Brexit provides a wonderful opportunity to deal simultaneously with two major political difficulties. These are the unbalanced devolution arrangements in the UK and what is to be done about the relationship between the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and the UK after Brexit. Both problems could be solved by the RoI leaving the EU at the same time as the UK and forming a federation with the UK.
The unfinished business of UK devolution
Three of the four home countries – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have each been granted elected assemblies or parliaments. From these are formed devolved governments which administer increasingly significant powers such as the control of policing, education and the NHS. The personnel of the devolved governments and assemblies/parliaments have by their words and actions made it clear that do not think of the national interest of the UK but of what is best for their particular home country.
The fourth home country England has neither an assembly nor a government and consequently no body of politicians to speak for England and to look after her interests. A procedure to have only MPs sitting for English seats voting on English only legislation (English votes for English laws or EVEL for short) began a trial in 2015, but it has few teeth because it is difficult to disentangle what is English only legislation, not least because MPs for seats outside of England argue that any Bill dealing solely with English matters has financial implications for the rest of the UK and, consequently, is not an England only Bill. Nor does EVEL allow English MPs to initiate English only legislation. Most importantly England, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is left without any national political representatives to concentrate on purely English domestic matters.
The House of Lords review of its first year in operation makes EVEL’s limitations clear:
The EVEL procedures introduced by the Government address, to some extent, the West Lothian Question. They provide a double-veto, meaning that legislation or provisions in bills affecting only England (or in some cases, England and Wales, or England and Wales and Northern Ireland), can only be passed by the House of Commons with the support of both a majority of MPs overall, and of MPs from the nations directly affected by the legislation.
Yet English MPs’ ability to enact and amend legislation does not mirror their capacity, under EVEL, to resist legislative changes. The capacity of English MPs to pursue a distinct legislative agenda for England in respect of matters that are devolved elsewhere does not equate to the broader capacity of devolved legislatures to pursue a distinct agenda on matters that are devolved to them
Not content with denying England a parliament and government of her own the UK government has made strenuous efforts to Balkanise England by forcing elected mayors on cities and the devolution of considerable powers to local authority areas built around cities with Manchester in the vanguard of this development. The ostensible idea of this Balkanisation is to pretend that an English parliament and government is not necessary because devolution is being delivered on a regional basis to England: its covert intention is to ensure that England cannot act as a political entity in its own right and have its representatives asking awkward questions such as why are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receiving so much more per capita from the Treasury each year than England receives. (The latest figures are: Scotland £10,536 per person, Northern Ireland, £10,983 per person, Wales £9,996 per person, England £8,816 per person).
To balance the devolution settlement in the UK England needs a parliament and a government, not just to give her parity with the other home countries, but to prevent the Balkanisation of England. This could be done simply and without great expense by returning the Westminster Parliament to what it was originally, the English Parliament. It could also function as the federal Parliament when that was required to convene . Hence, no new parliament building would be required. Members of the Federal Parliament would be the elected representatives of the devolved assemblies of the four Home Countries and what is now the RoI.
The Republic of Ireland
Should the RoI decide to remain as a member of the EU she risks a hard border that would potentially mean an end to the free movement between the UK and the RoI and the RoI having to deal with EU imposed tariffs on imports from the UK, and UK reciprocal tariffs on goods exported by the RoI to the UK. It is important to understand that a “hard” border would not just be that between the RoI and Northern Ireland, but between the RoI and the whole of the UK.
The land border between the RoI and Northern Ireland creates two potential dangers for the UK. It could operate as a back door for illegal immigrants to enter the UK and promote the smuggling of goods. At present the UK government is attempting to foist onto the British public a nonsense which says that there will be no need of a “hard” border between the RoI and Northern Ireland to prevent illegal immigration. Two lines of argument are employed to justify this. First, that it can be controlled by greater technological surveillance and stricter checks on employers, foreign benefit claimants and landlords. Second, it is claimed that the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member will mean that the UK will be much less attractive to people in the EU as a place to migrate to because they will not be able to get jobs or benefits.
This shows either a shocking naivety or cynicism of a high order. The idea that people would not be able to gain employment simply because they are EU citizens ignores the fact that many illegal migrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) already do this. Moreover, even immigrants here legally have an incentive to work in the black market because they can avoid tax.
As for not paying benefits, how would the authorities distinguish between the millions from the EU already in the UK who are almost certain to have the right to remain, and any new EU migrants? It would be nigh on impossible. It is remarkably easy to get a National Insurance number and even if employers had stricter duties placed upon them not to employ EU citizens without a work permit or visa, there are plenty of employers who would be willing to employ those they knew were illegal because they are cheaper and more easily controlled and sacked than British workers or the illegal employer (this is a common thing with gangmasters) is an immigrant and makes a point of only employing other immigrants from his or her own country. Once employed and with a National Insurance number they could claim in work benefits readily enough and probably out of work benefits too because there is not the massive resources of manpower which would be required to do the necessary checks on whether they were eligible.
Whatever is said now there could not in practice be an open border with the UK. Even if in the immediate post-Brexit period there continued the present agreement between the UK and the RoI of free movement, and this is what Theresa May is proposing, huge numbers of immigrants to the UK coming via the RoI would create uproar amongst a British public who felt cheated that a hard border between the RoI and Northern Ireland would have to be created.
But even without the migrant question the idea that no “hard” border will be necessary could be sunk if the EU or the UK imposes tariffs or quotas on goods. The ex-EU Commissioner Peter Sutherland has pointed this out forcefully:
“We have been told by a number of Conservative Party spokespeople that Britain will leave the common customs area of the EU.
If this is true, the customs union, which relates to sharing a common external tariff of the EU, will have to be maintained by all other EU countries with the UK following its withdrawal. Goods will have to be checked at borders.”
While the RoI Foreign Secretary Charlie Flanagan has said a hard Brexit would be unworkable for Ireland.
The RoI would have the worry that if they remained in the EU they could find themselves suddenly saddled with tariffs. If a genuine Brexit is achieved by the UK then it is possible that either the EU will place tariffs or quotas on UK goods and the UK responds in kind or that this will happen because no agreement can be reached and the UK leaves the EU and trades under WTO rules. This would be more than an inconvenience for the RoI because she has very substantial economic ties to the UK.
Part Two, setting out a solution of this Ireland question, will be published later this week.