The Campaign for Political Ecology
Britain and Ireland
Constitutional change and bioregionalism
by George Williamson
This paper is the personal view of the author. ECO is pleased to
publish it although publication does not mean it will necessarily be endorsed
as ECO policy. The proposals for constitutional change presented here combine
elements that have been discussed before with a number of new suggestions.
Of particular significance is the link between political reform, carrying
capacity and bioregionalism. The paper is a contribution to the constitutional
debate and proposes an arrangement which is ecologically and therefore
The apparent intransigence of the unionist and nationalist communities
in Northern Ireland is matched by an unwillingness among most politicians
in Britain and the Irish Republic to contemplate any really fundamental
changes to their constitutions, not least a new federal union of these
North Atlantic islands. It is not only the communities in Northern Ireland
that are refusing to reflect on or to reconsider their long-held positions.Yet
the difficulties being faced in Northern Ireland could be alleviated if
proposed changes to the constitutional arrangement were to be considered
within a radically changed relationship between Britain and Ireland and
the regions making up both countries.
Any proposed constitutional rearrangement between Britain and Ireland
should be set in the context of other pressing matters affecting both states:
regional self-determination for the people living in the old national territories
of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the political and economic
dominance particularly of London and the south-east of England and
to a lesser extent of the whole of England. This dominance is achieved
by living off the ecological carrying capacity of other parts of the national
UK territory and further afield. There is also a need for a European and
global dimension in coming to any new arrangement.
Despite undoubted differences and past injustices, there is much common
culture and shared history between the nations which originally made up
Britain and Ireland through which to pursue a settlement of the dispute
over Northern Ireland. There is a long-established passport-free border
between the states of Britain and Ireland. Internal migration and intermarriage
among the nations making up Britain and Ireland have obscured the historic
origins of millions. Concentrating therefore on what unites rather than
divides could be the basis of a new system of government for the people
of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in a revised partnership between
these four old countries which enables their people to begin living sustainably
on the land they occupy.
Central to the proposals outlined in this paper is the strengthening
of local economies within a new provincial structure. Each province would
have an elected assembly with powers to decide economic and local taxation
policy. The UK government's ministry and civil service structure in London
would be effectively dismantled and the Irish Republic's in Dublin restructured.
The provincial assemblies would have powers to adjust primary federal legislation
to local circumstances. Much of what is currently legislated by London
and Dublin would be removed to the provinces, such as energy supply, agriculture,
forestry, land control and use, water supply and management, health, education,
trade and industry, and provincial transport systems. The provincial economies
would be designed to limit the movement of goods, services and people.
(Fish and other offshore `commons' resources would become the remit of
higher democratic bodies from federal to global level.)
The provincial assemblies would require democratic accountability from
any remaining quangos within their boundaries (many quangos would be disbanded).
One of the central aims of the project is to slim down ecologically damaging
economic and non-economic activity throughout the federation in order to
achieve a steady-state economy operating within the constraints imposed
by finite planetary resources. A primary role for the provinces would be
to encourage a `bioregionalist' sensitivity and culture to develop. An
essential part of that role is matching their population level to the ecological
resources within their boundaries. The population of the federation as
a whole would therefore have to be reduced by socially acceptable means
over an appropriate time span.
Why Regionalism has to be Bioregionalism
The idea of bioregionalism (and biolocalism) is founded on `a sense
of the land' from which come `organically sensitive' communities, that
is, communities aware of resource and population limits and the constraints
imposed by ecological carrying capacity. This form of `land ethic' helps
communities and societies relate to the specifics of their own place or
region, each distinguished by the geology, climate, vegetation, water,
physical features and living creatures which have shaped their culture
and history. It is the loss of this `sense of place'which has contributed
to the rootlessness and restlessness which so undermines society today.
The land ethic respects the habitats of other species and recognises the
need for wildernesses and other areas where humans do not intrude. The
regions' economic and social viability is dependent on matching an optimum
population to their resource carrying capacity, in order not to `borrow'
from other regions more carrying capacity than they `lend'. Such regional
and local economies can then rightfully justify a large degree of economic
protectionism against the voracious and worldwide free-trade regime which
threatens communities' self-reliance and stability across the globe.
