How Federal is Britain? An Edinburgh Seminar on the UK Constitution

The United Kingdom constitution seems set to be restructured once again following the general election in May, with the three main UK parties as well as the SNP and Greens in Scotland committed to implementing the Smith Commission recommendations, and with draft clauses for change already on the table. This is in the context also of the Wales Act 2014, calls for further powers for Wales following Smith, and the prospect of tax devolution to Northern Ireland. There is of course also the ‘English question’ which could well lead to significant parliamentary reform.
 
All of this raises the question of whether Britain is moving towards a federal structure. In the tradition of scholars such as Daniel Elazar, Michael Burgess and others it is possible, and arguably more coherent, to understand federalism not as a firm binary alternative to a unitary state but as a flexible system of multilevel government that embraces both ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared rule’ dimensions. Of course this cannot be so open-ended that there is nothing discrete about federal government which can distinguish it from devolved or decentralised systems. But with the Smith Commission recommendations it seems inevitable that the shared rule dimension of the British system will become more formalised in an attempt to manage the increase in concurrent powers. Therefore, it seems appropriate at this point to take stock of where Britain stands on the scale between unitary and federal statehood.
 
The seminar will bring together constitutional experts from the UK to share ongoing research and to reflect on current developments within the UK, looking at the current constitutional demands being presented by political parties in Scotland and Wales in particular, and how these might play out during and after the general election. In the second half of the seminar we will seek insights from experts from federal countries. Scholars from Belgium, Spain, the USA, India, Germany and Canada will consider whether, from their different perspectives, Britain appears to be moving towards a federal structure or whether federalism is even feasible for the United Kingdom in light of its demographic composition and constitutional traditions. Throughout the day’s deliberation lawyers, political scientists officials and people from wider civil society will share insights in a fully inter-disciplinary conversation. Participants will include officials from governments, parliaments, pressure groups, the Law Society and Faculty of Advocates among others. The final session will be an open plenary where we hope in particular to hear the insights of people fully engaged in political and constitutional life. Such interventions will be accommodated by the Chatham House rule. 
 
The conference will end with a public lecture by Professor Michael Burgess entitled: ‘“The British Penchant for Federalism: Federation, Devolution and Federal Devolution in the United Kingdom”.  
 
We hope that the seminar and lecture will help inform the British constitutional debate at this important time. 
 
Visit the Edinburgh Centre on Constitutional Law  and Forum of Federations websites for further information. If you would like to attend the lecture, please get in touch.

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post by Stephen Tierney
University of Edinburgh
13th April 2015
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