Brexit Exposes Our Constitutional Fragility



Brexit is shining a spotlight on many things in this country, perhaps the biggest things that this process has thrown up is the weaknesses in our parliamentary system and an even bigger weakness with our constitution.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill has thrown a spotlight on all sorts of details that you would not normally consider in your day-to-day life. The bill has highlighted the technical complexity of legislating for Brexit- how do we scrutinise legislation, who does it, and what's the relationship between the government of the day and the House of Commons. This stuff all matters because if you do legislation well- you get good legislation. Not paying attention to detail and pushing legislation through leads to weaknesses in things like standards, rights, safety, costs, and so forth. That is why the Alliance has spent so much time lobbying to make sure that Henry 8th powers are not abused and that the scrutiny details are fit for purpose.

But the biggest weakness that has been exposed is in our constitutional settlement. Or rather our constitutional unsettlement. As soon as the bill was published last July, Nicola Sturgeon labelled the Withdrawal Bill as a “power grab” by Westminster over hard-won devolution settlements in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.Fast forward to now, where the Scottish Parliament voted against giving legislative consent to the biggest and most complex piece of legislation in the last 40 or 50 years. This is huge in and of itself. However, it could yet be bigger if the Supreme Court upholds the Scottish government's position. We are indeed in uncharted territory.

The fact that we continue to be dominated by that square mile that is Westminster and Whitehall is a truism despite the nod to devolution in the late 1990’s. Our economy has not enjoyed universal growth across our nations and regions over the last 30 - 40 years and if it were not for London and the South East we would economically be one of the poorest of the Western European countries.

The prospect of leaving the EU, exposing our markets and our workforce to a brave new world is not great for those nations and regions who have not got the infrastructure, skills or economic base to diversify and meet new challenges. According to Professor Philip McCann of Sheffield University up to 2.5 million jobs are directly exposed to Brexit but it is as yet unclear what structural readjustments are going to have to be made. What is clear is that those regions lead able to deal with economic shocks are those regions most vulnerable currently.

All this leads is to more examination of the constitutional position as well as the economic one. Take back control cried the politicians. Yes please says Scotland. Yes please is now increasingly coming from the North of England. The devolution city regions deals are being challenged by Yorkshire having the temerity to say it wants devolution to Yorkshire NOT  a city. The cries for this will get louder. Meanwhile, Scotland potentially will present the UK with the biggest constitutional crisis for hundreds of years.

This is before you factor in the “Irish Question”. This is not just about customs control, it’s also about rights, justice and free movement of people between North and South - and access to services they have equally enjoyed for a generation. It's about a fragile peace settlement. Where this is leading to is anyone's guess but the move towards a United Ireland, and one that remains in the EU, is gaining some traction.

The unintended consequences of the referendum vote in 2016 are beginning to get aired. The constitutional fragility of the UK is exposed. This may or may not have emerged anyway but the genie is now out the bottle. More importantly, it's going to take a very strong and stable government to deal with this and to try and impose some sense of governing for the many in all parts of the UK and not just the few.

By Jane Thomas, coordinator of the Repeal Bill Alliance. 

Samuel Ellis