Brexit: A Nation Divided



The (on reflection) premature triggering of Article 50 without first taking stock of the impact for the
nations and regions of the UK has had significant consequences.

The problem is that Brexit has exposed the many fault lines in both our political system and in our constitution. Weaknesses that have been apparent for years but are now blatantly exposed as the country embarks on the biggest legislative changes post war.

First-past-the-post partly explains the weaknesses of a minority government  who are reliant on a small geographically based party to remain in power.

The mother of all parliaments has demonstrated that procedurally it can be played. The executive can- and indeed have- play a fast and loose game with timetabling, scrutiny and voting on crucial pieces of legislation.

However, it is around the devolution settlements where the weaknesses are most apparent. It is not just with Northern Ireland - intractable as that may be -but also with Scotland and Wales.

Our unwritten constitution means that for the most part it is conventions that frame devolution settlements. Most notable of these is the Sewell Convention which states that the UK Parliament will "not normally" legislate on matters within the devolved competence without the relevant devolved institution having passed a legislative  consent motion. But the EU Withdrawal Act demonstrated this is a convention that can be - and has been - ignored.

In fact the constitutional tensions have been really exposed during the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act and specifically with Clause 11, when it became apparent that Brexit creates those "special circumstances" that shows that London can overrule anything from Scotland,  Wales or Northern Ireland. 

This has led to accusations from the first ministers of both Scotland and Wales of power grabbing by the centre. Whilst to some extent this has abated in Wales, the heady mix of a recent referendum on independence and a Scottish Nationalist Party on the rise ( look how many seats they have taken off the Tories) is adding to the tensions between Scotland and the centre.

Of course Northern Ireland is the issue that gathers most column inches and is the one that has to be resolved. In leaving the EU there was always going to have to be a border somewhere. The real problem is that it's not a natural border but one that is historically fraught and one that only recently has had some type of resolution. Brexit was the worst possible thing that could happen to this border.

It's made worse by the fact Stormont  is not meeting, Sinn Fein refuse to sit in the House of Commons and the Democratic Ulster Unionists are playing a pivotal role in propping up a weak and divided government. Even a strong and stable constitutional settlement would be tested by this.

We are now in unchartered waters. We are undertaking a huge legislative change in a relatively short space of time when our politics is being sorely tried and tested. The UK's hard-won devolution settlements are just that - hard-won- but also relatively new. The Scottish parliament, Stormont and the Welsh Assembly are not yet 20 years old and yet the EU referendum result is a huge challenge for our governance. 

These tensions would have emerged at some stage. Brexit has just exposed them more starkly and possibly quicker. What is now required is a steadier, less reactive hand in negotiating Brexit and a long term devolution settlement that covers ALL the nations and regions of the UK. 

This is a policy challenge that Labour should pick up sooner rather than later. it was a Labour government after all that gave us devolution but not the finished article. Brexit could be an opportunity to remedy this rather than watch a disunited Kingdom unravel.

The Brexit Civil Society Alliance will explore these issues in further detail at our fringe event at the Labour Party Conference, Monday 24 September, 12.30-14.00. More information and registration here.
By Jane Thomas.

Samuel Ellis