There is one thing that would absolutely guarantee that the United Kingdom could not make success of Brexit, the break-up of the Union. The immediate danger of that happening has receded. The SNP lost ground in the general election and Nicola Sturgeon now talks about independence far less than she once did. But, as I say in the politics column in this week’s magazine, if Brexit is mishandled this could change.
This is why the EU withdrawal bill, which is currently paused as the whips work out how to get it through, must be changed. Clause 11 of the bill can be seen as an attempt to claim back previously devolved powers. This would allow the SNP to claim, with some justification, that Brexit looks like a London power grab. It would pave the way for the Scottish Parliament denying the bill legislative consent.
It’d be far better for the UK government to be explicit that the overwhelming majority of the 111 powers in devolved areas will be going to Holyrood when they come back from Brussels. Armed with this ammunition, Ruth Davidson would be able to mock any SNP attempt to block the Brexit bill. She’d be able to ask, do the Nats really not want Holyrood to have, say, 80-odd more powers?
Scotland is, obviously, only one aspect of the Union and Brexit. Dealing with the Welsh government’s concerns should be doable fairly quickly, though. The Northern Irish question is far more complicated however.
It is not a coincidence that the EU’s development has coincided with a rise of separatist sentiment in much of Europe. The EU offers an alternative to the nation-state — a different way to expand your market and pool risks. This is the reason why so many Catalan and Scots nationalists are such Europhiles. But once the UK has left, this argument will vanish and the traditional case for the Union may start to reassert itself. But that will require getting the Brexit legislation right.