Nearly 20 years have passed since the creation of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are similarities in how the experience of devolution has affected all three countries (and in this context Northern Ireland, like the other two, should be regarded as a country). But there have also been differences.
Each of the countries has developed a new political culture of its own, with features that distinguish it from the others, and also from Westminster. From a constitutional perspective, there have been different emphases too.
In Northern Ireland, a tailor-made system based on checks and balances derived from the Good Friday Agreement has been implemented. While success has been intermittent in terms of how the Northern Ireland Assembly has functioned, disputes have played out in the political arena rather than through armed conflict.
In Scotland, the rise of the SNP from a level where it achieved less support proportionally in 1999 than Plaid Cymru has seen the possibility of independence dominate constitutional debate. In Wales, however, partly because of the shortcomings of the original devolution settlement and partly because of the lack of significant support for independence, the focus has been on the gradual accretion of extra powers.
Although there has been progress, there remains considerable reluctance at Westminster to let Wales gain some of the central powers that are taken for granted in Scotland and Northern Ireland: control over the police and judicial system, for example. The list of powers reserved to Westminster includes many which are trivial from a constitutional point of view, and seem only to be present to let Wales know where control really resides.
The result of the June 2016 referendum on EU membership has created a new political challenge for the devolved institutions that risks robbing them of powers that in some instances have been hard won. The UK Government’s attempt to intercept powers from the EU at the point of Brexit that in the normal course of events would come straight to Scotland and Wales illustrates that pre-devolution thinking remains dominant.
In defending its position, the Westminster administration has spoken of the need to ensure frictionless borders within what it describes as the “UK Single Market”. It seems oblivious to the irony that it has chosen a course that will remove the UK from the European Single Market, creating impediments that will damage our ability to interact commercially with the world’s largest trading bloc that happens to be on our doorstep.
Westminster may be right in suggesting there should be a common regulatory regime for agriculture in the four UK countries after Brexit. But so far it has shown no acceptance of the fact that any such regime should be developed between four equal partners rather than imposed on the other three by the largest. The UK Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations with the EU has been characterised by a lack of engagement with political reality, overlaid by a mentality of seeking to have one’s cake and eat it and of playing to the gallery of extreme anti-EU ideologues that have been allowed to exert disproportionate influence within the Conservative Party.
Such an approach, when replicated domestically, poses a huge threat to devolution, as well, of course, to the economic well-being of the UK as a whole. It demonstrates perfectly why the kind of constitutional debate advocated in this pamphlet is so vital.
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