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Brexit and the Union: what next for Scotland in the UK?

Published: 10 September 2019

Philip Rycroft, former Permanent Secretary at DEXEU and now Associate Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change and Honorary Professor at the University of Edinburgh, reflects on what the ongoing Brexit uncertainties may mean for Scotland and the Union.

Parliament is prorogued and the Brexit stalemate seemingly as intractable as ever. A general election is highly likely, but when and under what circumstances remains unclear. The Brexit process continues to disrupt political norms and the country faces seemingly interminable uncertainty.

Of those uncertainties, none is more important than what Brexit means for the future of the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it. This was the subject of my lecture to the David Hume Institute on Monday 9 September.

Brexit has already asked hard questions of the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. It has dominated the interaction between them to the exclusion of almost anything else.

Despite the bitter political differences between the two governments, there has been a lot of discussion, mediated under the auspices of the Joint Ministerial Committee, the main forum for handling inter-governmental relations within the UK.

What lessons have we learnt for the process so far?

The first is that Brexit cuts deep into the governance of the UK. Brexit adds another layer of almost exponential complexity to the already complex arrangements through which the UK, post-devolution, is now governed. This is particularly so for the handling of powers that return from Brussels and sit within devolved competence.

The second is that Brexit has further soured the relationship between the Scottish and the UK governments. An SNP Government determined to re-open the question of independence and a UK Government locked in early to a prospectus for a hard Brexit outside of the Customs Union and Single Market were unlikely to agree on a way forward.

But we are not even close to the end of the Brexit process. What follows exit will continue to put immense pressure on the relationship between the two governments, at a practical and at a political level.

Whether we leave with a deal or no deal, the UK still has to negotiate its future relationship with the EU. It has to negotiate new trade deals across the world. It has to sort out the domestic policy consequences of exit, including important issues such as policy on immigration from EEA countries. It has to sort out the handling of the UK internal market post-Brexit. Dealing with the economic restructuring consequent on Brexit will require cross-UK coordination. All of these things engage the devolved competences of the Scottish Government.

In the current political upheaval, it remains possible that Brexit will be put on hold or reversed through a second referendum. This opens up an even more uncertain future. A second Brexit referendum campaign would be bitterly fought. How that would manifest itself in attitudes towards this Union, of the United Kingdom, could potentially be profound.

What does all this mean for the future of Scotland in the Union of the United Kingdom?

Whatever lies ahead, it is almost certain that the pressure on the current settlement will grow, in governance and political intensity. Support for independence appears to be edging upwards in Scotland. Meanwhile, in England leave voters prioritise Brexit above all else, even at the cost of the UK Union.

It is a fair assumption that an SNP-led Government will continue to use the uncertainties and upheaval of Brexit to press the case for independence.

How will the UK Government choose to respond to the pressures on the devolution settlement and Scotland’s place in the Union?

It has three broad choices.

It could rely on existing structures. This is the simple path. But the debates and tensions that will come down the post-Brexit track will be in multiples of what we have seen to date. This looks like a risky strategy, particularly in the run up to the May 2021 elections in Scotland.

A second option is to work with current structures, but to seek a transformational shift in the way in which Whitehall works within the devolved system of governance of the UK. The key to this would be a serious overhaul of the system of inter-governmental relations, to bring the devolved governments earlier and deeper into the counsels of the UK Government.

There is a third option, to think more radically about the structure of the UK and to look for a federal solution that would guarantee the voice of the devolved parts of the UK in all the major decisions taken about the future of the country.

Under the pressure of Brexit, the question is whether there is a form of devolution settlement that could garner clear majority support in Scotland – and England and Wales and Northern Ireland – and would be sustainable in the long term, demonstrating unequivocally that the interests of the devolved parts of the UK are heard, understood and respected in the highest counsels of the land.

What choice will a future UK Government make? The leaving of one Union does not have to lead to the foundering of another. But unless this or the next Prime Minister makes the right choice that might be their legacy.