A new chapter in Welsh-Scottish relations?

The Scottish and Welsh Governments worked together closely during their negotiations with the UK Government over those aspects of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that related to devolution. Despite ultimately choosing different paths, say Hedydd Phylip and Greg Davies, this spirit of cooperation looks set to continue. 

Brexit has made many odd bedfellows. Few, however, have proved as politically and constitutionally significant as the alliance between the union-supporting Welsh Labour Government and the Scottish independence-supporting SNP Government. Over the last two years, the two have worked closely over a range of issues, with relations intensifying since the publication of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in July 2017. This was facilitated by the regular fora of the Joint Ministerial Council (JMC), the British and Irish Council, and bilateral meetings between the First Ministers and ministers of the two governments. 
On April 24, this joint working reached a significant crossroads when the Welsh Government reached agreement with the UK Government on the Bill. Although talks are still ongoing, the Scottish Government is yet to agree and the Scottish Parliament has recently refused legislative consent to the Bill. 
Does this mark the end of their joint working, or will it see cooperation evolve into a new phase?

Joint working on the Withdrawal Bill

When the UK Government introduced the Withdrawal Bill and confirmed that it would seek legislative consent from both Holyrood and the Senedd, it furnished the devolved governments with a common cause and purpose. The original version, and in particular the controversial clause 11, provided that powers returning from the EU would fall to London, to be released to the devolved legislatures as and when common UK-wide frameworks were put in place. Both the contents of the Bill, as well as the accompanying need to agree a way forward for the creation, substance and governance of UK-wide frameworks post-Brexit, intensified the need for joint working. Meetings between the Finance Ministers of the Welsh and Scottish Governments as well as the First Ministers themselves in the summer of 2017 led to joint statements and, later, joint amendments to the Bill itself. 

The two governments remained steadfast in their opposition to the UK Government’s plans even as the latter made a new offer in March this year. They sent written proposals for consideration in the House of Lords, and in an unprecedented showing of joint intent, tabled continuity legislation in their respective legislatures to protect their powers from the effects of the Withdrawal Bill. 

However, in April the united front came to an end. A new version of the offending clause 11 was published alongside an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) and Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Welsh Governments and the House of Lords approved the changes. The legal text ensured that devolved powers would be frozen only in certain areas, with Westminster only asked to approve such a freeze following consideration by the devolved legislatures. The IGA contains assurances that this would not ‘normally’ happen without the consent of the devolved legislatures and that the UK Government would in practice also freeze those powers for England until common frameworks were in place. The Scottish Government could not agree to the terms and the Scottish Parliament has since refused its legislative consent to the Bill.

Where does this leave Welsh-Scottish relations going forward?

It is highly unlikely that joint working between these governments is over, for a number of reasons. First, the two continue to share what the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, once described as a ‘broadly social democratic / communitarian’ approach to questions of economic and social policy, in contrast to the ‘market-based approaches’ of the UK Government in England. As their first joint statement to the UK Government made clear back in 2015, the two are particularly united in their opposition to the fiscal policies of the Conservative Government and to its long-term aim of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. 

Second, the two governments have the very fact of devolution in common. As Nicola Sturgeon put it in 2014, with their ties to Westminster under the devolution statutes and their joint funding arrangements, there are ongoing issues of common concern for the governments of Scotland and Wales. Moreover, there is a deep scepticism of the UK’s constitutional status quo at the heart of both governments, if for very different reasons. For Nicola Sturgeon, this rests on the conviction that Scotland should be an independent country, free of the ‘writ of Westminster’. Carwyn Jones, on the other hand, has long expressed frustration with the archaism of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, and has repeatedly called for a constitutional convention on the future of the UK’s governmental structures. Fundamentally, however, both share a view that the popular legitimacy enshrined in the devolution settlements calls for stronger representation of their governments in UK-level decisions affecting Welsh and Scottish interests. 

Third, intense collaboration on the Withdrawal Bill has forged strong personal relationships between the ministers involved in the negotiations, in particular Mike Russell and Mark Drakeford. 

A new phase

Combined, these factors will be crucial as all parties look to the future and the Brexit-related battles yet to be fought. Negotiations in the JMC will move to substantive work on both the legislative and non-legislative UK-wide frameworks. The UK Government will likely seek maximum control and flexibility, as it did with the original draft of the Withdrawal Bill. At the same time, the principles agreed in the JMC in October 2017 provide that these frameworks will give the devolved nations at least as much flexibility for divergence as they have under current EU-frameworks. In short, there remains much scope for conflict between the UK and devolved governments, and with it further opportunities for joint working.

The governments may have parted ways over the Withdrawal Bill but they will undoubtedly seek to co-influence outcomes once the storm has passed. Their experience of working together over the Bill, securing concessions from the UK Government, has provided a new foundation to their relationship, which they are likely to build on going forward. 


Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to info@centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk

Latest blogs

  • 19th February 2019

    Over the course of the UK’s preparations for withdrawing from the EU, the issue of the UK’s own internal market has emerged as an issue of concern, and one that has the potentially significant consequences for devolution. Dr Jo Hunt of Cardiff University examines the implications.

  • 12th February 2019

    CCC Fellow Professor Daniel Wincott of Cardiff University examines how Brexit processes have already reshaped territorial politics in the UK and changed its territorial constitution.

  • 7th February 2019

    The future of agriculture policy across the United Kingdom after Brexit is uncertain and risky, according to a new paper by Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change. Reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy over recent years have shifted the emphasis from farming to the broader concept of rural policy. As member states have gained more discretion in applying policy, the nations of the UK have also diverged, according to local conditions and preferences.

  • 4th February 2019

    In our latest report for the "Repatriation of Competences: Implications for Devolution" project, Professor Nicola McEwen and Dr Alexandra Remond examine how, in the longer term, Brexit poses significant risks for the climate and energy ambitions of the devolved nations. These include the loss of European Structural and Investment Funds targeted at climate and low carbon energy policies, from which the devolved territories have benefited disproportionately. European Investment Bank loan funding, which has financed high risk renewables projects, especially in Scotland, may also no longer be as accessible, while future access to research and innovation funding remains uncertain. The removal of the EU policy framework, which has incentivised the low carbon ambitions of the devolved nations may also result in lost opportunities.

  • 1st February 2019

    The outcome of the various Commons votes this week left certain only that the Government would either secure an amended deal and put it to a meaningful vote on Wednesday 13 February, or in the overwhelmingly likely absence of this make a further statement that day and table another amendable motion for the following day, the Groundhog Day that may lead to a ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ for one side or the other. Richard Parry assesses the further two-week pause in parliamentary action on Brexit

Read More Posts