Is the survival of the Union in doubt?
Ever since the EU referendum, the shadow of Scottish independence has hung across the political landscape. In March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to hold a second referendum before the Brexit negotiations are over. The SNP manifesto, published this week, is interpreted as downplaying independence as the defining issue, but reaffirms the party’s commitment to indyref2. It does, however, concede that this will not happen on its original proposed timetable. The manifesto states that “Scotland should have a choice about our future” at the end of the Brexit process.
Of the two main UK parties, Labour is more definitively opposed to another referendum, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s earlier comment that he would be “absolutely fine” with this taking place. The Scottish Labour manifesto is clear that it “opposes independence and a second divisive independence referendum. Independence is not the answer to dealing with Scotland’s flagging economy or our pressured public services.”
The Liberal Democrats are also unambiguous that they “will oppose a second independence referendum and oppose independence”, and instead wish to bind Scotland to the UK as part of a new written federal constitution. Labour too favours federalism, subject first to a constitutional convention considering how this might work.
The Conservative position is more nuanced, reiterating the Prime Minister’s line that “now is not the time” but holding open the possibility that a referendum could be held after Brexit, subject to“public consent”. How this would be gauged is unstated.
The SNP view is that the pro-independence majority at Holyrood is evidence of public consent, and that winning a majority of seats on 8 June (as is likely) would provide definitive further proof. But how hard the Scottish Government pushes for indyref2 will ultimately come down to its belief that it can win – thus far there has been no decisive polling swing in favour of independence.
What about Northern Ireland?
The other question mark over the UK’s future lies in Belfast, where power-sharing collapsed in early 2017. Amid fears that Brexit might create a new hard border in Ireland, Irish reunification is being proposed. Sinn Féin’s manifesto states that “Securing and winning a referendum on Irish Unity” is its priority, while the SDLP proposes a “Commission for a New Ireland” to create a “political roadmap for Irish unity”.
The unionist parties of course oppose this. The DUP manifesto calls for unionists to give the party “a strong mandate to stand strong against Sinn Fein’s demands” such as “a destabilising border poll”. A border poll would in any case require the backing of the UK Government, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, public opinion could harden once the implications of Brexit become known.
How will Brexit affect the devolution settlements?
Another major question is how Brexit will affect devolution, assuming the UK survives. The Conservative manifesto states that Brexit will deliver “a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration”. However, it also commits to “ensure that as we leave the EU no new barriers to living and doing business within our own union are created”.
Accordingly, the party plans new UK-wide frameworks to replace EU systems like the Common Agriculture Policy and structural funds. It also envisages playing a more active role in economic policy across the UK through its industrial strategy: unlike past governments, it will not simply “devolve and forget”. This assertive unionism agenda is ambitious, but seems likely to run into turf wars with the devolved governments.
Labour’s position is to “introduce a ‘presumption of devolution’ where devolved powers transferred from the EU will go straight to the relevant region or nation.” Precisely how this would work in practice is unclear, but places Labour closer to the devolved governments.
The SNP, unsurprisingly, asserts that Brexit should lead to significant additional devolution including of EU competences such as agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection, employment law and aspects of immigration. It also plans to push the idea of Scotland remaining in the Single Market even if the rest of the UK leaves.
Plaid Cymru likewise commits to significant new powers for the Welsh Assembly as Brexit is implemented, including control of structural funds, a ratification power over future free trade deals, control of social security and taxes including VAT, which currently cannot be devolved due to EU law. Prior to Irish unity, Sinn Féin favours “designated special status for the North within the EU” and the SDLP backs significant extra tax and welfare powers.
No UK government could concede all of this, but if we end up with a hung Parliament, the nationalist parties might have enough leverage at Westminster to secure some important concessions.
What next for the English cities and regions?
Until the referendum, English devolution was a major government priority, but it is unclear what momentum remains in this agenda. The Conservatives commit to “consolidate our approach, providing clarity across England on what devolution means for different administrations so all authorities operate in a common framework.”
Perhaps significantly, there is also a concession around the need for mayors to accompany significant devolution. The manifesto states that mayors will no longer be required for future devolution deals in rural areas but will still be a requirement in city-regions. This might open the way for new deals in areas where mayors are a deal-breaker. Meanwhile, plans to devolve business rate revenue are now subject to the outcome of “a full review of the business rates system”.
The Institute for Government will continue to call upon government to provide clarity about the future of the English devolution agenda, as well as its broader strategy for working with the devolved nations.