The devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now 21 years old. The implications of Brexit for the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly were a feature of the last Parliament, with many of the challenges and tensions as yet unresolved. These overlap with ongoing debates about reforming inter-governmental relations, devolving more power to Wales and restoring power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, and with the independence debate in Scotland.
In July 2019 the UK Government asked Lord Dunlop to consider how it “meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union” as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Dunlop has yet to report, but the Conservative Party’s manifesto said it would “carefully consider” any recommendations.
When the UK leaves the EU, powers exercised at EU level will be ‘repatriated’ to the UK. Some will become the sole preserve of the UK Government and Parliament; others will transfer to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Talks are ongoing between the UK Government and devolved administrations regarding common frameworks, areas in which they will agree to co-ordinate certain policy areas.
An outline framework was published in July 2019 and the most recent quarterly report on the common frameworks process (required under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) was presented to Parliament on 24 October 2019. A delivery plan enables all frameworks to be agreed and the majority implemented by the end of 2020. The Conservative Party’s manifesto said that it would replace EU Structural Funds with a UK Shared Prosperity Fund, to “bind together the whole of the United Kingdom, tackling inequality and deprivation in each of our four nations.”
Several political parties have argued for broader reform of inter-governmental relations in the UK. The Liberal Democrat manifesto committed to extending Scottish and Welsh Government involvement in developing UK-wide policy frameworks and establishing a dispute resolution process. The Plaid Cymru manifesto included a role for the three devolved legislatures in “the decision to go to war”, as well as in ratifying future trade deals.
The Conservative Party manifesto pledged to “look at the broader aspects of our constitution” after Brexit by establishing a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission. This would look at “the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people.” The Democratic Unionist Party manifesto suggested a “National Convention” to “map out a new vision for the Union.”
The Liberal Democrats “want home rule” for each of the UK nations. Labour policy is to create “a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly,” although it has a “preferred option” of “an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions.” Plaid Cymru also wants to reform the House of Lords “so that it becomes a directly elected upper chamber” that represents the English regions and UK nations.
A revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland formed part of the Withdrawal Agreement published on 17 October 2019. This included a consent mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will apply after the end of the transition period.
Sinn Féin has argued that a no-deal Brexit would justify a referendum on Irish unity. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 authorises the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to hold a referendum if it “appears likely” a majority of voters would support reunification. In September 2019, the Prime Minister said he could not see “any reason for a border poll.” A Lord Ashcroft survey in September 2019 found that – excluding don’t knows – 51% of voters in Northern Ireland would back Irish unity, although other polls show much lower support.
The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017 and the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been fully functioning since March 2017. Talks are ongoing between the main political parties to restore the devolved institutions. The statutory deadline for Executive formation and thus new elections has been extended several times, most recently on 21 October 2019.
Speaking at a meeting of the British-Irish Council in November 2019, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said that 13 January 2020 was a “real deadline” and that if there was no restoration of power sharing by then, he would have a “duty” to call fresh elections. In the absence of an election, primary legislation to extend the deadline will be required.
In September 2019, Mr Smith also suggested that Direct Rule for Northern Ireland could be introduced at “the earliest opportunity” if an Executive could not be formed. The Institute for Government argues a no-deal Brexit would “force Westminster to make decisions that Northern Ireland civil servants cannot.”
Given the absence of devolved institutions, the UK Parliament voted in October 2019 to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland. Regulations for the former have to be introduced by 13 January 2020, and for the latter by 31 March 2020.
The Conservative Party manifesto pledged to “devolve responsibility for corporation tax” and “consider” transferring responsibility for short-haul air passenger duty.
The Scottish Government believes that Scotland, like Northern Ireland, should have a “differentiated” form of Brexit given that it also voted Remain in June 2016 (the UK Government says Northern Ireland is a unique case). Following that referendum, the Scottish National Party leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argued for a second referendum on independence.
Holyrood is currently considering the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. This sets the framework for future referendums, although the Scottish Government has made clear it will legislate for an independence ballot only if a Section 30 Order is agreed with the UK Government (as it was between 2012 and 2014). The SNP manifesto said it will “demand” that the UK Government “transfers the necessary powers” to hold a referendum by the end of 2020.
As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson ruled out another referendum, although other Conservative and Labour politicians have indicated that an SNP majority at the 2021 Holyrood elections could constitute a “mandate” for the granting of a s30 Order. In 2014, 55% of voters in Scotland supported its remaining part of the UK, but opinion polling suggests support for independence has increased since then. Polling analyst Sir John Curtice says it “can no longer be presumed” that Scotland would vote to remain part of the UK a second time.
The Liberal Democrats “oppose a second independence referendum and oppose independence”, while the Labour Party believes that independence would be “economically devastating”. Its manifesto said it would “not agree to a Section 30 order request” in the “early years” of a Labour government.
The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, which is independent of the Scottish Government, had its first meeting on 26 October 2019 and will continue to meet until April 2020. Its remit includes considering how to “overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit.” The Assembly’s summary report will be prepared in May 2020 and published thereafter.
In October 2019, the Welsh Government published Reforming our Union: Shared Governance in the UK, which considered how the UK might face “the potential challenges resulting from Brexit.” It argued that as a “voluntary association,” the UK “must be open to any of its parts democratically to choose to withdraw from the Union.”
The document added that a government in either Scotland or Wales that had “secured an explicit electoral mandate” to hold a referendum was “entitled to expect” the UK Parliament to make “appropriate arrangements.” The Welsh Government hopes that in such a referendum “the relevant electorate would vote for its territory to remain in membership of the UK.”
In November 2019, Plaid Cymru established a commission to “look at the detail of how an independent Wales could work.” Recent polling suggests support for Welsh independence has increased. A YouGov survey commissioned by Plaid found that 24% would vote Yes in an independence referendum, rising to 33% if it meant Wales could remain part of the EU. Plaid believes “Wales should become an independent member of the European Union” by 2030.
There is an ongoing debate about more powers for the National Assembly for Wales (which will be renamed the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru in May 2020). In October 2019, the Commission on Justice in Wales recommended the devolution of policing and justice. The Liberal Democrat manifesto supported this and the creation of “a distinct legal jurisdiction for Wales.” The Liberal Democrats would also devolve air passenger duty and “substantially” reduce the number of matters reserved to Westminster under the Wales Act 2017.
Plaid Cymru’s manifesto also supported devolving justice and air passenger duty, as well as migration policy, welfare powers, broadcasting and corporation tax, and the retention of “VAT revenues assigned to Wales.”
Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has implications for the UK Parliament and governing arrangements in England.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto said it would enact “permissive legislation” to empower groups of local authorities to establish devolved governance in England, “for example to a Cornish Assembly or a Yorkshire Parliament.” The Labour Party also supports the One Yorkshire campaign, and its manifesto said it would re-establish regional Government Offices in England and make directly-elected mayors “more accountable to local councillors and elected representatives.”
- No Deal Brexit and the Union, Institute for Government
- Reforming our union: shared governance in the UK, Welsh Government
- Intergovernmental relations in the United Kingdom, House of Commons Library
Insights for the new Parliament
This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.