- Scottish nationalism is on the defensive for the first time in over a decade. On the other hand, English nationalism could give it second wind if it thinks it can a score an easy victory without acknowledging its enduring power. At this juncture, it’s true that one early outcome of the Brexit confusion leaning towards a hard Brexit is that Nicola Sturgeon’s calculations have become more complicated. On the eve of the SNP annual conference former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in an article in the Times (£) urges caution on the timing of a second independence referendum and dares to advise the all-conquering First Minister to lower her personal profile.
Independence does not need abandoned but other policies need pursued..
Brexit has changed things given the dangers that the UK faces. However, there’s so much uncertainty that it’s hard to see how a vote (on independence) could be called in the absence of clarity on the core issues of currency, EU and relationship with the rest of the UK..
There are challenges also for the Scottish Parliament… The focus has returned to Westminster….. Not simply because that’s where the current major debates are but where there’s now a huge contingent of Nationalist MPs. …As more powers are devolved steps need taken to enhance its position once more.
Equally, the First Minister herself has become an accomplished stateswoman. However, she’s cast a long shadow over her cabinet colleagues with direct involvement in so many policy areas. Years ago, people could be challenged to name five Labour MPs. After Brown and Cook silence often prevailed. Now, despite many able individuals being in post, similar requests to name five Cabinet Secretaries will see silence, after Sturgeon and Swinney. She should let them get on with their job and raise their own profile.
An alternative for Scotland and indeed the whole UK to follow is charted by the leading analyst and former strategist of the Better Together campaign, Jim Gallagher. He starts by pointing out the difficulties now being starkly exposed of drawing precise conclusions from the blunt instrument of a yes or no vote.
This has big implications for the future of the British Union which he argues, has already taken on some of the characteristics of a confederation. This could allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to develop their own relationships with the EU on those matters like agriculture and the environment which presently reside in Brussels but are likely to be devolved back to them rather than Westminster.
Continuing links with the EU for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would require stronger “mechanisms of intergovernmental relations. These would “inevitably become real places of political power, where deals are done and choices made. If devolved powers are extended as proposed, they will be more significant still. These bodies need to become more substantial, frequent and formal, and properly supported like the British-Irish Council – which could indeed evolve into this new body. It would have an independent secretariat, and might become more powerful in setting agendas and brokering deals, rather than simply taking minutes and issuing press releases.” ( Ouch!)
At the centre to supervise and influence this new level of intergovernmental activity could be a Grand Committee of the Upper House ( Gordon Brown calls it the Senate) with a different sort of membership and quite specific powers. with disproportionate representation for the small parts of the UK and without a partisan majority. It might, say, over-represent the devolved nations by a factor of three, so that its membership was 55% representative of England. As well as taking evidence, it should debate, and come to conclusions about the effectiveness of what the governments have been doing.
It might also be given powers to set the agenda. For example, one of the disappointments of devolution is the paucity of comparison between policy and practice in different parts of the UK: devolution has been anything but a laboratory for policy development. ( Under these new terms the SNP would be advised to end their boycott of the House of Lords; and why not the SDLP? The titles and even the name of the Upper House could be changed, quite apart from the upheaval of revisiting the ideal of an elected chamber).
Secondly, the logic of keeping an open Irish border with the common travel area, Gallagher maintains, means
“visa free travel to EU citizens, even though they may not have the right to work and settle here. As a result, there will have to be what is sometimes described as point control of immigration. in other words, major responsibilities will fall upon employers, or potentially providers of public services or even landlords, to ensure that individuals have the right to work or settle in the UK. This might involve UK work permits, or perhaps EU citizens would simply be able to work here if offered a job.”
But the Westminster government is obviously preoccupied with keeping tight control over the Brexit debate. Will they turn to these diversifying ideas in the short time available before triggering Article 50 by the end of next March? They could save help preserve the cohesion of the UK in our time. Is Theresa May interested? Or do the unfavourable economic conditions created by Brexit uncertainty persuade her that the bulk of Scottish opinion will stick with nurse for fear of something worse?
It is increasingly clear that Brexit was a nationalist referendum. Both sides would be insulted by the comparison, but Messrs Johnson and Gove spent the campaign singing the same tune as Alex Salmond. Both claimed to be positive, but were essentially negative. They were telling people to vote against a union – European or British. But voting against something is writing a blank cheque for something else. And if you write a blank cheque, somebody else fills it in…
In Whitehall today, the three Brexit ministers can’t agree how to fill that cheque in. That’s hardly surprising, since their pre-referendum promises were inconsistent: we are not going to get the single market without free movement of labour. This shows the first big problem with the referendum as a device. If people vote against something, there is no saying what they will get instead, and when the campaigners aren’t in a position to deliver their promises, the outcome will probably be something the population don’t actually want. Chances are, had it been offered them in terms, a majority of voters would have rejected the Brexit deal we are about to get.
…. Powers are coming back to Britain from Brussels. As a result all of the UK’s governments will become more powerful, the devolved administrations as well as Whitehall. At the moment Brussels rules create UK uniformity in major areas of policy, like agriculture, fisheries and the environment. ..
This will make the devolved administrations more like equal partners to the UK government, and will mean, for the first time in the UK, genuine inter-governmental negotiations from which both sides need agreement.
So the Scottish government (Belfast and Cardiff too) should be given power to make international agreements with the EU for devolved matters.
Ministers look like rejecting free movement of labour in the EU. But they are also going to end up agreeing Visa free travel to EU citizens. They have to, because otherwise they cannot keep the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland, and anyway could not manage the border checks needed at other UK entrances. So EU migration will be managed on a ‘point’ basis. Employers, say, will have to check whether people have the right to work; maybe even landlords or public service providers will have to check whether they are allowed to settle. Whatever the mechanism, it is done not at the border but in country. That means it can be different in different places.
People often talk about federalism as if it were a solution for the UK. In truth the UK is already moving beyond it, to a more confederal solution. But a confederation needs policies and institutions of shared rule, as well as self-rule. Brexit immediately offers one: the UK’s fir st chance in decades of an effective regional economic policy, so that central government can direct resources to the poorer areas of the country and use them in imaginative ways. Another might be finding a way to use the House of Lords as an effective Senate or Council of the Isles, holding the UK’s governments to account for their joint activities. My suggestion would be a grand committee of the House of Lords, with no partisan majority, and with 55 per cent English members so the devolved are consciously overrepresented.
All this takes the UK and Scottish governments well outside their different comfort zones. Theresa May would have to show much more imagination about the consequences of Brexit than she has yet shown about its content. Nicola Sturgeon would have to show courage in putting the traditionally conceived dream of independence aside, at least for this generation. Do they have the courage and generosity to do this? I don’t know, but it’s surely worth asking.
In Ireland it may be that ideas for future border management will not be all plain sailing. While the Irish government are working on British proposals, Fianna Fail are saying that “the idea that the land border between the EU and the UK could be dealt with by giving Ireland responsibility for policing the UK border seems highly implausible.”
What do they and Sinn Fein suggest instead?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London