Prospect Magazine: Reconciling Brexit with Unionism—the challenge ahead for our political leaders

They must grapple with both issues together

8 November 2019

By Joanna George

Is the future of the United Kingdom at risk because the traditional Unionist parties have no explicit vision (manifesto- published or otherwise) about how their commitment to the Union is compatible with their plans for Brexit?

Such an important question is being squashed in the wider general election debate — which makes no sense at all, as Brexit is intrinsically linked with the future of the Union and the future of the Union is intrinsically linked with Brexit. Party leaders must address both in tandem. These issues must be kept in sync with one another, or we risk a huge political and constitutional rupture further down the line.

From the facts we already have, we can ask which leader has the best chance of providing political and constitutional symmetry on Brexit and the future of the Union. We can also ask which one leader would be catastrophic.

Boris Johnson, the self-appointed minister for the union, is pro-Union in name but his new EU Withdrawal Agreement may not be pro-Union in practice. It was little more than a year ago that Johnson told DUP conference delegates that he would not erect economic barriers in the Irish sea, as to do so would damage “the fabric of the union” and “leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU.”

Yet now he is planning to erect precisely these same barriers. Scotland and Wales have also faced superficial gestures, only to suffer a Brexit negotiation process which has left them overruled by Westminster—contrary to good political practice, constitutional convention, and respect for the devolved nations. There are also questions over what role Johnson envisions for England within the Union post-Brexit.

Nigel Farage has explicitly said that Brexit should be the “number one” priority, even if it means breaking up the Union. Ironically, the Brexit Party website states that Johnson’s new Withdrawal Agreement will divide the United Kingdom because of the proposed border down the Irish sea. The Brexit Party itself as yet has no manifesto position on the future of the Union, despite a surge of popularity among Scottish and Welsh voters in the European Parliament elections. Does this mean that it is an England-only party, and Farage’s main concern is England-only sovereignty?

The Union, and England’s role within it, has been in Jeremy Corbyn’s thoughts. The Labour Party advocates a minister for England and also a relationship of equals with the devolved administrations. Corbyn’s appointment of Pauline Bryan to help develop the party’s policy on constitutional reform and a “new relationship” between Scotland and Westminster could be significant.

The neutral stance on Brexit until the final terms of a Labour deal with the EU are known, as well as the promise to hold a confirmatory referendum with “Remain” as an option, is politically vague. However, it could prove to be a constitutionally clever move as it would enable the party to assess the constitutional details at EU level before deciding if it aligns with their ambition for a redistribution of political power at UK level.

Jo Swinson has said that breaking up the United Kingdom would be much more difficult even than Brexit. Liberal Democrat policy is to revoke Article 50 or, failing that, secure a referendum with Remain on the ballot paper.

Some argue that if Britain stays in the EU then tensions between the four nations, two of which voted Remain, may subside. But then what about England and Wales, which voted to leave? Meanwhile the idea that if Britain leaves the EU then the UK is destined for destruction need not be the case; in fact, Brexit offers a fantastic opportunity to assess the power-sharing dynamic of each nation individually as well as collectively.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems should continue to give greater thought to federalism, whatever the eventual Brexit outcome.

Would a federal UK be the solution to the issue of “taking back control”? It would mean that the four nations would be able to exercise their own self- determination but also willingly continue to pool their sovereignty for functions which are more successfully exercised on a shared basis. It is a position traditionally advanced by the Liberal Democrats and recently advocated by its Welsh and Scottish factions, while Bryan is looking into federalism as part of her role in the Labour Party.

Federalism could potentially secure the future of the Union while also addressing the underlying social and constitutional demands of the electorate to have power closer to home — in all four nations of the UK.

The cross-party Constitution Reform Group of political and constitutional experts, chaired by Lord Salisbury and recently backed by three former first ministers (disclosure —I too am a member, though writing in a personal capacity), have advocated a federal UK. So too have experts such as Philip Rycroft, the former chief civil servant in the Department for Exiting the European Union. Such an idea has the possibility of being entirely compatible with Brexit, if conducted in the right manner.

Party leaders who support this idea should explain its workability in parallel with Brexit if they want both visions to succeed, but also if they wish to win the votes of Unionists — Brexiteers and Remainers alike.

You can access the full article on the Prospect Magazine website here.

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