Constitutional change in support of a new regionalism is doomed if it
is motivated by prospects of endless economic growth through increased
trade. The pursuit of open-ended economic growth, coupled with the anarchy
of the world market, can only destroy any political reform. Generally,
economic activity would be limited to that level which maintains long-term
ecological health and productivity. Cultural policy would encourage a greater
appreciation of and respect for the underlying character and capacity of
the biogeographical regions on which the provinces would be based. Therefore
regional arrangements must be harmonised, as far as possible, with the
Human societies have become `biophobic': at best indifferent, at worst
mainly hostile to the workings of the natural world and the nurturing of
nature. Such societies have long lost the awareness of their dependency
on ecological resources. A `biophilic' sensitivity to and a consciousness
of the workings of nature are essential to making the proposed provinces
aware of their bioregional identities. A general sense of the land
and people, and a specific sense of their land and people, must
be restored to rural as well as to urban cultures from which they have
virtually disappeared. Only in this way can people begin to put down roots
again. Without communities sustained by a bioregional identity born of
awareness of resource dependency, these provinces would end up as no more
than smaller versions of the disintegrating biophobic societies from which
humanity has to rescue itself. This is a lesson all devolutionists must
apply to whatever constitutional changes they propose.
Furthermore, although those regional devolution proposals based on `journeys
to work areas' (dependent on the road network!) address current realities,
they ignore the fact that present road movements simply cannot be sustained.
Mass commuting by road is a way of life doomed to disappear. Such proposals
fail to put first things first. A sustainable economy would survive if
every motorway fell to pieces but the collapse of the water supply system
would wreck even a sustainable economy and people would soon die.
A Federation of Provinces
Bioregionalism is best developed within a provincial legislative structure
which can address essential local needs without exceeding the ecological
carrying capacity on which they depend. Provincial government can express
the collective interests of the urban and rural communities within its
boundaries, providing the political and economic restraint needed to prevent
ecological brinkmanship. Historically, provinces often coincided with bioregional
areas, usually water catchment areas. After the air we breathe, water is
the primary sustainer of life. Therefore the catchment areas from which
it is obtained are the principal indicators of how provincial boundaries
could be decided. Indeed the boundaries of the much-maligned water companies
come very close to what is required. The provincial boundaries should therefore
reflect this bioregionally-ordained fact by containing one or more of the
water companies' catchment areas.
It is essential that the new layers of government govern by consent
and accountability. The aim should be to remove the national authority
of London and Dublin (giving them a new but different national status together
with Edinburgh and Cardiff) by devolving certain powers to the provinces
of Britain and Ireland, including the levying of local taxes. Other powers
should be transferred to a federal state legislature representing these
new provinces - powers such as the federal currency, federal taxes, federal
transport systems, internal security and foreign relations within Europe.
The philosophy of bioregionalism by which policy-making is informed has
to be the motivator of federal government also. Other important matters,
such as multilateral defence, foreign policy beyond Europe and transnational
environmental issues, would in time be removed to a democratically accountable
European body. This would occur only when the other states making up this
European body were also devolving specific powers to their provinces or
regions. Westminster and Dublin, as presently constituted, would be the
layers of government which eventually disappeared.
In this way, devolved power to the provinces, while not ignoring residual
nationalism within the old countries of the federation, should provide
the binding matrix and the format of the new federation. All old national
identities on the islands of Britain and Ireland would still have their
historic national territories acknowledged and recognised at provincial
and federal level.
The critical and essential new element would be the advocacy and promotion
of a bioregional awareness to underpin the whole project. This would acknowledge
the bioregions within and overlapping each province and the fact that the
islands of Britain and Ireland are themselves bioregions within a hierarchy
of even larger bioregions. The precise boundaries of the new provinces
would be a matter for negotiation but, as far as possible, would blend
commonly accepted geophysical areas with those purely human patterns of
history, culture and self-identification. Provincial devolution, informed
by bioregionalism, would bring greater incentives to manage economic affairs
and other activities in an ecologically sustainable manner. The penalties
for failing to do so would be more obvious and more rapidly felt. In
the case of London and south-east England in particular, the process of
ecological `overshoot' and breaching of limits has already reached gross
proportions. At present, the problem is mitigated by an extreme dependency
on the carrying capacity of other regions for resources and for waste disposal.
Yet most of the discussion on the future of the Home Counties conurbation
and future government of London fails to address this most basic problem.
