Holyrood’s vote high­lights the case for fed­eral think­ing

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

Bri­tain’s Brexit ar­gu­ment be­gan life as a dis­pute be­tween re­main­ing in the Euro­pean Union and leav­ing it. Af­ter the vote to leave in 2016, that orig­i­nal dis­pute has grad­u­ally been over­laid by the bat­tle be­tween a hard and soft Brexit. The House of Lords de­bates on the EU with­drawal bill, which have sig­nif­i­cantly soft­ened the bill, and which come to an end to­day, can best be un­der­stood in that hard/soft con­text. When the bill re­turns to the Com­mons (Con­ser­va­tive fac­tions are still squab­bling over the terms) the ar­gu­ments will con­tinue along this same hard/soft axis.

How­ever, hard/soft is not the only axis. In the de­volved na­tions there is a dif­fer­ent is­sue. This asks which should have the fi­nal word on Brexit: West­min­ster or the de­volved gov­ern­ments – and in what com­bi­na­tion? The an­swers dif­fer in each de­volved coun­try. Though North­ern Ire­land voted to re­main in the EU, its union­ist lead­ers have backed Theresa May for a hard Brexit.

Af­ter ini­tial ob­jec­tions to Mrs May’s cen­tral­ist ap­proach, the Welsh gov­ern­ment won con­ces­sions that were re­flected in a gov­ern­ment climb­down; it has now struck a deal. The Scots, how­ever, said those were in­suf­fi­cient, so dis­pute still rages un­re­solved there. Yes­ter­day the Scot­tish par­lia­ment voted over­whelm­ingly to re­ject the Brexit bill al­to­gether, with the Con­ser­va­tives dis­sent­ing.

This is­sue typ­i­cally gets too lit­tle at­ten­tion in Eng­land. Even a lot of Scots are rel­a­tively un­moved by what can be a dry dis­pute. Yet the ar­gu­ment ought to mat­ter to all who care about the func­tion­ing of the UK. At stake are es­sen­tial is­sues about the work­ing of a de­volved state, or even in time a fed­eral one. The ques­tion of who de­cides about is­sues that were pre­vi­ously EU com­pe­tences – such as GM crops, fish­ing quo­tas, state aid to in­dus­tries, data pro­tec­tion, en­ergy la­belling and in­ter­net se­cu­rity – mat­ters. So, though, do the mech­a­nisms for re­solv­ing dis­putes and strik­ing com­pro­mises with which all can live. The UK is not so prac­tised at that. This sum­mer the UK supreme court is likely to de­cide some rules.

Both sides in the Scot­tish di­vide have ar­gu­ments that should be re­spected. The SNP gov­ern­ment leads a coun­try that voted strongly to re­main. It is right to fight its pro-Euro­pean cor­ner. But West­min­ster is also right to be con­cerned about pro­tect­ing the UK sin­gle mar­ket from too much in­ter­nal pro­tec­tion­ism. The Brexit out­come must be har­mo­nious with the de­vo­lu­tion set­tle­ment, and not dis­rup­tive to either de­vo­lu­tion or to the sin­gle mar­ket within the UK.

Al­most inevitably, these ar­gu­ments are sat­u­rated with party pol­i­tics. The SNP wants a con­fronta­tion that puts Scot­tish sep­a­ratism back on the agenda. Labour and the Lib Dems, who both backed the SNP yes­ter­day, want to com­pro­mise, but can­not risk be­ing ma­noeu­vred into al­liance with the Tories. Ul­ti­mately, the cur­rent row re­flects the SNP’s sep­a­ratist yearn­ings, Mrs May’s fear of con­ces­sions that would split her party, and the other par­ties’ fear of be­ing squeezed. In the short term, how­ever, give and take will be needed. In the long term, Bri­tain needs a de­volved pol­i­tics which, as in coun­tries like Ger­many and Canada, al­lows stand­offs of this kind to be re­solved by rules of law as well as by raw pol­i­tics.

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