SOME OBSERVATIONS UPON THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND
There is a great deal I agree with in Steve’s article. In a later contribution to this discussion, I would like to develop Steve’s historic analysis, going back to the days of the Levellers, through the Chartists and on to the Suffragettes. However, in these observations, I will confine myself to the issue of federalism.
The political origins of the idea of British federalism go back to the first attempts to hold together the British Empire in North America, when faced by the challenge of American republicanism. It failed. The challenge of Irish republicanism and the War of Independence from 1919, led to a Westminster Speakers’ Conference. This recommended a federal solution for the UK. It too failed. Although it did, after Loyalist pogroms and reactionary unionist Partition, produce the earliest form of political Devolution in the UK – Stormont. No wonder, it was difficult for others later to win support for devolution in Scotland and Wales, when Stormont formed the precedent!
The idea of federalism appeared again in Gordon Brown’s last minute attempt to head off a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. It has since reappeared in certain Labour circles, once again in response the challenge of a possible Scottish IndyRef2.
Steve’s article goes a long way to show why federalism is incompatible with a UK state based upon the Crown Powers. However, this incompatibility is also linked to the unionist nature of the UK state. It is these together, which make the UK incapable of ever being reformed beyond ‘Devo-Max’. But, even this is something for which the political forces are barely existent at present. Since Brexit, under May’s Tories, reactionary unionism rules the roost at the Westminster, and is thoroughly undermining the recent liberal unionist coalition over the constitution supported by Cameron’s Tories, neo-Blairite /neo-Brownite Labour, and the Lib-Dems -Devolution-all-round along with continued membership of the EU.
The politics of federalism, whenever it has been raised within the UK, has always represented a last ditch unionist attempt to preserve the UK. A federal UK has been Liberal Party policy for over a century, with no obvious effect on the UK constitution. Gordon Brown could not even see the difference between Devo-Max (where sovereignty remains with the Crown-in Parliament) and Federalism (where sovereignty is divided between an overarching federal assembly and the constituent nations making up the federation). But then Brown celebrates Union and Empire, so the republican principle of sovereignty lying with the people is of little concern to this particular Great British subject.
As Steve points out in his article, it was Tony Benn who produced the most thought out challenge to the existing UK constitution ever to reach Westminster. His 1996 Bill proposed a democratic and secular Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales. Significantly, this was also a time of rising national democratic challenges. And, mainly for the reasons Steve gives, Benn’s proposals quickly vanished leaving little trace.
Benn was for ending the monarchy and the UK’s sovereignty over Northern Ireland (the rump of Ireland still remaining in the UK after 1922). In this he was far more radical than any federal proposals ever likely to come from the current Labour Party leadership. Jeremy Corbyn may have been Benn’s seconder in 1996, but it is very unlikely that ending the monarchy or severing the UK state’s link with Northern Ireland will figure in Labour’s constitutional proposals. Corbyn is constantly looking for political fudges to keep the party’s dominant neo-Blairite party MPs, MSPs, MWAs and party apparatchiks on board. Underscoring this compromise between Left and Right. John McDonnell, a left federal convert and key Corbyn ally, will be working with Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour leader and neo-Brownite, federal convert, to come up with a new political smokescreen to defend the UK state.
Corbyn is not prepared to democratise his own party, so he is hardly likely to challenge the UK’s anti-democratic state in any fundamental way. Thus, any future Labour federal proposals can only amount to be another form of Devo-Max, to be wheeled out as a diversionary empty promise in any future Scottish independence campaign, just as we saw with Gordon Brown. However, unless things get really desperate, May and her reactionary unionist allies, who are now in control of the `UK’s constitutional future, are more likely to ignore any Labour Party ‘federal’ proposals this time and keep Gordon Brown locked away in the cupboard – where let’s admit it, he belongs anyhow. The time for any concerted liberal smokescreen to defend the UK state has largely passed. May has taken the Brexit vote as a mandate to “take back control” and reinforce all the most reactionary elements of the UK state. Any elements of the existing liberal unionist ‘Devolution-all-round’ settlement which get in her way will be overridden.
However, Steve, in his article, goes on to raise the possibility that, “the UK may one day be replaced by a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, as envisaged by Tony Benn”. I would argue that both the current global economic and political situation has made this not only pretty unlikely, but potentially retrograde step. Indeed any such attempt to follow this political path would more likely represent a last-ditch attempt to preserve the so-called gains of the British Union/UK. This would be similar to what happened in 1991, when the Union od Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) gave way, first to the attempted, but never realised, Union of Sovereign States under Gorbachev, before settling upon the Commonwealth of Independent States. Trying to defend the continued economic and imperial interests of Russia, with the aid of local former USSR satraps, now facing real challenges to their power, was the motive behind these moves. It doesn’t take much imagination to see a similar situation emerging in these islands, as the UK began to break up.
