Thursday, 8 March 2018

Who needs anyone else's agreement?

At the heart of the debate about the so-called ‘power grab’ by Westminster as part of the Brexit process is a belief that common frameworks in some areas are a good thing which will help to maintain the coherence of the market between the different parts of the UK.  As far as I can make out, there’s no real difference between the position of the UK Government and the devolved governments on that question; the issue is about how to achieve it.  In essence, although they don’t put it such clear terms themselves, the position of the UK Government is that such commonality can only be achieved by Westminster deciding the framework and effectively imposing it as a constraint on how the devolved administrations can use their powers.  From the point of view of the devolved administrations, any such framework should be negotiated and agreed, rather than being imposed, starting from the assumption that in areas where they hold the responsibility they are equal partners and should be treated as such.
Perhaps the UK Government will back down under the persistent pressure being applied, perhaps not.  But if they decide not to change course, there can only be one winner from this conflict in the short term: since all powers held by the devolved administrations are held only by the grace of a central parliament which reserves to itself the right to revoke them at any time, Westminster can always trump anything decided in Cardiff or Edinburgh (Belfast being currently in no position to decide anything anyway).  That is the whole point of devolution – it does not, and was never intended to, create any sort of ‘equality’ between the devolved parliaments and the central one.  It's a point which also goes to the heart of the difference between a voluntary union of independent states and a union based, ultimately, on conquest and domination.
Of course, Westminster’s belief in the utility of common frameworks extends only as far as the borders of the UK.  Much of what Brexit is intended to achieve (and in which it will succeed if it actually happens) is about weakening or even destroying existing common frameworks.  What is a good thing when applied to the Wales-England border is a bad thing when applied to the England-France border.  That is so obviously the case that it doesn’t even require anyone to explain why.
There is though one common aspect between the two situations, and that is the determination of Westminster that they, and they alone, should make the rules.  They try to present the EU rules as being ‘imposed’ by foreign bureaucrats, but the reality is that they are negotiated between the 28 member states.  The problem, for the English government, is that they have never been able to accept that in such a negotiation they might not always get everything they want.  Seen from that perspective, there’s nothing in the least surprising about their determination to press ahead with establishing the common post-Brexit UK frameworks without having to negotiate with anyone else.  Their stance is entirely consistent – the Westminster government must make all the rules.
That’s why I don’t really expect them to back down much more on the EU legislation despite the hostility of Cardiff and Edinburgh.  Their world view prevents them seeing any alternative.  It also helps to explain the gulf in understanding between the UK and the EU27; the UK is still waiting for the EU to accept that the UK must always be allowed to decide everything for itself, without ever having to get anyone else’s agreement. 

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