Monday, 13 November 2017

All Change

Brexiters often say that leaving the EU gives the UK an opportunity to make fundamental changes to almost every facet of British life. They're roughly correct, except for the simple fact that change will be a necessity rather than an opportunity. The UK will have to start doing things entirely on its own; it will have to do things that it has never, ever done for itself; it will be forced along policy directions by reduced circumstance rather than by choice or by design. Brexit will force changes to the political system, it will affect the economy, it will profoundly affect the national culture.

One of the reasons that Brexit maintains the support it does is that the changes it will trigger are hard to visualise because our everyday lives are distant from the functions of high government. It might be of more value, therefore, to focus on the way that the coming changes will affect our very real lives. What can we say about that? Well, we can say with some certainty that Brexit will change the fundamental conditions that lead to business success and failure; it will alter the decisions that people make about their education and career and future; it will change the value that society places on job skills and experience; it will change the way that people think about the rest of the world and about their own country and neighbourhoods; it will change our relationship with all levels of government. The problem remains that it is difficult to be specific about any of this because each change affects every other change and every other change influences every other. We have no idea where this experiment will end up. Can we be more specific about anything at all? Yes, we can. The UK will need to change consitutionally in very specific ways that will undermine the Scottish devolution settlement.

I would argue that EU membership creates the very conditions that made the Scottish devolution settlement possible. It does this in two very distinct ways:
  • it forces legislative similarity across the UK for Holyrood competences devolved to Brussels.
  • it allows legislative difference to prosper for Westminster competences devolved to Brussels.
To be perfectly honest, the "summary" above is a bit of a mouthful. It took me an age to distill it down into two simple sentences but I'm not all sure it was worth the effort.  In actual fact, I barely understand what I just wrote so, if only for my own benefit, we need some examples. Agriculture is a good place to start.  It turns out that agriculture is a power devolved to the Scottish government but one that has been largely devolved one more time to a shadowy cabal of unelected Stalinists in Brussels. As a consequence, farmers in Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland are all bound by the same legislation on the treatment of waste water, they receive subsidies based on the same formulae, they must abide by the same list of banned and permitted pesticides. Farms across the UK are all controlled by exactly the same EU law and the same penalties for breaking EU law. That will all end when the UK exits the EU. Immediately after the UK has "taken back control", Holyrood will once more be the highest arbiter of legislation governing the operation of Scottish farms. Holyrood will be free to implement its own legislation on the treatment of waste water, on farm subsidies, and on the list of banned pesticides. All sorts of decisions governing agriculture will be taken by elected representatives in Holyrood. We will likely see Scotland and rUK diverge in all sorts of ways.  This becomes a problem if Liam Fox tries to hammer out a trade deal with the US that includes agriculture. The US is going to see a complex patchwork of legislation and subsidy and banned pesticides, while Liam Fox will have no control over his own negotiation because he will be trying to trade on political powers that he clearly doesn't have.  This will be the foundation of constitutional conflict.

What about those legislative differences that EU membership makes possible? Let's start our journey to the answer with yet another question: why has the EU never signed a trade deal that includes access to health markets for 3rd nations? The short answer is that the EU could never attempt that because health is not an EU competence. If the EU attempted to trade health provision with a 3rd country it would quickly find itself in hot water because it would be trading powers it doesn't have. In difference to Liam Fox, the EU understand the limits and consequences of its own powers. If health is a power retained by national governments and everyone agrees on that then there is no potential for conflict if health provision diverges across the EU. We know that health provision is divergent across the EU: the UK has its own model funded by taxation, while Germany has an insurance system. Moreover, the available treatments and the way they are funded differs from country to country. If that difference can exist across the EU without conflict then it can also exist across the UK.  That will all change when the UK exits the EU and the power to sign its own trade deals will be returned to Westminster. It is unthinkable that the UK would not attempt to use access to the NHS internal market as a bargaining chip. It won't be able to do that if NHS Scotland remains devolved to Holyrood. Poor old Liam Fox will be attempting to trade powers he won't have.

The UK will need to start behaving as a single, unified nation. It will have to start doing things for itself, on its own. It's obvious that divergence across the UK will hinder that project. The devolved settlement, which enables the Scottish government to make divergent decisions, will need to be amended, diminished, curtailed.  It just isn't possible to negotiate FTAs with 2 separate parliaments and 2 assemblies.

Taking back control doesn't just mean taking it back from the EU.  Taking back control actually means ceding control to an all-powerful executive in Westminster. There is no other way that Brexit could ever hope to work.  There is only one way to avoid this now.

Over and out,


PS Readers of this blog know much more about Scottish devolution than I do. I'd be grateful if anyone could leave some examples of conflict in the comments.