Devolution in the form proposed would at least give other regions the power
to defend their own long-term security.
Structure and Government
The structure and government of the proposed federal state are sketched
out in broad principle as follows. There would be seven provinces in England,
three in Scotland, two in Wales and three in Ireland of which one could
be Ulster, perhaps comprising its nine counties. All except Mercia (the
English Midlands) would have a coastline. The names of the provinces would
be agreed by democratic consent.
In England there would be the following provinces: Northumbria
(the North East), York (largely old Yorkshire), West Pennines
(Cumbria and Lancashire), Mercia (the Midlands), Wash (Lincolnshire
and East Anglia), London (Thames Valley and south-east coast counties),
and Wessex (the South-West). Wales' provinces would be Glamorgan
(the old industrial valleys) and Cambria (the rest of Wales).
The provinces of Ireland would be Ulster (possibly the nine counties),
Leinster (Dublin, the South-East and Midlands) and Atlantic
(the West and South-West). Scotland's provinces would be Forth (Forth
valley and Borders), Strathclyde (Clydeside, Galloway and Argyll)
and Highland (the Highlands).
The territory of these provinces would be based on the bioregional water
catchment areas previously described. They would be divided into `city
regions', administrative areas based on important urban centres and their
surrounding hinterlands, areas by which people have historically felt defined
and with which they have culturally identified. Each province would have
its own assembly, consisting of representatives of the city regions, elected
under a uniform proportional representation voting system.
The legislature of the federal state would comprise members elected
as representatives of the provinces through a multi-member proportional
representation voting system; the approximate numbers would be 118, made
up of 88 from England, 12 from Scotland, 12 from Ireland and 6 from Wales.
The executive would be formed from among the members of the legislature.
In addition there would be four presidents, each elected by and representing
one of the four constituent countries. They would replace the privy council.
The House of Lords would be abolished, thus removing one layer of government,
and the future of the monarchy would be left in the hands of English, rather
than Irish, Welsh or Scottish taxpayers. The royal family is an English
institution and could not be expected to have a role in a new federal state
where the removal of the dominance of the English establishment is a central
part of its raison d'être.
The presidents would oversee the executive and confirm the appointment
of the chief ministers, the speaker of the parliament and the heads of
the federal bank and four national banks. They would also appoint the chief
law officers, one for the federation and one for each of the four countries,
reflecting legal differences between them and thus removing the current
supremacy of English law, as it operates through Westminster. English law
would cease to be paramount in international legal affairs and would be
replaced by a new federal legal system for this purpose. Each of the four
national presidents would have control over the police forces in their
own national territory. The federal president would be in charge of the
armed services and would be responsible for the overall security of the
federation. In order to deal with the extremely delicate matter of integrating
the British and Irish armies, it is proposed that the Irish provide the
military Chief of Staff for a fixed initial period.
The small 118-member legislature would rotate round each of the national
capitals, London, Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh, remaining in each for
a fixed four year parliament at the end of which there would be an automatic
general election even if one or more elections had been held during the
four year period. The four presidents would be elected at the same time
as the federal assembly and their period in office would coincide with
the fixed four year parliament period. In order to help deal with Irish
apprehension it is proposed that the first federal parliament sits in Dublin,
followed by Cardiff or Edinburgh (depending on who wins the toss of the
coin!) with London hosting it last. The president of the country hosting
the government would be the titular, not executive, head of the combined
federation for these four years. The much smaller numbers of the legislature
would reflect the diminution of powers presently held in Westminster and
Dublin, as many of these powers would go down to the provinces and a far
smaller number would eventually go up to a new democratically elected European
A new and largely ceremonial capital of the federation would be located
on the politically more acceptable and appropriately situated Isle of Man.
Specific statutorily required meetings of the four presidents and chief
ministers would take place at a new presidential house on the Isle of Man.
Visiting heads of state and other dignitaries would be officially welcomed
to the federal state in the capital of the country currently hosting the
legislature or at the presidential house on the Isle of Man. The federal
bank and treasury would be located on the Isle of Man. The federation's
chief law officer would also be based there. Secretariats responsible for
liaison with the legislatures of the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and
the Commonwealth countries, and for the affairs of overseas British dependencies
would remain in London.
