It’s almost like we’ve been here before.
Much to the frustration of the Prime Minister, the breakup of the Union is back in the headlines after Scotland’s First Minister announced her intention to pursue a second independence referendum. Commenting on these proposals, Nicola Sturgeon said that “Scotland deserves, in light of the change in circumstances brought about by the Brexit vote, the chance to decide its future in a fair, free and democratic way”.
Following this announcement it began to feel like the late summer of 2014 all over again with Gordon Brown back on stage emphasising a potential ‘third way’ between independence and remaining a part of the UK. The former PM – the person many credit with securing the ‘No’ victory last time round – suggested that Holyrood’s demands be met through the provision of additional powers after Brexit, including the ability to set VAT rates, sign international treaties, and regulate the environment, employment and energy.
Nicola Sturgeon’s referendum gamble presents an almighty headache for the Prime Minister, who now finds herself simultaneously trying to negotiate the best possible Brexit whilst also keeping the UK together. Since the announcement, the PM has rejected the notion of holding a referendum during Brexit negotiations, labelling the referendum proposals as ‘divisive’. In response the First Minister has described the PM’s opposition as ‘democratically indefensible’ and has tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament to strengthen her position.
However for those who see opportunity in chaos, Brexit may provide an ideal moment to initiate a new devolution settlement of real substance. Gordon Brown’s proposal to use Brexit to devolve further powers to Holyrood has been echoed by other national and regional leaders. Labour’s mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has repeatedly called for a “Brexit committee of the regions and nations”, in order to fully involve metro Mayors in the repatriation process. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has also warned that failure to listen to other administrations could result in people’s sense of disengagement “attaching itself to London rather than Brussels”.
With the European Union Committee due to report back on its inquiry into the political and economic implications of Brexit for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and on the devolution settlement as a whole, an attempt by the Government to centralise repatriated powers from Brussels to Westminster could worsen the fragile state of the UK and create significant problems further down the line. Clarification about the role that the devolved administrations will play in legislating for Brexit will be a welcome move and do a great deal to weaken the separatist arguments in each of the devolved administrations.
In its White Paper on Exiting the European Union, the Government has committed to continuing to “champion devolution to local government and devolve greater powers where there is an economic rationale to do so”. This suggests that the Government is not averse to further devolution and the onus will be on the devolved and regional authorities to advance their arguments. A genuine effort to find a new devolution settlement in the context of Brexit may yet be the key to saving the UK in the long-term.