Why federalism won’t save the Union

More devolution will only further weaken the ties which bind the UK together.

During his trip to Edinburgh last week, David Cameron rather unexpectedly announced that he supported an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The current devolutionary settlement, he said, did not have to be the "end of the road" and, provided Scots vote to reject independence at the referendum in 2014, he would be willing to examine ways in which it could be "improved further". Over the weekend, both Michael Moore and Alistair Darling expressed similar sentiments, although, like the prime minister, they refused to say how they thought Holyrood's legislative remit should be enhanced.
 
As Tim Montgomerie explained in the Guardian on Monday, there is a clear political rationale to this new "progressive unionism". The reality is that most Scots support greater fiscal autonomy and, so far, attempts to draw a line in the sand at the status quo - or, worse still, the Scotland Bill - have only played into the hands of the SNP. It makes sense, then, for unionists to seize the initiative by embracing federalism - or some variant of it - and handing Scots responsibility over the bulk of their financial and economic affairs. This would undermine the drive toward separation by sating the Scottish appetite for more self-government.
 
But would it? A federal UK would mean Scotland was only just shy of out-right economic independence. It would see Holyrood take charge of, among other things, Scottish income and corporation taxes, national insurance and - in all likelihood - North Sea oil revenues, while foreign affairs, VAT and monetary policy remained reserved to London. Further devolution for Scotland would have to be met with some form of devolution for England. This would almost certainly involve prohibiting Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters. Under these conditions, the Union would amount to little more than a kind of glorified defence alliance, with Westminster's UK-wide role being restricted to that of conducting Britain's external relations.
 
The difficulty, though, from a unionist perspective, is that the case for Scotland to determine its own foreign and defence policies is at least as strong as that for it to determine its own economic policies.
 
For instance, an independent Scotland could cut its defence expenditure from the £3.1bn it currently contributes to the British defence budget to around £1.8bn in line with the Nordic average. This would represent a significant saving at a time when public finances were under considerable pressure. It could also force the removal of the hugely dangerous yet strategically redundant Trident nuclear missile system from its waters, thereby substantially improving its security situation. Finally, it could fashion a new role for itself in international politics which reflected its status as a small, northern European social democracy, rather than remain anchored to the UK as it struggles against the decline of its global influence.

Currently, these arguments do not chime with majority opinion in Scotland. But then, a decade ago, the idea that the Scottish Parliament should raise most or all of the money it spends didn't chime with majority opinion either. What changed was Scots' sense that they were capable of governing themselves: the more they did it, the more they wanted to do it. This bears out the "slippery slope" theory advanced by people like Tam Daylell and Michael Forsyth, the most staunch defenders of the UK's unitary political structure. They warned that, as Ian Macwhirter puts it, "independence is a process, not an event" which will occur incrementally over a number of years and through a series of different devolutionary stages, whether people vote for it directly or not. In light of recent events, it is becoming increasingly difficult to say they were wrong.

So, although Cameron, Darling and Moore may view federalism - or devo-max - as the best way to preserve the Union, there is a strong chance it actually represents another step along the road to Scottish independence. Devolution has a logic and a momentum of its own. So far it only seems to be weakening the ties which hold the UK together.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.