In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, I’ve seen the idea of federalism to be applied to the United Kingdom come up several times. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the debate over federalism in an earlier era to see how it was addressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea of federalism is especially interesting to me in thinking about how it might work with the structure of the United Kingdom, where powers have been devolved from the center to the national assembly and parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – rather than the separate nations/states/provinces coming together to form the central government as happened in the formation of the United States and in Canada.
By the Home Rule era, federalist ideas as applied to the Irish situation were not new: Daniel O’Connell had been tempted by the federalist plans of William Sharman Crawford in the 1840s, and Isaac Butt had originally started the Home Rule movement in the 1870s with ideas of a federal system in the United Kingdom that would help to address Irish grievances.
While not a part of the constitutional system of the United Kingdom, federalism was a frequent undercurrent in British political thought. As Michael Burgess points out, the United Kingdom became a major “exporter” of federal systems to other places in the world, including Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, and Malaysia, as well as federalism playing an influential role in the unification of South Africa.
Throughout the Home Rule era, federalist ideas were promoted or suggested by many politicians of different stripes, either to illustrate parallels between federalist systems and the Home Rule bills or to work as alternatives to Home Rule. Another important element within federalist thought was imperial federation, which operated both within and outside of the Irish Home Rule context. At one time or another, Joseph Chamberlain, W.T. Stead, Lord Acton, J.R. Seeley, J.L. Garvin of the Observer, David Lloyd George, Walter Long, L.S. Amery, and Edward Carson all espoused federalist ideas. On the nationalist side, federalism found champions in Moreton Frewen, William O’Brian, and T.M. Healy.
Some Irish unionists viewed the Home Rule bills as introducing a federal-state dynamic into the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Carson questioned why the bills did not adhere more closely to the American system. In parliamentary discussions on the second Home Rule bill, Carson reasoned, “As in America, where they had a distinction between Federal matters and State matters, so under the Bill, where they had a distinction between Imperial matters and local matters, they would necessarily have disputes between the Irish Government and the Imperial Government.” Given the inevitability of future conflict, Carson wondered why the Home Rule bill failed to set up a court system similar to that of the United States. He hoped for a Supreme Court to settle potential disputes between the two governments.
In a later speech, Carson again emphasized the parallels with the American system of federalism. He questioned, “The only parallel they had for the Constitution they were now setting up in Ireland was the Constitution of America. It had been taken from the American Constitution, but why did not the Government follow the provision of the American Constitution, which set up a Federal Executive in each State?” Carson wished for greater adherence to the American federal system, including a federated state-style government, to ensure protections of unionist interests and preservation of the Union.
On the other hand, W.E.H. Lecky argued that the federal system would not matter in the slightest if the same Irish nationalists were in charge of the Home Rule parliament. He wrote, “It is this profound division of classes in Ireland that makes all arguments derived from the example of federal governments in Europe or America so utterly fallacious. The first question to be asked before setting up a local legislature is ‘Who are the men who are likely to control it?’” Lecky believed that the strong divisions in Ireland meant that unionists would not be represented in the new government no matter what system was in place.
J.A. Rentoul, MP for East Down, pointed out another inherent problem in the comparisons of federalism in the two countries. Ultimately, the United States presented an example that was the opposite of Home Rule. Rentoul argued,
There was no one of the United States of America that claimed to be a nation or that asked for national privileges. Each State of the United States gave up certain powers of its own, in order that it might be met by other States giving up those same powers to what I may term a supreme legislature which governed them all…. In the United States, then, it was not the case of a number of nations being restrained from exercising their proper rights and privileges, but of States voluntarily giving up to a Constitution, which they themselves had founded, certain of their rights, in order that they might assist in exercising similar rights over other States.
As Rentoul asserted, the federal system of government in the United States was not regulating a number of separate nations devolving power from a central government, as would be the case with Ireland under the Home Rule Bill. The United States represented the exact opposite: a number of states coming together into a voluntary union with each other when they would have otherwise been separate. It was apparent, therefore, that unity was enshrined in the American constitution.
By the time of the third Home Rule Bill, federal options were gaining more consideration. This was especially the case after the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act meant that it was increasingly likely that some form of Home Rule would be passed. By the end of the Home Rule period, the most important federalist thinkers were F.S. Oliver and the Earl of Selborne. With increased support for federalist options, unionists continued to criticize the Liberals for the system set up in the Home Rule Bill. Many of these criticisms were based on the idea that it was the Liberal Party’s intention to eventually implement a federal system for the whole United Kingdom.
Oliver was active in this criticism. In a series of letters to the Times, he questioned the tariff provisions within the Home Rule Bill. He wrote,
At what stage of the proceedings, for instance, was the tariff concession wrung from a Government pledged to the maintenance of Free Trade – a concession which will inevitably entail the erection of a Customs barrier between Ireland and Great Britain? Of all the farcical features in the Bill this perhaps is the most absurd. For it has been the aim hitherto of every confederation in the world to get rid of hindrances and restraints upon trade between its various members. This principle of freedom is the foundation upon which not only the unity but the prosperity of the United States is based.
Oliver argued that the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa had all fought and sacrificed to get rid of customs barriers. Oliver believed that unity could not be maintained with customs barriers cutting through the heart of the United Kingdom.
The Ulster Unionist Council saw the existence of customs barriers within the Home Rule Bill as creating a farce of the idea that the Liberal government ever intended to implement a wide-reaching federal system. In 1912, the UUC issued a resolution stating, “The hypocrisy of the pretence that the present Bill is the forerunner of a Federal Constitution for the United Kingdom is shown by the Customs barriers proposed to be set up between Great Britain and Ireland, an arrangement unknown in any existing Federal system.” This was again an example of unionists calling for the Home Rule Bill to adhere more closely to existing federal systems such as that in the United States.
- Duncan Bell, The Idea of a Greater Britain Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
- Andrea Bosco, ed., The Federal Idea, Vol. I: The History of Federalism from the Enlightenment to 1945 (London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1991).
- George Boyce and J.O. Stubbs, “F.S. Oliver, Lord Selborne, and Federalism,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 5, no. 1 (Oct. 1976).
- Michael Burgess, “Federalism: A Dirty Word? Federalist Ideas and Practice in the British Political Tradition” (London: Federal Trust Working Papers, 1988).
- A. Kennedy, “Sharman Crawford’s Federal Scheme for Ireland,” in Essays in British and Irish History in Honour of James Eadie Todd, ed. H.A. Cronne, T.W. Moody, and D.B. Quinn (London: Muller, 1949).
- Lawrence J. McCaffrey, “Irish Federalism in the 1870s: A Study in Conservative Nationalism,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 52, no. 6 (1962).
- Alan J. Ward, “Frewen’s Anglo-American Campaign for Federalism, 1910-1921,” Irish Historical Studies 15, no. 59 (Mar 1967).