As its Yorkshire Day ( yes happy days Tykes) and what better way, and day, to reflect on our current devolution mess through the lens of Brexit.
So I will start repeating stuff that I have been saying for the last two decades – the English Question remains the unfinished bit of the devolution jigsaw for the UK. In other words there is still unfinished business that started with the wide sweeping devolution agenda of the first Labour government in 1997 and that resulted in some sort of settlement for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London.
And whilst our capital city has enjoyed a significant devolution of powers since 1997 the stalling of the devolution deal in South Yorkshire where I live is a painful reminder of the dog’s dinner that constitutional reform is in the UK.
The ambitions for the city regions have been articulated, and indeed enacted in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, but not HOW they fit into the wider constitutional jigsaw. The fact is that no one has clearly articulated the case for devolution or the right and appropriate constitutional settlement for a modern 21stcentury UK and specifically how England sits alongside current constitutional arrangements.
What Brexit has done is expose the many fault lines in both our political system and our constitution, particularly around the devolution settlements where the weaknesses are most apparent. This schism was apparent from the onset.
During the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act, the constitutional tensions were laid bare, with the UK government’s treatment of the devolved nations the EU Withdrawal Act and specifically with Clause 11, when it became apparent that Brexit creates those “special circumstances” that shows that London can overrule anything from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
It is also a significant failure of politicians on all sides not to take the fragile nature of hard fought and won devolution settlements seriously and pay attention to them. The UK’s hard-won devolution settlements are just that – hard-won- but also relatively new. The Scottish parliament, Stormont and the Welsh Assembly are barely 20 years old and the EU referendum result is a huge challenge for our steep learning curve on the new governance.
It is also paying attention to detail and understanding our recent history. People who don’t bother to read and understand the Good Friday Agreement have no place at any negotiating table. But its not just Northern Ireland that feel aggrieved. There has been scant regard to the Sewell Convention that states that the UK Parliament “will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent” of the devolved parliaments. But it is just that, a convention, and in 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that since Sewel remains just a political convention neither Wales or Scotland could veo the UKs withdrawal from the UK.
But what of England? And what of the constituent parts, including Gods Own county of Yorkshire? Having worked for the last two years with civil society groups across all the constituent parts of the UK it is notable that Westminster remains as remote to people in England as to those living in the Outer Hebrides. The difference for people in Scotland is that they have an intermediary in the Scottish government who whilst in no ways perfect is much closer to home and responsive than anything based in London.
Up and down England where we ran Round Tables on Brexit the narrative is that for civil society Brexit is that “thing” that is being done to us but not for us. That it’s about conversations ‘over there’ but not here. That people are not being listened to and are removed from the political process. And the one big take home is the tendency to confuse Westminster with England, especially by those who occupy the hallowed turf of Westminster. Brexit feels like, and to a large extent is, a Westminster driven project, not even an English one.
Brexit brings to the surface some of the fundamental problems successive politicians approach to devolution as a concept. For those of us in Yorkshire this is just exposing a sore that has been running for a long time. Delete the word Brexit and insert the word transport spend for example.
And so on Yorkshire Day the cry of “Take Back Control” has a hollow ring. Yes please we all say BUT the reality of the experience for Scotland and Wales since 2016 suggests that control, as and when it comes, will go back to Westminster and Whitehall. Whilst acknowledging that South Yorkshire has not played a very canny hand in the devolution game (possibly an understatement) it is also true control will not be devolved down in any meaningful way until we have proper devolution and we are some way off that – even for those who live in Manchester.
Boris Johnson said this week that Brexit ‘done right’ could ‘cement and intensify’ the union. How exactly he didn’t say. The reality is that we are now in uncharted waters, undertaking a huge legislative change in a relatively short space of time when our politics is being sorely tried and tested. These tensions would have emerged at some stage. Brexit has just exposed them more starkly and possibly quicker. Today the Yorkshire Post said now is absolutely the right time for this Government to break the impasse on Yorkshire devolution. Amen to that. Now is also the time for a steadier, less reactive hand in negotiating Brexit and a long term devolution settlement that covers ALL the nations and regions of the UK.