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by Alex Walker
13 March 2024
Brexit turbocharged distrust between Scotland's governments – and the relationship has not yet recovered


Brexit turbocharged distrust between Scotland's governments – and the relationship has not yet recovered

From the outset, Brexit rocked the devolution boat and placed significant strain on relations between the UK and Scottish governments.

The devolved governments were hardly consulted during the exit negotiations, and a series of important Brexit bills with considerable devolved implications were passed without their consent.

Brexit removed the common regulatory framework that came with EU membership and that had underpinned devolution since its inception, generating heated debates about post-Brexit coordination.

All in all, trust between the different levels of government took a serious battering.

But where are we now? More than four years on from Boris Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’ election, our new report examines how far the UK state has adapted to being outside the EU. When it comes to devolution – as with much else – we find that this is still a work in progress.

The new forums for regular engagement do not yet appear to be fulfilling their potential as forums for negotiation and dialogue

Brexit and the State by UK in a Changing Europe was based on in-depth interviews with government insiders. It finds that Brexit has created new demands and pressures for Scotland.

Leaving the EU has meant new policymaking responsibilities at devolved as well as UK level. In devolved areas such as agriculture, there is a need to devise and deliver more policy from scratch. The Scottish government has also opted for a policy of alignment with EU standards where practicable. And while there has been little departure so far, upcoming EU initiatives mean decisions down the track about whether to follow the EU, with divergence from the rest of the UK a possible consequence.  

Leaving the EU’s regulatory orbit heightened the need for coordination and dialogue across the UK, especially to manage the internal market and potential intra-UK divergence. The breakdown of relations that occurred during Brexit reinforced the impression that the existing forums for bringing together ministers from the different governments were largely defunct.

New structures and processes designed to address these challenges are now largely up and running. There are ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas that were previously governed by EU law, with officials from the across the UK working together on technical matters via these and more informal channels.

But the new forums that were set up in early 2022 for regular engagement between ministers – although more substantial than many were expecting – do not yet appear to be fulfilling their potential as forums for negotiation and dialogue on areas of disagreement.

Rishi Sunak has adopted a somewhat less abrasive stance towards Scotland than his two predecessors

The row that erupted last year between the UK and Scottish governments over Scotland’s deposit return recycling scheme showed that the new structures have some way to go. No political resolution was found to the disagreement over the parameters of schemes being planned for different parts of the UK, with the UK government’s decision limiting Scotland’s approach.

Joint consultations on banning wet wipes containing plastic and disposable vapes indicate a willingness to pursue policy alignment in some areas where there are shared objectives. But there are instances where timetables are set without factoring in the need for policy coordination.

The regime established by the UK Internal Market Act in 2020 continues to be a source of tension. The legislation aims to prevent the emergence of trade barriers between different parts of the UK.

But the Scottish and Welsh governments have argued it acts as a constraint on devolved policymaking – limiting their ability to set their own standards. It is notably less flexible than the EU equivalent, and there is still debate about whether a less rigid, more cooperative approach could have been taken instead.

Rishi Sunak has adopted a somewhat less abrasive stance towards Scotland than his two predecessors. Liz Truss refused to engage with the devolved governments, while Boris Johnson was quoted as saying that devolution was a disaster. Yet despite convening the first meeting of the new council for bringing together the PM and the heads of the devolved governments, it has not met since. Overall, tensions remain – and the distrust between the different levels of government that Brexit turbocharged has not yet dissipated.

On the institutional side of things, then, a post-Brexit framework is now largely operational, but is still relatively nascent and in the process of being tested.

However, parts of the system reflect a more ‘muscular’, centralised perspective while others emphasise the four nations working together in a partnership – a reflection of the UK government’s lack of consistency on its broader vision for the post-Brexit Union.

And it is the perspective that the different governments bring that will ultimately determine how smoothly it all works.

Unlike 2019, the next general election will not be a Brexit election – nor is devolution likely to be prominent in the national debate. But whoever wins will nonetheless have to decide how to navigate relations with Scotland and the other devolved governments with much not yet settled.

Alex Walker is a Researcher at UK in a Changing Europe and co-author of the new report, Brexit and the State.

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