Ex-EU powers must be held at Westminster, not passed down to the devolved assemblies
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BY HENRY HILL
The SNP are squaring off for another confrontation with the Government. This time, the battlefield is control over so-called ‘level playing field’ provisions once we leave the EU.
Michael Gove’s arguments on the London side are straightforward common sense: that powers which were previously vested in the EU to harmonise the European Single Market should now be vested in London to harmonise the British internal market.
The alternative is allowing every jurisdiction to set its own rules on a whole host of areas, such as food labelling, which may seem individually minor but quickly add up to serious barriers to trade.
Ministers further argue, correctly, that as these powers have never been devolved to Edinburgh or Cardiff the devolved governments are not entitled to them.
For their part, the devocrats claim that instead whole areas of policy are simply ‘devolved’, even if it was previously overseen by Brussels. Thus, after we leave the EU, all these powers need to be passed straight to them.
It isn’t difficult to see the danger here. The SNP government in Edinburgh would not hesitate to use any new lever at its disposal to foul up the smooth functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through the exercise of new powers or turning new ‘inter-governmental’ dispute resolution mechanisms into grandstands for grievance.
Meanwhile the idea that UK-wide policy should be set not by our united Parliament but through consultation with the devolved assemblies (which tolerate no such trespassing on their turf) is another blow against the idea of Britain as a legitimate nation-state.
For now, the Party seems fairly united on this question, with Scottish Tories such as Ruth Davidson and Luke Graham, the head of Downing Street’s ‘Union Unit’, vigorously contesting nationalist claims of a ‘power grab’.
But we must not forget that it was other Scottish Conservatives, elevating tactics above strategy, who played a crucial role in defeating Theresa May’s efforts to keep these powers in London back in 2018 – an set a time-bomb under the Union as they did so.
Those unionists who helped to peddle Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘power grab’ line back then had no answer to the detailed arguments advanced by groups such as These Islands, which set out the dangers in detail.
But Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents, and the Government should exploit this newfound unity to press for a much broader re-assessment of the mass devolution of ex-EU powers.
At stake is more than just constitutional principle. The ability of the central government to enforce the terms of the trade deals we negotiate will play a critical role in Britain’s success at carving out a new international role, and a country plagued by constant constitutional deadlock will not be attractive to the international investment the United Kingdom ought to be wooing.
Having already tripped up over Northern Ireland and introduced a commercial border inside the kingdom, the Government must recognise how deeply entwined the fate of its entire programme is with the battle over the constitution. The fate of Brexit, of ‘global Britain’, and of the Union may all depend on winning it.
Henry Hill is a journalist and commentator and Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on twitter: @HCH_Hill