Is It Inevitable That After Brexit Scots Will Quit United Kingdom?

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“Centralization is the death-blow of public freedom.” So Benjamin Disraeli declared. “It is the citadel of the oligarchs from which, if once erected, it will be impossible to dislodge them.” So why is Boris Johnson flouting this most cherished conservative principle?

The snub subsists in the Prime Minister’s recent “Internal Market” bill. The legislation would enable certain elements of the Withdrawal Act, Britain’s framework for leaving the European Union, to be overridden. The government’s stated intent is to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom. Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, though, reckons “Johnson’s Brexit plan will break the UK union.”

Mr. Stephens betrays a vague animus against Brexit, as he asserts that if Scotland “sticks with England, it cuts itself off from Europe.” Or, again, that Mr. Johnson’s “internal market” bill “risks leaving Scotland isolated on the edge of its own continent.” He hits closer to the mark when he criticizes the bill’s centralizing features.

Mr. Stephens believes that a true Unionist government would see Brexit as “the occasion for a new settlement between the four constituent parts of the union,” with “power reclaimed from Brussels . . . distributed to every corner of the UK.”

While Brexiteers won’t dismiss such advice out-of-hand, perhaps this rationale makes more sense for advocates of the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — who see these local governments as the logical recipients of restored political authority.

True conservatives have no wish to see Westminster acquire additional authority (save at the expense of Brussels). So their first priority should be to empower individual or corporate responsibility, not to further enable government, whether that legislature sits in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, or London.

Mr. Stephens marks that “a common set of rules is certainly needed to allow the UK market to operate freely.” Conservatives can hardly object to his observation that “there is no reason why the other nations of the union should be barred a say in negotiating trade deals and the setting of standards, or that UK-wide norms must exclude a measure of national discretion.”

One of the United Kingdom’s great strengths, Disraeli enthused, was its “territorial constitution” — in effect, the numerous checks and balances against the centripetal forces at Parliament, which would otherwise be “fatal to rural prosperity and provincial independence.”

With the Internal Market bill thus careering away from core conservative tenets, how to explain, without recourse to partisanship, the rationale of this government legislation? At best, it may be an instance of Boris Johnson “dishing” his political opponents. Sources report that the Prime Minister berates Scotland as “too leftwing.” For Mr. Stephens, it is a “prejudice reflected in the legislation now before parliament to create a UK single market.” Or may it’s simply that “power tends to corrupt.”

Far better for the Tory government to get past animosities toward the devolved assemblies and return to conservative first principles. Local authorities know their constituencies better than the center. And individuals know their own interests better than bureaucrats.

And what of those powers that return to the UK once it exits the EU orbit? State aid, say, that the assemblies argue are their exclusive purview? The Internal Market bill would remove any doubt and reserve this power to Westminster. Likewise with food safety and standards.

The assemblies enjoy this devolved authority, but the bill’s “mutual recognition and non-discrimination” clauses mean that goods sold in one part of the United Kingdom can be sold without restrictions in the rest. If England has less stringent regulations than Scotland for any good, for instance, Scotland’s “supremacy” is thus overruled.

Conservatives at Westminster may learn that their free trade aspirations run afoul of legislative barriers erected in the regions. So be it. Then let Tories argue the case for choice and freedom, and let the regional leaders explain why more regulation is the answer, not less.

Mr. Stephens writes that “a growing school of thought, in Whitehall and Westminster as well as Edinburgh,” reckons that “Brexit has made Scottish independence inevitable . . . the matter was settled as soon as England voted to leave the EU and Scotland to remain.”

Unionists will dare to presume that more than 300 years of shared history can more than compete with half-a-century of EU membership. Equally important, Brexiteers believe that the values of independence and self-government are more than English values and that the sovereignty on offer within the Union is more enticing for Scotland than scrambling for subservience to the EU.

As for the entrepreneurial growth to be unleashed by regulatory reform, have the Scots forgotten their vital contributions to Britain’s supremacy during the Industrial Revolution? If so, then Brexit’s promised economic dynamism should remind them.

Were the Government sincere in its intentions to fulfil the Brexit promise of minimal government and maximal liberty, it would rethink its tone-deaf bill. Boris Johnson might recall Disraeli’s encomium to “the children of industry and toil”: They believe “their social and political interests are involved in a system by which their rights and liberties have been guaranteed: and I agree with them — I have the same old-fashioned notions.”


Mr. MacLean, a freelancer based at Nova Scotia, writes the Brexit Diary for The New York Sun.

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