Ian Swanson: Federalism won’t solve Scotland’s Brexit puzzle

Gordon Brown says a new home rule deal could kill off any plans for a second independence referendum. Picture: John Devlin

Gordon Brown says a new home rule deal could kill off any plans for a second independence referendum. Picture: John Devlin

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GORDON Brown wants a new “home rule” settlement in the wake of the Brexit vote, with a more federal relationship between the countries of the United Kingdom.

He believes such a plan would win the support of 75 or 80 per cent of voters and would kill off SNP plans for a second independence referendum.

It’s not the first time a federal solution has been proposed as an alternative to independence. But the former prime minister – who was appearing on the final day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – is seeking to address unhappiness over the Leave victory in the EU referendum as well as the divided opinion following the 2014 referendum.

He argues a federal arrangement within the UK would allow more 
powers for Holyrood on issues such as agriculture, fisheries, the environment and employment rights, with powers transferring directly from Brussels to Holyrood instead of Westminster.

Westminster could be left with only specific powers such as on currency, defence and security and pensions to London, while all other powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Federalism is becoming fashionable. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has already talked of “a potential federalist solution” to keep Scotland in both the EU and UK. Liberal Democrats have long backed it.

And even Tory Murdo Fraser has urged a federal approach, arguing the different ways in which Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland voted in the EU referendum reinforces the case for further decentralisation within the UK.

Alongside the Scottish Parliament, he proposes an English Parliament sharing time at Westminster, English city regions with administrative but not legislative power and the replacement of the House of Lords with a senate representing each federated part of the UK.

But can federalism save Scotland’s relationship with Europe?

Nicola Sturgeon is trying to find a way of retaining Scotland’s EU membership after Brexit. But the European Union is an organisation of member states and despite sympathetic noises from some EU leaders, it is difficult to see how Scotland could really stay in while the rest of the UK leaves.

On the face if it, independence would offer the only answer. And Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said a fresh vote on independence is “highly likely” unless another way can be found to implement Scotland’s 62 per cent Remain vote.

The SNP is due to launch its summer campaign on independence on Friday, but the polls so far have not shown the surge in Yes support which might have been expected – and Ms Sturgeon will not hold another independence vote unless she can be sure of winning it.

Support could strengthen as the full consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU become clearer and starker. But many of the issues raised during the 2014 referendum – like currency and pensions – remain unresolved. And arguably Scotland’s economic fortunes are now worse. The SNP may have to postpone a second independence referendum for some time.

But if that is not realistically on the table, what should Scotland’s next step be? Federalism has its attractions and when pollsters offer it as an option, voters often make it their top choice.

But redistributing the UK’s internal powers is unlikely to persuade other EU countries to view anything differently. It is difficult to see how federalism answers Scotland’s Brexit predicament.