Policy Papers

The historical case for a federative Britain

Kirsteen M. MacKenzie |

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Executive Summary

  • The election results of the past decade consistently indicate that Scotland and England are sufficiently different in their political aims and values that the current devolved settlement may not be adequate to keep the United Kingdom together. 
  • History offers an alternative arrangement in the form of a political federative union in Britain, drawing inspiration from the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, which allowed for England and Scotland to be autonomous, yet united under a British crown.  
  • Such a new federative union for Britain would consist of four autonomous communities with their own parliament. Westminster would revert to being England’s Parliament, with the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, a Welsh Parliament in Cardiff and Stormont in Belfast. A British Assembly would be convened on matters of mutual importance and national interest.    
  • However, due attention should be paid to the fact that elements of the Solemn League and Covenant (specifically regarding the “extirpation of Popery”) are highly inflammatory in the context of Irish and Northern Irish history – clearly some elements of this document are entirely obsolete in a modern context.
  • It is notable that the Solemn League and Covenant was replaced by the Cromwellian Union in 1652 which ran until 1660. Driven by English Nationalism, this resulted in the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, military conquest and direct governance from Westminster.
  • This suggests that the recent rise in English Nationalism is also a threat, not only to Scottish nationalism, but to the current devolved settlement in the United Kingdom.   


It is clear when examining the most recent results from the UK, Scottish and European elections, and especially the results from the Brexit referendum, that Scotland and England have developed different responses to current political concerns. England has voted centre right Conservative solidly for the past ten years and has voted to leave the European Union, despite its capital London voting overwhelmingly to remain. Scotland, in contrast, has voted for the centre-left SNP and has voted to stay in the European Union. 

Based on the election results of the past decade, one can therefore ask the question – is the current devolved settlement in the UK sufficient to keep the United Kingdom together? The strength of Scotland’s Independence movement is well known and in England there is a smaller movement for national independence usually expressed in the wish for England to have its own parliament. On the other hand, there are those who are happy with the current devolved settlement within a ‘United Kingdom’.

But what if there was a third way – a way that would allow Scotland and England to have their full autonomy but at the same time allow for Anglo-Scottish co-operation and the continuation of British structures? This paper will focus on a ‘third way’ rooted in the historical union of the British Isles and Ireland between 1643 and 1651, known as the Solemn League and Covenant, and show how its federative structure could provide a solution for future Anglo-Scottish relations. It will also reflect on the relationship between Westminster and other constituent parts of the United Kingdom including Wales and Northern Ireland.   

Historical precedents for federative union in Britain

1. The Stuart multiple monarchy 1603-1642 and 1660-1707

With the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603 her successor, James I of Britain and Ireland inherited four very distinct nations, each with their own histories, customs and laws. Historians call this a multiple monarchy where a monarch by virtue of birth, marriage or inheritance reigns over multiple nations and distinct territories which had previously been ruled individually by different monarchs. Multiple monarchies were a common feature of early modern Europe. King James I who was already King of Scotland had inherited the Crowns of England, Ireland and the Principality of Wales through his mother’s bloodline.James I’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was a cousin of Elizabeth I.From the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 until the Treaty and Acts of Union of 1706-1707 the Stuart monarchy grappled with the challenges of ruling multiple kingdoms from London.

Scotland was run as an absentee monarchy with Scotland’s Parliament and Scotland’s Privy Council lacking direct oversight from the monarch who was now in London. Scotland had a full sovereign Parliament and remained a fully independent and self-governing country with its own laws and constitution, which had evolved separately from England, Wales and Ireland under its own monarchy, the Stuarts or Stewarts dynasty, since 1371.

England at the time of James I’s succession also had its own Parliament which was based in Westminster and its own Privy Council based in London. There were attempts assert the monarch’s authority outside London and Westminster through a Council of the North before the Civil War, but it was abolished in 1641 and attempts to revive it failed after the Restoration in 1660.

Wales, absorbed by the Crown of England, was governed by Westminster and the Council of Wales and the Marches until 1689, but always remained culturally distinct from its neighbour. Welsh was still the dominant language and it had its own landed elite which intermarried amongst themselves.

Ireland was also distinct from England and was shaped by its own history, customs, law and culture. It had its own Privy Council and Parliament which sat in Dublin, where all 32 counties were represented. The majority of people spoke Irish and the country’s landed elite derived its privileges from the Crown.

Overall, the Stuarts ruled four very different nations which, at times, had conflicting interests and priorities. The Stuart monarchs had to handle these various differences with care to keep these disparate kingdoms united together under the Crown. The majority of Stuart monarchs managed to do so with the exception of Charles I whose policies upset this delicate balance, thereby plunging the three Stuart Kingdoms into Civil War by 1642.

2. The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms 1643

The civil war that emerged in 1642 had split all kingdoms between those who supported the King, known as Royalists, and his opponents. In Scotland the King’s opponents were known as the Covenanters, due to their support of signed pledges to defend religion known as the Covenants. In England the King’s opponents were known as Parliamentarians, due to their support for the English Parliament.

