A federal future for the UK? - RSA

A federal future for the UK?


  • Picture of David Kauders
    David Kauders
    Investment manager and author
  • Democracy and governance


RSA Fellow David Kauders argues that the Westminster model of government has failed and the four UK nations need to adopt a federal model. There would be one federal and four national legislatures, plus a People’s Council (replacing the House of Lords and Privy Council). Members of the federal legislature and People’s Council could be apportioned using the Fibonacci sequence – with eight Northern Irish members, 13 Welsh, 21 Scottish and 34 English. Kauders argues that only a federal approach can truly unite the United Kingdom.

Reading time

Four minutes

One Fellow argues for federal government in the UK, with the main legislature and ‘People’s Council’ comprised of members from across the four nations allocated using the Fibonacci sequence.

There’s a pervading sense that, in modern Britain, nothing works as it should. Many individual policy failures have brought about near-Victorian conditions. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2023 annual ‘Destitution in the UK’ report reads like a Dickensian novel: rising child poverty; deteriorating healthcare; insanitary housing. Recent news articles even report people using pliers to extract their own teeth because of the lack of reasonable access to NHS dental care.

It’s not surprising, then, that the public have low levels of confidence in parliament. A study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London found that confidence has halved since 1990. Meanwhile, a Focaldata survey examining the entire political system reported that 90% of UK citizens believe it needs reform.

In their book, When Nothing Works, academics Luca Calafati and colleagues describe three pillars of society: disposable (or residual) income, essential services and social infrastructure. All three have been wrecked by deliberate policy choices, they argue, warning that UK policies are stuck in a quagmire, with too much regulatory weight given to market-oriented economists. Indeed, the share of national output going to employment fell by nearly 10% between 1976 and 2019, contributing to Britain’s poverty.

Power failure

The Westminster model of absolute power has failed. Moreover, it has contributed to British economic and social decline. This became clear when the emotions and misrepresentations of the Brexit campaign collided with the principle that sovereignty is the Crown in parliament.

Centralised power simply cannot adequately respond to the complexity of the 21st century and exponential rates of change affecting all levels of society. 

How, then, can the UK build a more effective, participatory democracy and improve its political governance?

The Westminster model of absolute power has failed. Moreover, it has contributed to British economic and social decline.

Federal government

The cultures of the four nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England) are different, so the UK is long overdue adopting a federal structure, which would enable decisions to be taken at the most appropriate level. Without this, there is the very real possibility that the UK will eventually break up. Switching to a federal structure would be a bold move, but one which works well elsewhere. However, such sweeping reform needs a written constitution regulating political governance. 

Citizens need the right to put policies onto a democratic agenda. Young people need more say in determining their futures. And we need a democratic process of consent to legislation, instead of meaningless royal assent.

Voice of the people

The discussion starts now. What should a modern constitutional settlement look like? Labour created the Brown Commission, led by former prime minister Gordon Brown, to examine public dissatisfaction with politics. It called for more public involvement but offered an inadequate solution: electing a powerless upper house.

My concept is an elected People’s Council that would replace both the House of Lords and the Privy Council. This would be completely separate from five unicameral legislatures, one federal and four national.

Dispersed power would replace central power, with sovereignty being the people of each of the four nations. The People’s Council would provide a channel for all citizens to be heard and for strong checks to replace those that are so weak and ineffective today.

The federal legislature and People’s Council will need to escape the bias towards English issues caused by England representing 84% of the total population. One simple solution would be to apportion numbers of members using a segment of the Fibonacci series. As an illustration, a representative federal assembly might consist of eight Northern Irish members, 13 Welsh, 21 Scottish, and 34 English — 76 members in total.

What is the point of adversarial politics when many neighbouring countries outperform Britain by consensus?

Consensual politics?

There are valid concerns about whether the present chaos is capable of resolution by any government, and we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of adversarial politics when many neighbouring countries outperform Britain by consensus? Should we wait five more years while a (possible) Labour government struggles with the havoc they have inherited without the truly creative thinking and democratic consent required for tackling the deep changes that are needed?

I don’t think so.

Escaping the dead end that Britain has reached requires constructive public participation. Academics have examined policy alternatives using deliberative citizens’ assemblies. Academia and think tanks should recognise that our present political governance needs major redesign, and citizens’ assemblies could debate these questions — now. Only the people can provide answers.

Tinkering with details to improve the present system is worthy, but unlikely to bring the country to a prosperous, cohesive future. Only a federal nation can truly unite the United Kingdom.

David Kauders FRSA is an investment manager and author of books about economics, finance and the United Kingdom. His most recent book is Reinventing Democracy: Improving British Political Governance.

Georgina Weaver FRSA contributed to this article.

This feature first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 2 2024.

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