The UK, Scotland and Ireland

John Bruton writes: There is a real prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence, if pro-independence parties win an overall majority in next month’s Scottish Parliament elections. There is even speculation that Boris Johnson himself might  pre-emptively call such a referendum, while the economy is still flat, and voters less likely to take the risk of voting for independence.

Legally speaking, the problems of the UK Union are not the business of other countries, like Ireland. 

But we have problems, with which we need the active cooperation, and intellectual engagement, of the UK government, notably, but not solely, to do with Northern Ireland. 

The UK government has been distracted by Brexit for the last five years and unable to give attention to normal business, like Northern Ireland. 

Brexit, devo and indy

Brexit is at the root of the Scottish case for independence, and Brexit has also weakened ties between London and the administrations in Belfast and Cardiff. There is no shared view between the four parts of the UK on how the place should be governed , and big decisions taken, in a way that maintains consensus.

“Can the British State handle the challenges of devolution?” is the question asked by Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon in a recent paper published by the Bennett  Institute of Public Policy in Cambridge University.

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, asked a similar question, in a Guardian article last year, claiming that it will soon be”impossible to hold together a UK of nations and regions in the straitjacket of a centralised state.”

 His main criticism is that the UK government takes decisions, like setting the terms for Brexit, without ,properly and formally, taking into account the views of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

 All three of these clearly stated that they wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but the Westminster government ignored them. It was guided instead by the opinion of English MPs.

The contradictions are profound. It was in a speech in which she spoke of the “precious union” of the four nations, that the then PM, Theresa May, also announced that the UK would leave both Customs Union and Single Market( something to which 3 of the 4 nations were opposed).

 Later she went outside the  long settled  Barnett formula for dividing up finance between  the devolved administrations, so she could give an extra £1 billion to Northern Ireland, in return for the support of the DUP for her minority government. 

She only showed the devolved administrations the text of her Article 50 letter, initiating UK withdrawal from the EU, on the day she sent the letter to Brussels.

When Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May, he weakened the consultative structures she had used to avoid conflicts with the devolved governments.  He left it to Michael Gove to consult them and stayed away personally from the issue.

 Subsequently, in its (UK) Internal Market Bill, designed to replace the EU Internal market,  the Johnson government took back powers to London from the devolved administrations in areas of transport and education.

 It is believed Boris Johnson said privately that devolution has proved to be a “disaster”, which is hardly reassuring for those who want to preserve and strengthen devolution, to prevent a complete break up of the Union.

Written rules

The underlying problem with the UK Union is that it is not underpinned by any written constitution or rule book, with which civil servants and Ministers in London could familiarize themselves.

 Every problem is tackled on an ad hoc basis by bilateral bargaining. This is in contrast with the EU, which has a very detailed set of rules, most recently updated in the Lisbon Treaty.

Just as most English MPs never understood the multi level system of government through which the EU worked when they were in the EU, they have not yet come to understand the multi level and variable system, under which the UK Union itself is supposed to operate. They still think of the UK as a centralised unitary state.

 For them, the unlimited “sovereignty of parliament“  over rules everything else.

 Devolved powers can simply be taken back at the will of the Westminster parliament (often after minimal debate there).

 This might work if everybody trusted everybody else. But that is no longer so. Now that power is held by different and often antagonistic parties in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the casual “make it up as you go along” model of governance of the UK has run out of road.

The London civil service is not designed to cope with a union of four nations (of radically unequal size) .

 Ireland should not take sides in the constitutional debates inside the UK. But Ireland has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the internal governance of our neighbouring island is settled and stable, so that the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, which involve Ireland, work as intended.  This will not be achieved, if the debate in Britain about the very existence of the  UK Union, drags on as long, and as destructively, as the one about Brexit has done.

First published by Irish Independent (€) and reproduced with the author’s permission; image via Wikimedia Commons after flickr CC BY SA 2.0

John Bruton is a former Fine Gael Taoiseach and EU ambassador to the US inter alia. He will be a keynote speaker at our next webinar (on Ireland and the EU) on May 24