Global Federalism: The Answer to Nationalist Populism

The motivation for writing the pamphlet was my concern about the rise of ‘nationalist populism’, partly engendered by the growing marketisation in all areas of our political and economic lives. The popular resentment which underlies this anti-elitism, whereas nationalism is a ‘horizontal’ objection to ‘the other’. (See House of Lords Library Note, 2017). I want to avoid semantic academic debate. However, it is clear that the most dangerous populism, particularly in opposition to federalism, is of the ethnic nationalist variety, often, but not always, associated with right-wing views. It is this variant which informs this pamphlet.

One important condition is required if the socio-economic and political problems indicated above are to be resolved. This is a move towards a set of governance structures which can address all three of these intrinsic elements. People need to be empowered and have more control over their lives, at all governance levels. But there isn’t any simple or rapid solution that exists to what might be described as a 21st century existential problem. However, it is possible to suggest a direction of travel. The path suggested is that of federalism.

Federalism in the UK tends to be seen through the prism of the UK’s relations with the EU. For many in the UK there is a resentment at the centralised decision-making at EU level of issues which are seen as preferably belonging to the UK government in an inter-governmental organisational context. In fact, federalism is about taking decisions at the most appropriate level, given the scale and complexity involved. To be fair, the structure of the EU as an amalgam of inter-governmental, confederal, and federal decision-making presents a problematic perception.

In countries in Europe which have federal constitutions, e.g. Germany, and in the USA, with its federal constitution, it is appreciated that the purpose of federalism is to distribute decision-making power appropriately and with a bias towards decentralisation. The direction of travel for governance is to be from the smallest unit of socio-economic grouping and population to, at the other extreme, the central state. People need to feel able to influence decisions as directly as possible at the local level. In the UK it is only over the last 20 years that we have achieved a clearer delineation of a confederal structure with the advent of devolved power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent, Greater London. This pamphlet argues that the use of effective representative governance should ideally cascade from local levels, through regional, national, and international levels, up to global governance.

There are two final points to make. First, the underlying model of federalism used in the pamphlet is ‘classic federalism’ (see later definition), with distinct devolved levels of sovereignty over decision-making. However, the model more often encountered, in most federal countries, is ‘cooperative federalism’, in which there is less distinct and more cooperative decision-making. Nonetheless, it is useful to appreciate the underlying model with the constitutional separations of sovereignty. Second, I am not the only author to have speculated on the potential relationship between federalism and populism; the bibliography indicates some of them.

The pamphlet is divided into three parts and a number of sections: the first three sections attempt to define and describe more precisely each of the three causal elements contributing to the rise of nationalist populism. The remaining sections cover the theoretical case for global federalism, from local to global, and a development path to achieve the required federal structures, at all levels. Because of space constraints the issue of federalising financial and economic governance is not considered, though it is clearly required.

This pamphlet was published by the Federal Trust.


About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.