Federalism works in Germany but may not in Britain

A federal system needs a strong bond to hold individual elements together. Postwar Germany had that; it’s doubtful the UK does

In yesterday’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley bemoaned the fact that the British helped to give Germany a federal constitution, but have not yet been able to give one to themselves. Federalism seems to be working out for Germany so could it – in a sort of constitutional re-import – be a model for a “devolution revolution” in the UK?

The German federal states, the so-called Bundesländer, enjoy far-reaching autonomy: according to Germany’s basic law, legislative authority rests with the states unless it is not explicitly stated otherwise. They have their own constitutions, parliaments and governments, and exert considerable influence on federal legislation through the German upper house, the Bundesrat. Taxes are mostly shared equally between the states and the federal government. Länder (states) even have the right, with the consent of the federal government, to conclude international treaties with foreign states.

While this arrangement might sound attractive to Scottish yes voters, it is doubtful that it could be easily introduced in the UK. Germany’s brand of “cooperative federalism” only works because it rests on a long, arduous and often violent history.

When Germany was first unified in 1871, its structure was, in many ways, similar to the UK’s: a union headed by a constitutional monarch, dominated by one country, Prussia, which had more or less foisted it on the other kingdoms, principalities and duchies that formed part of it. However, even under this “hegemonial federalism”, the states still had sovereignty over finances, education, electoral law and cultural policy, with the Kingdom of Bavaria keeping a particularly strong national identity. The reasons why Bavaria joined the union had faint similarities to Scotland’s disastrous Darien scheme: its monarch Ludwig II had nearly bankrupted the country by building ever more extravagant fairy castles such as Neuschwanstein, and only consented to the union after being bribed by Bismarck.

The traditional autonomy of the states was only destroyed under the Nazis in the drive towards national “coordination” (Gleichschaltung) and a concentration of power in a central authority in Berlin. After the second world war, the federal system was reinstated in West Germany but, apart from Bavaria, the states were entirely new creations by the allies. Most importantly, they decided to break up Prussia because, according to the Allied Control Council, it had “from early days been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany”.

So, as Rawnsley said, the well-functioning federal system in Germany today is a top-down creation by an occupying army – like in Iraq. However, the reason it worked in Germany is more complex: besides the country’s own federal tradition, the experience of defeat, total collapse and the subsequent exposed existence between two superpowers forged a union in which regional animosities became negligent.

This legacy was strong enough to enlarge the union to encompass the reinstated East German states in 1990 without major problems. This included a “solidarity pact”, under which the richer West German states funded the reconstruction of the eastern infrastructure. By 2019, close to €200bn will have been transferred from west to east. While the old Länder have started to grumble over this massive loss of income, federalism is stronger than ever. This is reflected at the polls: the only active separatist party in Germany, the Bavaria Party, which demands a referendum over Bavarian independence, won only 2.1% of the votes in the state elections last year.

Before the breakup of Prussia, federalism was not necessarily a good deal for many Germans in other states. England’s obvious dominance would create a similarly unbalanced federal system as in imperial Germany. Most importantly, however, federalism needs a strong bond to hold the individual elements together, especially when one or more members are in need. In postwar Germany, it was the memory of collapse and the threat of a cold war turning hot that created that bond. It is doubtful if a simple vote in the Commons or even a constitutional convention would pack the same emotional punch.