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Devolution in the Post-Brexit British Isles

The UK Supreme Court’s recent ruling against a second referendum on Scottish Independence has sent shockwaves throughout Scotland. While pro-independence figures such as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have framed the ruling as fundamentally undemocratic, opinions outside the SNP have been less alarmist; neither the Labour nor Conservative parties support allowing for the possibility of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom.

Prior to the referendum to leave the European Union, a process known as “Brexit”, a 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence resulted in a decision to remain This referendum was historic, and has been described as “once in a lifetime”. However, following Brexit- which only a minority of Scottish voters supported- pro-independence sentiment has risen.

Sturgeon has stated that the results of the next UK general election will be a ‘de facto referendum’ on the pro-independence sentiment on the rise in Scotland. While it is unclear exactly what the SNP will be able to accomplish following Sturgeon's sudden decision to resign, it is apparent that this impasse facing the United Kingdom is a result of its idiosyncratic composition of constituent nations and an unwritten constitution. This article will provide an overview of why the current status quo of devolved government in the UK has yielded uncertainty post-Brexit and offer a comparison to systems of federalism as a mechanism to bring disparate regions together under a national government in the US, Germany, and other democracies.

History of Scotland’s Independence Movement:

Prior to the Act of Union in 1701, England and Scotland existed as separate nations, even following the Union of the Crowns under James VI and I in 1603. Even today, the two nations retain separate criminal legal codes, and technically issue their own banknotes despite being part of the same currency. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has its roots in the 1930s as a political vehicle for achieving Scottish political autonomy within the United Kingdom. Throughout the 20th century, it has oscillated between advocating for independence or incrementalistic settlements to expand its scope of self-rule.

Despite setbacks in the late 70s and early 80s, Scotland ultimately achieved a devolved government following a referendum in 1997. From the 1990s onwards, the SNP has become increasingly left-wing and advanced socially democratic policies. The Salmond era also resulted in the party becoming increasingly pro-European despite being dogmatically nationalistic. The SNP’s successes over Scottish Labour at appealing to ideologically left-wing voters in Scotland has put it at odds with the Conservative Party-dominated politics of England, which committed itself to implementing Brexit over the last few years. While the Labour Party has different strategies for how to navigate the post-Brexit turmoil, they have largely avoided rhetoric that might rekindle the debate about potentially rejoining the EU. When comparing Scottish and English politics, it is clear that a major ideological divide has been harshly demarcated by both geography and history.

Devolved Government Analysis:

The movement for Scottish independence has an institutional dimension to it; ever since 1999, Scotland has had its own parliament to vote on an array of local administrative issues, such as healthcare, transport, and taxation. These powers are “devolved” to Holyrood as opposed to being “reserved” to Westminster, which retains control over national issues, such as foreign policy. However, the events of Brexit have brought into question whether devolved government can remain as the status quo. Scottish and Northern Irish voters generally sided with the “remain” camp during the Brexit referendum, while English and Welsh voters were more in favour of leaving. While devolution is ostensibly a settlement to establish local government, many in the SNP view it as a step along the way to full independence.

Meanwhile, voters in England only see a concentration of local sovereignty at the mayoral level for cities; devolution evolved over a series of individual agreements rather than a single, constitutionally prescribed separation of powers. The “West Lothian Question”- an ongoing debate about whether non-English MPs ought to be allowed to vote on local issues pertaining to England while the reverse is not true- is no closer to being resolved now than during devolution debates in the 1970s. Additionally, different powers are granted to local government in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales due to the piecemeal settlement process which wrought devolution, resulting in uneven autonomy across the United Kingdom. In the wake of Brexit, however, this unevenness has been revealed to be not just a quirk of British history but an Achilles Heel which threatens the integrity of the entire United Kingdom.

Problems Facing the “United” Kingdom:

Brexit has not just ideologically galvanised Scottish voters around the issue of independence but has potentially undone years of negotiations to establish the legal future of the United Kingdom following the Troubles in Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century. Disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol- the post-Brexit agreement that Northern Ireland be subject to EU rules concerning import and export quality controls to avert a hard border between the UK and Republic of Ireland- demonstrated the increasing fragility of the Unionist position. The Sunak government’s ongoing efforts to replace this protocol through an arrangement to divide the inspection of exported food goods through a ‘trusted trader scheme’ are still subject to ongoing talks with the EU.

While entirely different from the historical and political context of Scotland, support for Sinn Fein, the nationalist party in favor of Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic of Ireland grew markedly following Brexit. The issues facing these nations are as separate as the circumstances that wrought their devolved governments, yet developments across the Irish Sea demonstrate that the new boost in support for Scottish Independence represent a larger issue facing the United Kingdom’s national structure itself.

Comparison with Federalism:

Given the problems inherent with the current status quo of devolved government, many have sought for alternatives which do not involve constituent nations seeking independence. Constitutional academics have suggested that a federalist structure for the United Kingdom might assuage the concerns over regional autonomy which drive much of the pro-independence rhetoric within the UK outside of England. This position has been adopted by the Liberal Democratic Party. A federalist structure would replace the unitary state of the UK and the series of compromises made through devolution with a compact between several semi-autonomous self-governing regions and a more clearly delineated and prescribed role for the national government, such as matters of inter-state infrastructure or national defense.

However, while a federalist UK has been discussed since the Victorian era, this solution would not resolve the foreign policy issues that have emerged post-Brexit; states in countries like the US, Germany, or India cannot make their own foreign policy decisions, despite having a significant level of autonomy in domestic policy decisions. Federalism would also invite new constitutional problems if implemented in the UK; federalist governments are typically bicameral with a system of equal representation of constituent states in the upper house. Unless it were divided into states of comparable population size to the other devolved nations, England would switch from having population-proportionate representation in the current system of unitary government to under-representation in a federalist one. Such a dramatic change would require far greater reforms than there is currently public interest in undertaking; a 2004 referendum in North East England rejected the creation of a regional assembly. Today, reform efforts around the issue of regional autonomy lack unity and a cohesive vision for the future, although Labour leader Kier Starmer has articulated the embrace of such reforms as a key priority for the goal of keeping the UK together.

An Uncertain Future

Unionists who argue that Scotland leaving the United Kingdom would have disastrous consequences are likely correct. A variety of unresolved fiscal issues facing a hypothetically independent Scotland- combined with the UK’s experiences of economic tumult amid a rush to negotiate international agreements following the Brexit referendum- ought to serve as a caution against the SNP hastily pushing for another independence referendum. However, the motivation for the SNP’s current political stances did not emerge in a vacuum and have their roots in very real structural issues that threaten the stability of the United Kingdom. What happens next in the United Kingdom has little historical precedent; its unique composition of constituent nations bound together by the Crown rather than a constitution has granted it a great deal of domestic political continuity throughout the centuries, yet these same characteristics have made its future uncertain. The political decisions in the run-up to the next UK general election, which must occur by January of 2025, will prove consequential in determining whether this historic continuity will prevail.


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