The government’s new “internal market” was initially portrayed as a means to allow for the “seamless functioning” of commerce between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. So it’s paradoxical that the presentation of the internal market bill to parliament this week cast fresh doubts over not only this “seamless” functionality, but on the sustainability of the devolved settlement itself.
The bill had already sent shockwaves through the north and south of Ireland before it was published. Rumours circulated that Westminster intended to unravel legally binding arrangements for Northern Ireland, prompting new anxieties about the prospect of a hard border. The shock resignation of the permanent secretary to the government legal department over the legal consequences of the bill heightened fears. Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, admitted prior to publication that the Brexit strategy breaks international law.
Much of the contention surrounds the bill’s regime of mutual recognition, which requires regulatory standards for goods to be the same across the four nations. Politicians in devolved assemblies believe it will, in practice, mean a race to the bottom to match the low regulatory standards thought to be favoured by Conservatives. The bill will also give politicians in Westminster a say over infrastructure projects – which some in Wales have interpreted as giving London a means to, for example, revive plans that have been rejected by the Welsh assembly.
Nicola Sturgeon described the bill as “an abomination on almost every level” and a “no-holds-barred, full-frontal assault on devolution”. Handing Conservative UK ministers powers to overrule the Scottish parliament, the SNP argues, opens the door for corporations with deep pockets to capture Scotland’s policy space.
Areas such as food, health, agriculture and the environment may be dragged to the lowest common denominator as they are shaped increasingly by Westminster – or, more specifically, by the UK’s future trade deals.
All of this matters, especially in the context of the UK’s trading position. The country has shifted from being a member of the world’s largest single market to seeking trade deals alone and from an ever more isolated position. This enfeebled bargaining hand, coupled with the presence of predatory US corporate lobbying groups desperate to get their hands on the NHS and accelerate deregulation, threatens to drive a dramatic reimagining of our economy and society.
The Scottish government is not alone in its fury at the internal market proposal. The Labour-run Welsh government accused Westminster of “stealing powers” from devolved administrations and sacrificing the future of the union. The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, described the bill as an “enormous power grab” and Wales’ counsel general, Jeremy Miles, called it it “an attack on democracy”. David Melding, a Welsh Conservative shadow frontbencher, resigned in protest. In Northern Ireland, Nichola Mallon, the minister for infrastructure, stressed that “devolution deserves respect not contempt”.
The UK government’s motivation remains murky. It may simply see the devolution settlement as a necessary victim of its broader power play with Brussels. What seems more likely, particularly given this government’s taste for a high-stakes gamble and centralising power, is that this bill is part of a deliberate move to shore up power in London or the beginning of a gradual reseating of power from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The internal market bill will weaken the authority of devolved parliaments to shape the policy landscape at a period when scrutiny has seldom been more vital. The UK is battling with a public health crisis, the turbulence of Brexit, the prospect of mass unemployment, one of the deepest recessions in three centuries and the challenge of securing trade deals. It is even more important, amid the seismic shifts in our economic landscape, that devolved governments are empowered.
The settlement is ultimately a struggle rooted in questions of where power rests, and who is able to shape the future of our economy and thus our society. Cast your mind back to the final days of the Scottish independence referendum and Gordon Brown’s intervention, arguing for a system of government as close to federalism as you can have in the UK. The reality of this promise is yet to transpire and rhetorically we are even further from it than we were six years ago.
In the short period that Boris Johnson has been prime minister, he has already started what could be a fundamental reordering of the UK constitution. His government has attempted to reduce accountability, disempower our courts and strengthen the power of Westminster. Despite all of the rhetoric about the need to treasure the union, the Conservatives’ actions have actively harmed its future.