The talk in both Scotland and Westminster is about “Devo Max” – an idea that the so-called political elites once derided and then sprung on the voting public in Scotland and the non-voting public in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the last days of the referendum campaign. What the “vow”, signed by Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron did not promise was what powers can and shall be devolved.
Putting aside the comments about how disgraceful it was that Gordon Brown, now a backbench Labour MP, could impose such a situation on the UK, or that the English, Welsh and Northern Irish voting public did not have a say, the fact that the UK is currently in the European Union means that very little of real substance can be devolved.
The European Union has complete control (or exclusive competence) over competition rules in the internal market, fisheries, the EU customs union and even some other international agreements. It also has “shared competence” on social policy, agriculture, environmental matters, transport, energy and issues concerning security and justice. What does this leave for the Westminster government to devolve? The answer: very little.
This process shows the Westminster elite to not be wearing much underneath their clothes. It means that the powers that can be devolved to Parliaments and the Welsh Assembly are already limited and, as such, could lead to claims by the SNP that Westminster has broken its promise to the Scottish people.
Of course, the irony is that the SNP ran on a platform of immediate EU membership, if Scotland became independent. Expect though a rush to the media studios once the Home Rule Bill is introduced in the Westminster Parliament from SNPers who are “disgusted” at how “the elite in Westminster” have treated the Scottish people.
The only way to solve this problem is quite simple: leave the EU. The economic case has and is increasingly been made for a Brexit, however, the sovereignty issue has never been clearer. We would be better off managing our own affairs on trade, fisheries and energy. Outside the EU, the UK Government of the day would have far more options in terms of the devolution of power. It would have a significantly higher amount of control over the affairs of the United Kingdom and its direction in the world.
Through being a member of the EU, however, the UK cannot even allow for its total VAT take – because of EU regulations – to fall below 15%. This EU VAT tax means that VAT on petrol, groceries and other staples are fixed at a minimum level. It illustrates yet another area that, when it comes to it, the Westminster Parliament and Government is already powerless due to EU membership.
It is also ironic that at a time when further devolution is being discussed within the UK, the further centralisation of powers is being propelled forward within the EU. With Jean Claude Juncker as European Commission President we see an EU still wedded to a federalist ideal (despite what Juncker sometimes says). Juncker has already spoken about the need for an EU energy union, he is also looking into an EU-wide minimum wage and even envisages an EU army. On Juncker’s watch QMV will be introduced on many crime and justice measures that will only serve to lessen the ability of the UK – like other member states – to have a veto over issues of national importance.
The result is that the UK needs to reclaim powers from the EU before any meaningful devolution within the UK can be achieved. By doing so the UK would be able to, if it chose to, locate powers closer to the people in a way that could bring more accountability and transparency to the system. As it is though we have arguments over whether or not English MPs can vote exclusively on English matters without any recognition that what elected Members of Parliament are voting on is a mere fraction of what they could – and should – be able to decide.
It’s time that elected decision makers in the UK take back powers from the EU. If this happens, decisions will be centred within the UK and will start to be made closer to where the people are. That in itself would make us Better Off Out.