by SRB

David Torrance, Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal UK

July 15, 2014 | by SRB

(Luath Press, 2014)

 Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal UK is a departure for the journalist and commentator David Torrance. Usually found on screen or in print analysing political developments in a relatively detached fashion, this short book finds him advocating reforms that he believes can save the UK by restructuring it. The referendum debate has shaken the constitutional future and some interesting things have fallen out. Federalism might be considered one of those things and the attraction for those opposed to independence is easy to see. Torrance proposes it as a compromise solution, delivering to both sides elements of what they desire. Whether it would confound the predictions of figures such as Tam Dalyell is impossible to predict. But allied to other reforms, it has the potential to address some the anomalies of the UK’s constitutional framework while delivering greater control to nations, regions, provinces and localities.


Torrance is alert to the need to need for a more considered reappraisal of the structures of government in this country, something federalism would necessarily demand. To borrow a phrase much-beloved by policy makers, a holistic approach is required. Speaking to mark the launch of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report A New Magna Carta, Graham Allen MP remarked: “During the last two decades, under Governments of various stripes, we have had devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, putting human rights into UK law, freedom of information legislation, the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the establishment of the Supreme Court, and the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments.” Taken collectively, these somewhat ad-hoc changes surely underline the case for a written constitution, at least in the format of a single, accessible document. Not unrelated to some of the changes mentioned, the new leader of the Local Government Association has also recently cautioned against allowing the English Question to go unresolved for much longer. It is to Torrance’s credit that he has not allowed the intensity of the referendum debate to blind him to pressures building elsewhere that also suggest change is required.


The book opens with bite-sized overviews of the operation of federal systems in other countries. The message is clear: This is not some fantasy concept but one that functions in over 20 countries according to local circumstances and traditions. Torrance then takes us back to earlier periods in British history where federalism has been similarly courted. This usefully underlines its historical pedigree in British political and constitutional thought, also undermining those who might damn emerging support for the concept as being little more than a panicked reaction to the prospect of a Yes vote. Torrance even manages to press Tom Nairn, scourge of the allegedly disfigured and written-off UK political framework, into service. The argument is developed further still, however, with Torrance contending that devolution, building on over a century of administrative decentralisation, has introduced elements of a federal set-up. “Theory”, he argues, “has to catch up with constitutional reality.”


As Torrance demonstrates, the fortunes of federalism in previous times ebbed and flowed with the passions generated by the Irish Question. This brings us to one of the major challenges for those who would argue for federalism as opposed to Scottish independence: What guarantees can be given that further powers, let alone federalism, will follow a No vote? Specific promises are not yet being given but there is a sense that the significance of the contemporary period will act as its own binding oath on those who have proposed to take action following a No vote. Any politician, particularly any politician who plies their trade in Scotland, would be inviting disaster should they attempt to renege on promises made. Moreover, and as Tom Devine has argued, those on the pro-Union side would have to be magnanimous and generous in victory in recognition of the depths of the disappointed of those who favoured the other outcome.


Other chapters deal with topics including education and welfare. The former, though a polished overview of the arguments for and against state and private education, sits awkwardly in relation to the rest of the book. Its links to the argument in favour of federalism are faint as presented here, a point the author himself concedes towards the end. The latter chapter is more in keeping with the book’s primary objective and Torrance was surely right to devote space to analysing the area of social policy that would surely cause the most anxiety for those with reservations. Resistance to absolving central government of responsibility for welfare is deeply engrained in British political culture, perhaps particularly on the left.


The conclusion opens with a barrage of quotes from political figures and commentators located across the political spectrum: from Nigel Farage to Owen Jones, Stephen Noon to Sir John Major. The intention, writes Torrance, is “to counter the suggestion that somehow federalism does not enjoy wide support”. The fundamental reason underpinning this widespread, although apparently little appreciated support, is that federalism “is the only constitutional model that would give adequate and coherent expression to the delightfully messy status quo”. Torrance is left to conclude that not only would federalism address the multiple anomalies characterising UK political arrangements, but that it would also reflect the interdependent nature of international relations. Throughout the book he writes with clarity and conviction, ably dismantling some of the theoretical objections to federalism. But serious questions remain over how the political and, crucially, popular momentum will be generated to carry the UK to the federal future he envisions. 



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