In September 1643, to boost the war effort against King Charles I, the Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians drew up a document called the Solemn League and Covenant in which signatories pledged mutual military assistance to defend reformed religion and the distinct and mutually exclusive liberties, laws, customs, and political institutions in England and Scotland. In effect, the signatories were to recognise and respect the separate jurisdictions of the English and Scottish Parliaments and the existence of different legal systems on the island of Britain. This was an acknowledgement of the distinctiveness of English and Scots Law but also of Scotland and England’s separate approaches to religion and religious reformation. Although it is important to note that one of the signatories, Oliver Cromwell did not adhere to these pledges in subsequent years.     

However, as a joint Anglo-Scottish effort the authors of the Solemn League and Covenant also built structures which facilitated co-operation between England and Scotland. These allowed both countries to remain completely autonomous but also enabled them to pull together on important issues of defence and security. To facilitate Anglo-Scottish co-operation over the reformation of religion, the Westminster Assembly was created. This was an English body based in London but Scottish members were also invited to attend and participate. To facilitate Anglo-Scottish military co-operation the Committee of Both Kingdoms, again based in London, was created where Scottish representation on the committee was essential to its work.This is what historians have called a federative form of government, that is to say each country retained its own self-government and independence but created bodies of mutual assistance and co-operation when it came to issues of mutual interest such as security or defence. 

Reinventing federative government for modern British democracy: some suggestions

With the prospect of Scottish independence and the rise of English nationalism it is timely to reconsider the political structures and power relationships within Britain. 

A successful Scottish independence referendum would see two fully independent and sovereign parliaments on the island of Britain. The Scottish Parliament would now be on an equal footing with Westminster. In contrast, current circumstances dictate that the power of the Scottish Parliament is derived from Westminster. With the rise of Scottish and English nationalism some scholars have predicted the end of the United Kingdom. Would an autonomous England and Scotland mean the end of the United Kingdom?

The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 may provide us with a solution which would give the constituent nations on the island of Britain their autonomy, yet allowing British institutions and structures to remain in place for defence and security. This would represent a modern form of federative government drawing inspiration from the Solemn League and Covenant.

Before we discuss this further it has to be stated that large sections of the Solemn League and Covenant are now obsolete and cannot be revived in a modern democratic state. For example, its pledge to reform religion (including extirpation of Catholicism) would be highly discriminatory in a modern context. In addition, the relationship between the Crown and Parliament has changed substantially since 1643 and it is hard to draw parallels for the modern age. Wales was not specifically mentioned in the Solemn League and Covenant as it was seen as an extension of England. This would of course need to be adjusted when taking account of the current devolution settlement in Wales. The relationship between the constituent parts of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland resulting from partition in 1921 and the island of Britain is exceptionally complicated. The Solemn League and Covenant is irrelevant to our relationship to the modern-day Republic of Ireland, a separate state, while in Northern Ireland the Solemn League and Covenant is a very contentious and inflammatory document for all communities. The Solemn League and Covenant was a key inspiration behind the Ulster Covenant of 1912 when Protestant Unionists reaffirmed their loyalty to the British State. To Catholic communities it is a document that, through its call for the ‘extirpation of Popery’, attacks their very existence. The Solemn League and Covenant should be used with extreme caution within the context of the Anglo-Irish relationship or the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland due to its ability to exacerbate current tensions on the island of Ireland with the potential to destabilise the current Anglo-Irish framework and agreements. Due attention should be paid to the fact that elements of the Solemn League and Covenant (specifically regarding the “extirpation of Popery”) are highly inflammatory in the context of Irish and Northern Irish history – clearly some elements of this document are entirely obsolete in a modern context.

Outline of a possible new federative structure

In the new federative structure, the Crown and the Privy Council will retain current powers and would remain unchanged.

However, under the new federative structure, similar to that which existed in Britain between 1603 and 1707 and under the Solemn League and Covenant, it would be a double Crown (or triple Crown if Wales became fully independent). That is to say, the Crown would confer sovereign powers on the Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament as separate institutions. Under these circumstances Westminster would revert to being the primary legislative body for England and Wales. Wales would continue to have a Welsh Assembly and the current devolved settlement would continue unless Wales becomes fully independent in the future. Stormont could also have further devolution if it so chose.

Thus, under this structure England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would become largely autonomous serving the diverse needs of their respective populations without the needs of the other British nations and Northern Ireland encroaching upon their own national policies. This perhaps would have the desired effect of reducing the current tensions between Westminster and the devolved administrations.

However, similar to the federative structures outlined in the Solemn League and Covenant, cross co-operative bodies between the nations would need to be established for defence, security and UK-wide healthcare professional bodies. These co-operative structures should reflect the needs of British democracy in the 21st century. A British Assembly could be established which would draw representatives, officials and policy makers together. The Assembly could work on legislation in areas of mutual interest which can be passed to the national parliaments for ratification. This Assembly could meet in the different nations of Britain on a rotational basis so regions outside of London feel they have a stake and interest in British affairs. It could also offset London-centric approaches to British wide policy. Deriving their authority from the Crown, the Assembly and its specialist committees would work through policy issues to find solutions to benefit everyone. The chair of the Assembly would be on a rotational basis, drawing from the leading minister in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Although in the case of Northern Ireland Stormont would have seats within the British Assembly, it is likely -  given knowledge of the respective parties within Northern Ireland and their current relationship with the British Parliament at Westminster - that Unionists would take seats within the proposed assembly but that the Nationalists, particularly Sinn Féin, would not take seats in the British Assembly.