During and since the Brexit campaign, not only strong anti-immigrant sentiment, but also a disturbing depth of Little Englanderism and a Britishness, often, understood as Greater Englanderism, has been revealed within sections of the working class and the Labour Party in England. Thus, faced in the future with a more immediate prospect of the break-up of the UK, such unionist forces, with help from any remaining Labour unionist politicians in Scotland and Wales, could well attempt to salvage the situation with a new Union or Commonwealth. The left unionists would also draw upon the USSR experience, which they are so wedded to.
The one thing that the Brexit experience has surely taught us is that the best way to promote genuine internationalism amongst our class, throughout these islands and beyond, is not to promote the chimera of a “Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales”. We now have 2.9 million EU member country citizens living in the UK. The other states of the EU have many more millions of workers from other European countries, including the UK, living within them. To preserve and advance greater working class unity, we need to be fighting on the grounds of a federal, secular and social Europe.
Response by John Tummon
I agree with your argument and would, additionally, refer to the more general application of federalist solutions to imperialist problems, always to protect and strengthen centralist hegemony.
Federal solutions were the preferred option in each of the ‘white colonies’ of Canada, Australia and South Africa, to deal with tensions between French and British settlers, white settlers and native Aborigines, Boer and British, on each occasion building centralism through the back door. The USA took the same route to dealing with the tensions and contradictions between an economy based on slave labour and one based on waged labour within the same state. The British Raj used federalism to hold together those states in which London ruled directly with those it ruled indirectly via native Princes, as well as to counter religious communalism In Nigeria, Lugard approached the differences between the Muslim north and Christian south in the same way. The imperialist powers of Britain and France applied federalist solutions to the former territories of the Ottoman, Romanov and Habsburg empires in 1919-24, creating federal states in the Balkans (Yugoslavia), as well as Czechoslovakia, Syria and Iraq. This continued the creation of compound territories in much of colonised Africa from the 1880s onwards. Sudan, French West Africa, Cameroon, the Congo and Kenya are key examples in which religious, linguistic and ethnic differences were dealt with by burying differences within compound territories which gave way, after nominal independence, to unionist states with federalist elements.
Much of this has been falling apart for some time and now, even the unionist states within Western Europe such as Spain and Britain, have had to adopt federalist solutions to retain centralist hegemony.
Imperial Federation was the early 20th century movement within upper class British circles which sought to bring the ‘white dominions’ and Britain together within the same formal state; inspired by Cecil Rhodes and funded from his legacy of plunder, it went through various guises before eventually giving way to Atlanticism, then European Economic integration, then back to Atlanticism.
Federalism has a long global history in the service of imperialist domination, as a means of achieving more economical rule, of dealing with differences within subject populations and of maintaining metropolitan power centres.
It is one of those concepts that has been uncritically adopted by the Left at various times out of a kind of social liberalism allied to spurious democratic notions of partial autonomy, Christian notions of ‘giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’.
It has been temporarily halted by Brexit, but the long-term direction of history involves a gathering challenge to it and this is one that we need to support. Unionism and Federalism are two sides of the same coin.
Reply by Allan Armstrong
When it comes to the role of federalism in the UK and British Empire I agree with John. However, I also think a difference has to be made between ‘federalism from above’ to maintain as much as possible of the existing socio-economic set-up (as the Federalists wanted in in the infant USA) and ‘federalism from below’ as a step towards greater unity, as in say a campaign for a federal, secular and social European Republic, or a United Socialist States of Europe.
There is also a need to draw a distinction between attempts to federalise non-national units, again the example of USA (e.g. Massachusetts, Alabama), and the example of the post-war German constitution imposed by the Allies (e.g. Westphalia and Bavaria); and attempts to federalise various nations (whether from above or from below). In the USSR the constituent republics were seen as nations, whereas the Russian Soviet Republic was itself a constitutional federation based on ethnographic-linguistic (not nation) units, such as Karelia, Yakutia and Chechenya.
The USSR was the only other specifically unionist state by title that I am aware of (Spain is a sort of half way house between a unionist centralised state, but with centrally approved asymmetrical devolved powers to constituent nations, e.g Catalunya and Euskadi and to regions. e.g. Andalucia). In the case of the UK, the Crown Powers deny any constitutional right to self-determination. In the case of the old USSR, each constituent republic had the constitutional right to self determination. However, the USSR constitution also gave a privileged role to the CPSU (which in practice meant it was a one-party state). Anyone seriously raising the issue of self-determination for any of the USSR’s constituent republic was quickly condemned for nationalist deviationism and would quickly find themselves in jail or worse. So the exercise of any meaningful self-determination was very much a Catch 22 situation. Or, another way of looking at it is that it was the CPSU which held the ‘Crown Powers’ – perhaps something understood in the USSR by those people who called Stalin the Red Tsar!