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Scotland in a changing union: ensuring effective cooperation after the referendum

Wednesday 16 July 2014, 12:30

This event is part of the Institute’s Governing After the Referendum project, which is exploring the challenges that will be faced in ensuring effective government across the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. This work is funded by the ESRC as part of its Future of the UK and Scotland research programme coordinated by the University of Edinburgh. This is the second of two public events we are holding: the first brought together representatives of the three main unionist parties to discuss their proposals for future devolution following a No vote.

Pete Wishart MP stated that the independence referendum was asking the Scottish people to consider something huge in taking responsibility for their future. Independence would involve setting up a number of new cross-border institutions and taking account of current cross-border arrangements and asking whether they are fit for purpose. Independence would, he said, offer a great opportunity to reinvigorate existing cross-border institutions with a new sense of equality and mutual respect. It would be a transformative event for these institutions. He pointed out that, despite all the debate about what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would remain part of the EU, at heart independence is about delivering good governance. The UK and Scotland can continue to do things together without sharing a Prime Minister in David Cameron: it will allow Scotland to diversify in crucial areas, but to continue to work constructively with the UK on others. He said he sees independence not as separation but as ‘inclusion’, allowing Scotland to work with the UK as a partner, neighbour and best friend.

Cllr Liz Saville Roberts said that for Wales, the need for effective cooperation with the rest of the UK is already self-evident. The UK Government cannot ignore the need for a complete overhaul of the devolution settlement with more power for each administration. Wales should, she said, be a participant nation, not an observer.

Plaid Cymru supports the creation of a reserved powers model in Wales in which the Welsh people can decide in which areas to share sovereignty with the rest of the UK. Plaid also believes the Welsh people should have the right to decide whether or not to hold an independence referendum in future.  

She noted that, in terms of cooperating with the UK Government in future, two key mechanisms for cooperation are already in place: the British Irish Council has the potential to evolve into a Nordic Council-style body, with a formal remit and a rolling Presidency. The Joint Ministerial Committee between the UK and devolved governments could be used as a forum for discussion on social affairs, defence and foreign policy. She suggested that the Scottish independence campaign has changed the terms of the debate about devolution – Wales should be central to those ongoing discussions about the future of the UK’s devolution settlement.

Ruth Taillon noted that Ireland is following the Scottish referendum debate with great interest. Much of the cross-border cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland follows EU cohesion policy and is focused on reducing inequality: EU funding is vital to many cross-border projects she said.

She noted that a lot of cross-border cooperation has been institutionalised within the North South Ministerial Council. That body is well embedded as part of the machinery created after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It has a secretariat comprising civil servants from each administration. That body supports implementation-level bodies on a number of areas, including Irish language, Waterways, and Trade & Business. It also supports wider cooperation on areas including agriculture and education. The institution works well, but risks being paralysed by a lack of political drive.

She said another boost to cross-border cooperation was the inclusion in every policy document of a paragraph setting out plans for cross-border cooperation. This also had to be included in policy action plans and included in policy funding. However, since 2006 those written statements have become less common, and austerity has eroded the willingness of departments on both sides to provide funding to support cross-border ventures.

She identified several lessons for successful cross-border cooperation:

  • Ensure that cross-border agreements on cooperation are written down and embedded so people have to follow them
  • Cross-border arrangements must be institutionalised – you can’t rely on informal networks or things happening organically
  • Cross-border cooperation must be properly resourced
  • Any barrier – be it regulatory or geographical – can be overcome if there is political will to do so.

Questions from the audience included:

  • What areas would an independent Scotland and Westminster continue to cooperate on?
  • How can we ensure that all administrations in the UK continue to learn from each other and share evidence?
  • What would the impact of Scottish independence be on Anglo-Irish relations, and on Northern Ireland in particular?