These bodies of cross co-operation would build consensus in policy areas of mutual interest whilst allowing for diverse approaches to specific problems in each nation.

A warning about English nationalism: the Cromwellian Union 1651-1660

The federative union under the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 came to an end in 1651-1652 with the emergence of the Cromwellian Union. The Cromwellian Union reorganised the Anglo-Scottish relationship between 1652 until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. As the name ‘Cromwellian’ suggests, it was a union which emerged under Oliver Cromwell and the establishment of the English Republic.

The Cromwellian Union resulted in the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and the military conquest and occupation of Scotland by the military of the English Republic.  Under these arrangements the Shires and Burghs were requested to assent to a political union with England and those who refused to do so were pressurised into changing their stance. Scots who were perceived as loyal to the English regime were invited to sit as members of Parliament in Westminster. Likewise, Ireland had also been subjected to military conquest with its Catholic elite stripped of their land, the source of their power and wealth. Again, members of Parliament representing Ireland in Westminster during the English Republic were drawn from those perceived to be loyal to the regime, which consisted of Protestants and members of the English military. 

Therefore, the Cromwellian Union was a union which served English interests to the detriment of the other nations. It lasted for only eight years and was met with resistance in Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland a large rebellion in the Highlands of Scotland spread to the Scottish Lowlands and Scots Law was used to resist English policy. Cromwellian policies of land confiscation and transplantation in Ireland have left an enduring bitterness in Anglo-Irish relations for over three centuries.

The Cromwellian Union serves as a warning about the emergence and growth of English Nationalism in recent times. It suggests that any union driven by English nationalism, or a union that seeks to put English interests ahead of the other nations, is a probable threat to the devolved settlements in Britain and Northern Ireland.  In addition, given the legacy of Cromwell and the English Republic in Ireland, English nationalism should be considered as a possible threat to Anglo-Irish relations. 

Early modern composite monarchies and modern democracy: the example of Spain.

Throughout the early modern period Spain was a major world power and like Stuart Britain it was a multiple monarchy. The Spanish people’s awareness of their history has had an impact on Spain’s transition to a democracy after the death of Franco. Spain has been keen to move away from the centralist Franco mindset and towards a modern democratic structure, what William Chislett has called a ‘quasi federal government’. 

The Spanish Crown is the guarantor of Spanish democracy as laid out in a written constitution. The Spanish national government consists of a national assembly divided into two chambers, a 350-seat congress, elected by universal suffrage and the 250-seat senate with appointments made by the Crown and an elected government after a general election. There is also a Prime Minister who appoints government ministers. The national government legislates on areas of national importance such as trade, foreign policy and defence, and is located in Madrid. 

However, taking account of the country’s history and ongoing tensions between Madrid and other parts of Spain, the 17 autonomous regions of Spain were established with varying degrees of power and autonomy. Therefore, Spain remains united nationally for security and defence yet it allows for a great deal of autonomy for its diverse and distinct regions who can respond to the specific needs of their respective populations.  


The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 sets a historical precedent for federative union on the island of Britain, should Scotland and England wish to claim self-determination. This does not necessarily mean the end of the United Kingdom. As the Solemn League and Covenant highlights, both England and Scotland could be autonomous; yet British structures could be established to facilitate Anglo-Scottish cooperation on a variety of key issues such as defence and security. A British Assembly and specialist Anglo-Scottish committees could be established to find solutions to pressing issues of mutual importance. Britain would still be united under one Crown, similar to the Stuart monarchy between 1603 and 1707. However, the Solemn League and Covenant is unworkable and should be avoided at all costs in the current Anglo-Irish framework. Under the modern federative framework Wales would retain the current devolved settlement or gravitate towards independence. 

This proposal for a federative Britain should be seen alongside a number of alternatives. The Solemn League and Covenant’s successor, the Cromwellian Union driven by English nationalism, acts as a warning and highlights the threat that English nationalism poses to the current devolved settlement in these islands and its possible detrimental impact upon Anglo-Irish relations. The federative union outlined here can be usefully compared and contrasted with the political system in Spain, another country with an early modern multiple monarchy. Spain has a national body established in Madrid but its 17 autonomous regions have been given considerable power to respond to the challenges specific to their area. This is in contrast to a confederation of self-governing nations with structures which facilitate co-operation on policy areas and issues that encompass the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Further Reading

Kirsteen M MacKenzie, The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 (London: Routledge, 2018).

Frances D Dow, Cromwellian Scotland 1651-1660 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1979).

John Cunningham, Conquest and Land in Ireland: Transplantation to Connaught 1649-1680 (London: Royal Historical Society Monographs, 2011).

William Chislett, Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Allan I Macinnes, Union and Empire: The Making of the United Kingdom in 1707 (Oxford, 2007).

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