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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > October 2016 > Federal flaw

Federal flaw

The history of the American constitution offers clues about the kind of Europe that Britain might hope to lead, rather than leave

In the constitutional tumult of 250 years ago, the time of Tom Paine, Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, an idea was born: that the atom of sovereignty could be split, allowing a single nation to be forged from multiple states without those component parts being swallowed up by the new whole. This was nation-building without Leviathan—a new order indeed. Its architects called it federalism, from the Latin foedus (meaning covenant): new world government-by-compact to replace old world rulership-by-conquest.

The lure of sovereignty: the March for Independence, Glasgow 2016
© COLIN MCPHERSON/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

In a Britain rendered anxious once again about its territorial coherence following June’s European Union referendum vote, in which England and Wales voted to leave the EU while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, federalism is offered by some as a solution that can hold the UK together while letting each of the four home nations plot its own path.

It won’t work. A single state with two different relationships with the EU? With two foreign policies and two different laws of citizenship? There is no such thing. Scotland and Northern Ireland can run their own domestic politics—health, education, justice, social security—but even in today’s complex and multipolar polities there are some things that only states can do. Home rule within a single state can be taken only so far, and both Scotland and Northern Ireland are perilously close to the limit already. There is a tipping point, when “devolution max” becomes “independence lite.”

George W Bush, left, with Antonin Scalia (centre), the last true believer in states’ rights
© KEN HEINEN/U.S. SUPREME COURT VIA GETTY IMAGES

In any event, federalism is an idea whose time has come— and gone. The leave vote was a clear sign that the British people did not want to be part of a federal Europe—just as the other European peoples had voted in previous referendums to reject further dilution of their sovereignty. Even our most Europhile governments have held back from adopting the full menu of integration, and the next items in preparation for that menu hold no appeal in Britain. Even if we had voted to stay we would have had nothing to do with any European army and as little as possible to do with a fiscal union.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s October issue: Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz tells our new Editor Tom Clark why globalisation has made him more radical. Rachel Holmes asks whether more women leaders really help women. Five hundred years on, what does Thomas More’s “Utopia” tells us about political idealism. And Tristram Hunt on why Labour needs another Clement Attlee. Also in this issue: David Runciman on why more members isn’t always a good thing for a political party. Will Self on why we’re all turning into robots. Your handy graphic guide to Brexit. Plus: David Willetts on what Theresa May’s industrial strategy should look like. And Kenneth S Rogoff argues we should abolish cash.
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