John Bruton

John Bruton

Prime Minister, Ireland 1994 - 1997
EU Ambassador to the United States 2004 - 2009

Under What Rules Does The UK Union Work

 

by JOHN BRUTON

Published:  John Bruton Opinions and Ideas, 23 April 2021

 

Is Devolution Being Undermined?

“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.(see below)

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.

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) .

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.  So we have an interest in ensuring that the internal governance of our neighbouring island is settled and stable.