In the second edition of our series analysing where parties stand on constitutional issues, Jack Sheldon looks at where the Conservatives stand on Brexit and Scottish independence.
On Sunday 24 November, the Conservatives launched their manifesto for the 2019 election. It is a short document by the standards of modern election manifestos with few new policy proposals, reflecting the party’s intention to maintain a disciplined campaign message centred on the now familiar ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan.
Even on Brexit itself, the manifesto is thin on detail. A Conservative government would pass the Withdrawal Agreement by the end of January, then negotiate a trade agreement by December 2020 so that the implementation period in the Withdrawal Agreement does not need to be extended. The first of these commitments should be easily deliverable for a majority government given that all Conservative candidates have pledged to support the revised deal, but the second will be extremely challenging to keep to. The manifesto states that the trade deal ‘will strengthen our Union’, but provides no further information on exactly what that would entail.
Elsewhere in the manifesto, a section titled ‘Strengthen the Union’ opens by stating that the ‘United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union in history’ – repeating almost word-for-word language from the party’s 2017 manifesto. There is an emphasis on UK government investment across the Union’s component parts, including through the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund to replace EU structural funds (on which there is no more detail than in 2017).
On constitutional matters, a continuing Conservative government would consider the findings of the ongoing Dunlop review into ‘UK Government Union capability’, but has no plans for major reforms to devolution. A separate ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ is proposed. It appears from where this is presented in the manifesto that it would focus on the relationship between the UK government, Westminster parliament and the courts in light of some of the flashpoints of the past few years rather than on territorial aspects of the constitution. However, in practice it would be hard for a commission such as that proposed to avoid the territorial dimension entirely.
The manifesto restates that the Conservatives are ‘opposed to a second independence referendum’ in Scotland, but does not go as far as some of Johnson’s public statements by explicitly ruling one out even after the Scottish Parliament election in 2021. As I have argued in another blog post, how to deal with the Scottish government’s proposal for a referendum as soon as next year will pose major dilemmas for the next UK government, whichever party is in power. Refusing to agree to a referendum in any circumstances may help the Conservatives in Scotland as they seek to appeal to pro-Union voters alienated by Labour’s more ambiguous position, but does not assuage the risk of stumbling towards a major crisis in the UK’s territorial constitution during the course of the next parliament.