In the long term, much of the activity generated by foreign affairs
should diminish at federal state level, as European and global democratic
bodies are eventually put in place. Already much defence and foreign policy
is addressed at European and UN level. As this increases, the need for
separate diplomatic relations between each state diminishes and with it
the size of the ambassadorial and diplomatic bureaucracy.
The proposed constitutional rearrangement is aimed at promoting provincial
economies which are much more self-reliant and less dependent on external
trade. Consequently, one of the principal roles of foreign policy - that
of trade relations and business support, which currently takes up much
more than half of diplomatic time - will be considerably diminished.
Altogether this means that the need for a large foreign ministry will
be much reduced. What is still required of this truncated ministry would
be located away from London in Dublin, which already has the trappings
in a more appropriate miniature form. Consular presence would be necessary
in the other three national capitals and in the provincial capitals.
The core of this proposal is to grant considerable autonomy to the new
provinces to enable them to develop their own sustainable economies. To
begin this process, there would be separate national banks with their own
currencies for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with the power to
decide their own interest rates. These national banks would be answerable
individually to each of these countries' own MPs elected to the federal
parliament and to their own elected president. A federal currency for trading
in specific commodities and services would be created, controlled by a
new federal bank. Legislation would be enacted in order to prevent currency
The four national banks, as well as the federal bank, would have an
important role in helping with the sustainable reconstruction of their
own national territory and the provinces within it. This is in order to
make good and prevent further ecological damage caused by economic activity
which `overshoots' resource carrying capacity. Just as the purpose of currency
harmonisation is to promote and facilitate trade in materials, goods, services
and people, so the creation of the banks is to prevent the centralisation
of the currencies within the federation. The four national banks' control
over their own interest rate would enable the provinces within the four
countries to develop their own economies with a much greater measure of
independence from the current London financial institutions. The new English
national bank, merely one equal among four, would not have the old Bank
of England's status as manager of the U.K currency and staunch supporter
of City of London financial institutions. The latter would be reined in
by the federal bank in order to bring to an end the investment practices
which have resulted in serious ecological damage throughout the world.
The neutering of the London political and financial establishments and
decentralisation on the scale proposed would hasten the much needed break-up
of the inflexible, outdated political parties which compete to run the
highly centralised state controlled from Westminster. This proposed constitutional
rearrangement is more decentralised and democratically accountable and
also recognises the relative autonomy and the strong interconnectedness
of all the countries comprising the federation. By redressing some of the
balance in favour of the three smaller ones it alleviates the present Westminster
bias which has ensured England's continuing and increasing dominance, despite
that country's large degree of ecological dependence on the others through
borrowing their ecological carrying capacity.
European and Global Dimensions
The constitutional changes proposed for Britain and Ireland have to
be placed in a larger context. Although these proposals cover only Britain
and Ireland, clearly a parallel programme of bioregionalism is desperately
needed across the European Union and indeed right around the world. A twin
track approach, with most powers devolved down but a few transferred to
higher levels, coupled with a bioregional awareness, has to be part of
the solution for resolving the often troubled relationship with the European
All states are too small to address global problems, such as environmental
collapse, climate change, unhindered movement of capital, and international
instability caused by military, terrorist or criminal threats. Most are
too large to address local and regional grievances within their own sovereign
territory. Indeed many nation states, as presently structured, are unsuited
to dealing with present day problems arising from new political circumstances.
Their days are numbered. In future, new federations and alliances with
properly constituted sovereignty will be needed. In Europe and the world
at large, present existing states will in the main require new constitutional
arrangements, usually internal ones but often also with their neighbours.
The inability of individual states, owing to their relative `smallness',
to address issues which have a global context means that institutions which
provide democratic accountability at supranational level, both European
and global, are urgently required. These institutions, together with the
creation of elected assemblies representing provinces or regions within
the existing sovereign states, will inevitably take power away from governments
such as Westminster. This is no bad thing, as it improves democratic accountability
in two directions without adding to the overall burden of government upon
the people. Indeed, although another level of government has been added,
the overall size of the government bureaucracy is reduced.
