An Unequal Kingdom: The Barriers to Federalism in the UK

Overview —

The constitutional question over Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom was not resolved by the results of the 2014 independence referendum. In addition to the ongoing debate around independence at least two political parties – the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour – currently support constitutional reform for the whole of the UK along some kind of Federal structure.

This paper examines the case for federalism and outlines the challenges and barriers to reform of the UK in this manner.


Craig Dalzell

Isobel Lindsay

Download Now

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum did not result in Scotland becoming an independent country but neither did it fully or finally resolve Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. The discussion is still ongoing and the state of devolution remains fluid. Even during the 2014 campaign there was a discussion of reforming the UK from a unitary state with devolved regions into a formal federation of the nations comprising it. This policy was primarily promoted by advocates of Scotland remaining part of the UK but were either unhappy with the then present settlement or who thought that many ‘soft-Yes’ voters could be persuaded by their proposals to vote No.

The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the possible options which could result in a country that could be fairly called a Federal United Kingdom and to examine the barriers which may lie in the way of achieving that goal.


― As the debates about Scottish independence, several parties – notably Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have sought to distinguish themselves by offering a “third option” in the form of converting the UK from a Unitary State to a Federation of states.

― So far, the details of these proposals have been lacking and barriers to the transition have not been adequately addressed.

― Federalism itself does little to solve the issues around the centralisation or decentralisation of power in the UK. A Federal UK can be highly centralised or highly decentralised just as a Unitary State with devolution can be.

― It is not clear whether a Federal UK will involve England as a distinct state (which would mean a Federation in which one state held an absolute majority of the population of the UK compared to the other states) or whether England would be dissolved and broken into multiple states (which would mean the dissolution of a country simply to solve a demand for constitutional change emanating from outwith that country)

― The state of devolution in the UK is highly asymmetric with some devolved nations having control over different powers and different overall degrees of autonomy. It is not clear if this asymmetry would be replicated in a Federal UK.

― If these asymmetries are to be flattened out then this would require either that Scotland loses powers that it has held since the Union in 1707 (such as its autonomous legal code) or potentially that regions of England are granted those powers.

― There has so far been little to no demand in England for these constitutional changes and without England’s support they will not happen. Thus, presenting Federalism first and foremost as a “solution” to the Scottish independence debate is doomed to failure. Federalism must be able to work regardless of whether or not Scotland leaves the UK either before or after the latter becomes a Federation.

― Any attempt to use a Federal constitution to somehow block, impede or render illegal any campaign for Scottish independence (as is the case in the Spanish constitution) would be profoundly undemocratic and dangerous.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top