What can we hope to get out of Brexit? One benefit has to be sovereignty. But what does that actually mean for Britain today? Devolution in Britain has been piecemeal and fragmented. Politicians have responded to pressure for change without having a clear vision of how Britain could operate with multiple parliaments and assemblies. New powers were devolved in what appeared a haphazard way. Whatever the perceived political differences between the nations there was a limit to how much they could actually diverge, as many of the decisions taken in Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast were constrained by EU rules and regulations. The different nations of Britain were obliged to be aligned because of the EU.
The Scottish SNP Government on a number of occasions explained why it could not introduce progressive policies because of EU regulations. It had to put ScotRail and the Scottish ferries out to competitive tendering. In the case of procurement, it said that it could not prevent blacklisters from bidding for government projects or insist upon companies paying the living wage because the EU’s internal market commissioner had advised them that the policy suggested by Scottish Labour was, to quote, ‘unlikely’ to be possible.
In order to achieve a progressive Brexit, we have to ensure that we have class unity that cuts across nations and regions, but at the same time allows powers to be devolved to the level most effective for democracy, transparency and accountability. Not an easy circle to square. That is why we badly need the Constitutional Convention as promised in Labour’s manifesto. I would argue that we cannot wait for a Labour Government before starting this process; we need an agreed approach to take into the next election campaign.
There are some immediate issues that arise out of the repatriation of powers from the EU. While the SNP government has complained about Westminster grabbing powers, it has at same time come to an agreement to establish Common Frameworks. This is likely to involve a number of joint ministerial committees that could come to replicate EU Commissions by being technocratic, insular, power hungry and closed to public scrutiny. So it is vital that we think through the democratic structures for cross-Britain decision making that can take account of the devolved parliaments and assemblies and create democratic structures for the regions of England. We do not want to find, having been released from some of the restrictions of the EU, that they are re-imposed by a British Tory government.
So if we want the best out of Brexit, we need to think further than a list of powers and consider what structures we need to ensure that our economy is democratically accountable, that we can redistribute wealth between the regions and nations and which can retain class solidarity. Jeremy Corbyn stated in his Coventry speech in February 2018: ‘As we change our constitutional relationship with Europe, we must also adjust our own arrangements. Just as many felt that power was too centralised and unaccountable in Brussels, so many feel that about Westminster’.
One thing is clear: when powers are repatriated, unless there is the political will to do things differently we will find that the implicit ideology of the EU is repatriated along with the powers. Take agriculture. The Scottish Tenant Farmers’ Association is optimistic about Brexit as it sees that there is an opportunity to target support payments to smaller farms rather than large multinationals. The withdrawal from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy will be well received in Scottish fishing communities but without further change the British fisheries management regime will stay in place. The repatriation of power gives an opportunity to end the marketization of licenses for fish quotas. The Scottish Government could support and encourage cooperatives at both fishing and processing stages and bring much needed investment into neglected communities. We could start straight away by arguing for the right of workers in Pinney’s fish processing factory to take over their company.
The requirement for competitive tendering of public services has to be removed so that transport and the utilities can be renationalised. The ability to borrow to invest in infrastructure and to give state aid to industries or different ownership models must be permitted.
Long term, we must look to a different constitutional setup that brings the nations and regions together to ensure that the interests of working people are properly represented. The House of Lords must be abolished and, perhaps, replaced with an elected chamber responsible for cross UK decision making. Getting the best out of Brexit will involve radical change, and we know that the Tories won’t deliver it. We have to work together through political and union action and in communities whose needs are ignored to ensure that we win our Brexit, not the Tory’s Brexit.
Pauline Bryan is co-author with Vince Mills of ‘Getting the best out of Brexit’ published by Radical Options for Scotland and Europe.