Consequences for Local Government
In devolving powers downwards from Westminster, the role of local government
has to be reconsidered. To gain loyalty, support and respect, the new provinces
have to be popularly accepted through a shared cultural identity and history
of the people within their boundaries. A recognised city or town with new
or long-standing provincial status will be essential to their cohesion,
if it is to be the provincial capital in which people have pride and which
commands and receives their loyalty. Each province would be divided into
city regions centred on the major urban settlements. As well as electing
their own councils, the people of the city regions would also elect their
representatives to the provincial assembly, thus binding local identities
within the provincial ethos and the history born of its bioregions. These
are made up of its geographical and physical features - mountains, hills,
lowlands, flatlands, wetlands, rivers or lakes which form ecosystems with
climate, flora and fauna - and so shape and provide resources for the regions'
farming, forestry, industry, buildings and transportation.
There is a pressing need to deal with the widespread ecological unsustainability
caused by overpopulation of the federal territory as a whole which
will undermine the proposed federation if it is not addressed. It is unacceptable
that the London and south-east region of England has achieved political
and economic domination, much of it due to its large population concentration,
although it is almost totally dependent on the carrying capacity of other
regions' ecological resources. The south-east, in common with most other
heavily populated areas, has breached ecological carrying capacities and
damaged ecosystems way beyond its own geographical boundaries.
The new constitutional arrangement would start to remove the unacceptable
influence of London and south-east England on the ecology as well as on
political and economic life, not just of the rest of the UK but also of
Ireland and beyond. Provinces will have the opportunity to protect their
ecology and ecological resources by having much more autonomous economies.
Being free from the centralising power and ecological damage of London
finance, they can then treat the south-east England and London region as
simply one of the other provinces in the federation.
The concentration of the civil service and defence establishments in
London and the South-East would be ended by relocation and closure. The
other national capitals would share the relocations of those ministries
which retained functions not carried out at provincial level. The core
senior civil service would accompany the peripatetic legislature. Much
of the media establishment would have to follow suit, so loosening many
of its London connections, in the same way as is proposed for the diplomatic
establishment. The dispersal of, and structural changes to, all the institutions
dependent on central government, together with the diplomatic establishment
and the economic activity they all engender, from which London and south-east
England take advantage over the rest of the country, would play a large
part in bringing about the essential slimming down of that region's economy.
This would start to reduce the ecological damage that such an overconcentration
causes. Along with measures to address the breaching of ecological limits
due to overpopulation in other areas, the long-term and socially acceptable
reduction of the federal territory's total population to an agreed optimum
level, commensurate with a chosen standard of living, can begin. This would
also recognise that optimum concentrations of population are more ecologically
sustainable than totally scattered populations.
The political map of Britain and Ireland needs to be redrawn at various
provincial and regional levels in order to establish bioregions and biolocalities
based on communities that understand humanity's organic dependency on the
land, water and resources of those regions. Thus a positive, new and crucial
dimension would be added to the national traditions of these islands. A
new ecological-political arrangement such as this is essential to people's
physical, social and cultural survival and is much more important than
pursuing the old feuds based on old national identities. Of course long-standing
antagonisms would not disappear overnight. Yet the reorientation around
new provinces would dissipate fears about being submerged under hostile
political structures, especially where demands for `provincial' autonomy
run counter to demands for `national' devolution in the country containing
the province. While it is exaggerated on the island of Ireland, the issue
is also there, just below the surface, in Scotland and Wales. The proposals
outlined in this paper deal with this issue. Also, with these proposals
the threats from `Catholic' Dublin to `Protestant' Ulster and from `imperial'
London to `colonised' Ireland would recede, as the concerns of Irish nationalists
north and south of the border and unionists in Ulster, Scotland, Wales
and England are addressed by radically restructuring and uniting the governments
of Britain and Ireland in a new federation of these islands in the north
Some of the principles expressed in this paper coincide
with ideas developed in the following ECO discussion papers, all
of which are available from the address below at a cost of £1.25
including p&p (cheques payable to ECO, please):
Introduction to Political Ecology: Core Principles
Discussion paper no 1: Protecting Economies
through New Sovereign Regions
Discussion paper no 2: Population and Carrying
Discussion paper no 3: Features of a Sustainable,
Other contributions to the debate on devolution and constitutional reform
can be obtained from the all-party lobby group, the City Region Campaign,
26 Danbury Street, London N1 8JU, UK. Tel: 0171 454 0831 Fax: 0171 454
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Copyright © The Campaign for Political
Published October 1996, reprinted October 1997, revised February 1999.
This page last updated: 18-February-1999