland and England was established through the Acts of Union 1706 and 1706 and although the history of the union of Northern Ireland with Britain is a long and tortuous one, the result of the political union of these four countries is the United Kingdom and the Great Britain. Through devolution, there has been transfer of powers from the Westminster Parliament to the constituent nations, however, with core decision making authority remaining in the hands of the Westminster Parliament, it is hard to say that devolution led the United Kingdom being too divided. On the other hand, it is this very asymmetrical distribution of power that leads to political differences between the nations. Many would argue that federalism may be able to bridge these differences and, in this answer, we shall assess to what extents it may or may not be able to.
The Act of Union between England and Wales formed in the year 1707 and although England had ruled Scotland from 1603, Scotland formally joined England and Wales in 1707 and the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed. The Act of Union 1800 formally brought Ireland and Britain together however there has been a prolonged period of bitter political differences even after that. In the absence of a written constitution, the United Kingdom has always been a unitary state governed by the Parliament of Westminster in England. The union between these nations saw their ups-and-downs with periods of conflict and political turmoil existing. Thus, during the late 20th century, devolved assemblies were formed for political and economic betterment.
Devolution is the term used to describe Britain’s delegation of power from its central authority to the authorities of its constituent nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although transfer of powers has occurred in the United Kingdom it is not to be confused with federalism as devolution allows the powers to be transferred without relinquishing the sovereignty of the central government whereas in a federal system of government every constituent part of a state enjoys its own autonomy and sovereignty. The constituent nations of the United Kingdom have varying degrees of power. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now all possess executive and legislative devolution, however, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly can only pass primary and secondary laws in devolved areas with reserved matters resting in the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament.
The Scotland Act 1998 sets out the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament which allows it to being able to introduce public bills on devolved matters such as agriculture and fisheries, education and training, environment, local government, tax rate and limits it when it comes to making laws on reserved matters. The reserved matters consist of general and specific reservations which rests only with the Westminster Parliament. Some of the reserved matters are the aspects of the constitution which includes the Crown, UK Parliament, international relations, financial and economic matters, home affairs, trade and industry, employment, social security and many more. The Welsh Assembly was formed with much less powers, precisely, only executive, however, it did eventually gain legislative powers and the Wales Act 2017 provided a new devolution settlement for Wales with a reserved power model allowing it to legislate on matters not being reserved to the Westminster Parliament. The history with Northern Ireland has caused most controversies and the legislative competences of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been divided into three categories – ‘excepted matters’, which were never meant to be devolved, ‘reserved matters’, which may be devolved in the future and ‘transferred matters’, which have been devolved and on which the assembly has the authority to legislate. Such is the arrangement of the distribution of powers between the United Kingdom and its constituent states and the asymmetrical arrangement has caused commotion between the nations. Whether federalism can provide an answer to this will be discussed below.
Many believe that an uneven distribution of powers is unfair and having a federal system of governance will bring fairness as federalism can ensure that the constituent nations can have a certain extent of autonomy. A federal government was proposed by Winston Churchill in 1912 and has consistently been a subject of debate. A federal government may also seem necessary to the devolved states as they do not have constitutional precedence and an Act of Parliament by the British constitution can undo devolution.
However, fundamental to federalism is a written constitution to separate powers between the regions and federal government, which the British constitution lacks. Furthermore, England holds almost 85% of the United Kingdom’s population. This could create major political imbalance as a state might find its decisions being outnumbered by the other.
With the United Kingdom exiting the European Union through the European Union Withdrawal Act 2020, questions for having a federal government being the right system of governance might stir up again as the devolved parliaments may claim the powers coming back to the UK parliament from the European Union. It may seem that federalism may be able to provide a logical solution to this constitutional and political crisis but it is also to be kept in mind that there are practical limitations to it.