Brexit will be no more than a blip in the history of the UK’s commercial and political relationships with Europe and the world; the enduring legacy of the Brexit saga will be the damage it has done to the institutions and reputation of Parliament and Government. Constitutional conventions and assumptions, particularly about the relationship between Parliament and Government and the status of the devolved administrations, have been challenged or, in some cases, simply swept aside without a thought. After Brexit comes into effect – whether that be on the 31st October 2019 deadline as planned or at a later date – what does Brexit actually mean in practice for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a United Kingdom? The seemingly never-ending Brexit gridlock has obscured huge constitutional implications for Britain’s future.
Just over two years ago my Constitution Reform Group colleague Daniel Greenberg wrote a highly relevant article for BrexitCentral about the need for a new Act of Union to meet the challenges of Brexit. In that article he explained how the Group started from the position that a process of devolution was inevitable to meet the growing aspirations of different parts of the UK so that they could organise their own affairs. However, he stressed that devolution in its current form is “doomed to frustrate and disappoint all parts of the UK”. He cleverly used a cake analogy to explain:
“The problem with devolution at present is that it has the appearance of giving back to the different parts of the United Kingdom an increasing share of their own sovereignty cake, without recognising that the cake actually belongs to them in the first place. It should be for them to decide which slices to share with other members of the Union for the purposes of enhancing the effectiveness of the whole.”
With news that Nicola Sturgeon is seeking another independence referendum in Scotland in the early 2020s as a result of the Brexit process, we must look carefully at what this could mean in practice. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum voters, quite rightly backed an arrangement which would preserve the advantages of staying united with the UK as well as maintaining the underlying relationship with the EU. Scotland could have its cake and eat it. That is clearly not the case now.
This is where the relevance of the Act of Union Bill 2018 comes in, which was formulated and drafted by the Constitution Reform Group. As the youngest member of the Steering Committee of the Group, I have witnessed and watched in awe how a cross-party group of current and former politicians, academics, officials in Parliament and Government along with ordinary citizens (me being one of the latter, and a millennial at that) have come together to create a blueprint for a new constitutional settlement for the UK.
One of the key overarching principles of the Bill is a federal UK, a concept that former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill addressed to his Dundonian constituents on 9th October 1913. This date is a significant one because it was precisely 105 years to the day later that the Act of Union Bill 2018 had its first reading in the House of Lords by the constitutional expert and former Clerk of the House of Commons, Lord Lisvane. In Churchill’s speech he stated:
“You will remember how, last year, I addressed a meeting in Dundee on this subject. I made it clear that I was not speaking of the immediate future, but dealing with the subject which lay for the moment outside the sphere of practical politics and raising a question for reflection and discussion rather than for prompt action.”
The Constitution Reform Group has both reflected and discussed what a federal UK could look like since 2015, and taken the “prompt action” of putting it into Bill format. This was instigated because of a number of patchwork constitutional developments since and prior to 1997 which have been disconnected and lacking an overall aim.
It is because of this, as well as the pressures of Brexit, that the moment has come for federalism to enter the mainstream political sphere. Indeed, it is already starting to trickle into political waters with Baroness Bryan of Partick recently publishing a short paper about “progressive federalism” that will form the ideas contained in the next Labour Party manifesto.
Many have discussed the idea of a federal UK, but we are the only collective group to have put the idea into a usable Bill format. I cannot emphasise this point enough. When reading an array of constitutional law and politics textbooks that alluded to a federal UK as a teenager I had often wondered why the concept had never been written down in a Bill that could be easily enacted. Ten years later I watched and witnessed first-hand how it has been done, and applaud how a group with a variety of different political leanings – or none at all – have actually achieved it. Westminster and the devolved administrations could learn a trick or two from this progressive bunch.
In relation to Brexit, and as highlighted by Daniel Greenberg, the Act of Union Bill 2018 would assert the existence of a number of separate entities within the UK and would make it easier for them in a number of ways both to be perceived as capable of independent decision-making in certain areas and to operate the mechanics of distinct relationships with the EU or with other international groupings. Isn’t this the precise and practical solution to the current tension between Westminster and the devolved institutions?
And what about England? What will England look like in the 2020s?
The vast majority of English parliamentary constituencies north of London voted to Leave in the EU referendum. That in itself is telling of our current constitutional arrangements and how political and economic power within England is largely London- and city-dominated. The substantial reduction of central government funding to local councils within England has been catastrophic for the country – both economically and socially. The Leave vote in England was a wake-up call to Westminster that it is seeking to reclaim control.
It is odd that England is the only nation within the UK that lacks its own individual representation, with the question of English governance being the “gaping hole in the devolution settlement” according to Professor Robert Hazell. It is also striking that just at the time the UK (and particularly England) votes to leave the EU, the Palace of Westminster is physically decaying to the extent that serious refurbishments will need to take place. It is expected that that this will commence in the mid-2020s at a time when the impact of Brexit will start to be felt (presuming that we have actually left by that point). This indicates that change must occur, and we must be the ones to drive it, not react to it.
Perhaps this may mean that an English Parliament or regional devolution is likely to be a serious prospect within the next ten years or thereabouts. Indeed, it seems somewhat inevitable. This is why the Act of Union Bill 2018 has made two provisions for this.
By asking these questions now we are asking ourselves what kind of country we are and what kind of country we want to become without rush and reaction – the worst kind of decision-making. Perhaps Theresa May or her successor could create a Minister for the Future within the Cabinet (just as Plaid Cymru have recently done in Wales) to address these critical issues? Now there’s a pause for thought.
To conclude, the question is not whether the UK is ripe for some constitutional stability by way of a new federal constitutional settlement. It is, rather: are the politicians in power confident, determined and diplomatic enough to “recast, remodel and reconstruct” (to coin the phrase used by former Prime Minister David Lloyd George) long-term constitutional reform with a federalist model that would place national interest over their own partisan priorities? Time will only tell.
Here’s hoping that they start cracking on with it in the 2020s or else the United Kingdom and our ability to reach cross-party consensus for the greater good of the nation will be a concept confined to history.
Full access to the article can be found here.