Putney Debates 2021: The Unity of the United Kingdom

This lecture considers the unity and disunity of the UK. It discusses the diverse histories of the four nations of the UK – England, Scotland Northern Ireland and Wales and what it means to characterize the UK as a ‘union’ rather than a ‘unitary’ State.

In the lecture, professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott examines the salient points of UK devolution and how devolution differs from federalism – the central point being that with devolution, sovereignty is not divided, and the Westminster Parliament is said to be fully sovereign. She notes that although a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution has resulted in a certain amount of ‘self-rule’ for devolved nations, the lack of ‘shared rule’ also distinguishes UK devolution from federalism.

The changes wrought by Brexit risk undermining an already brittle devolution settlement, especially given that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Given these tensions, might it not make sense to consider federal options for the UK – something which the Constitutional Reform Group proposed with its 2021 Act of Union draft Bill?

The two main obstacles to a federal solution for the UK appear to be the ‘England problem’ and parliamentary sovereignty. It has long been recognized that a destabilizing force for federalism may be too much asymmetry caused by the disproportionate size of one federal unit – such as Russia within the former USSR, or England within the UK. England has no devolved parliament or government and does not appear to want one. But the main obstacle to federalism in the UK lies with an insistence on preserving parliamentary sovereignty. Professor Douglas-Scott argues that there is no reason to continue with the extreme definition of parliamentary sovereignty proposed by the Victorian academic Dicey, and seek to explain why.

She concludes with discussion of possible alternate constitutional forms that do not rely on parliamentary sovereignty – such as the Federacy or Dominion, or Autonomy Act.

Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott is Anniversary Chair in Law at Queen Mary University of London. Previously she was Professor of European and Human Rights law at the University of Oxford, and before that Professor of Law at King’s College London. She retains a link with Oxford as honorary research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

She was LAPA fellow at Princeton 2020-2021, and special advisor to Scottish Parliament European and External Affairs Brexit enquiries 2015-2018. Her book ‘Brexit and British Constitutional unsettlement’ (the product of her Leverhulme fellowship) is published by Cambridge UP in 2022.

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Putney Debates 2021; UK; Constitution; national unity