At this stage a debate about the post-Brexit UK Internal / Single Market is unlikely to generate much heat or light – expect for possibly amongst a select band of constitutional lawyers and academics and the most committed of political anoraks. And yet the UK government’s July white paper on the subject has the potential to radically re-fashion how public services are delivered across the UK and to finally precipitate the disintegration of the United Kingdom. The implications of the Northern Ireland Backstop will be small beer compared to the possible fallout from these UK Internal / Single Market proposals.

Already the UK devolved administrations have expressed their alarm and concern at what the white paper proposes and have demanded a total review of the UK Government’s approach. They see it as a naked power grab by Westminster which will put the UK’s devolution settlement into a rapid reverse gear.

Until the end of the present Brexit Transitional Period the EU Single Market rules will still prevail. They guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour, known collectively as the “four freedoms” and a level regulatory playing field in areas such as  agriculture, fisheries, food standards and environmental policy. This is policed by the EU Commission and the EU Court of Justice. While this external regulation was an unacceptable pill to swallow for hardline Brexiteers, in the main it was judged as fairly objective, detached and objective legal process. But with the end of the Transition Period this framework will disappear.

The four UK Governments up to now have agreed the need to for a collaborative approach to provide UK citizens and business with high and consistent standards in key areas such as the employment law, movement of good and people, environment and animal welfare. And there seemed to an acceptance to respect the devolution arrangements that have evolved within the UK over the last two decades along with a shared view on the need to develop “Common Frameworks” and dispute resolution procedures which provided for a parity of esteem and safeguards for all parties.

But the white paper on The UK Internal / Single Market is a very much a “made in Westminster” document reflecting the ideological and policy preferences of the present Tory Government. And this lack of common and shared ground with the devolved administrations  has generated the hostile reception that it has received.

At its heart the white paper proposals is a Westminster legislative route with the use of the courts as a means of dispute resolution. The lack of a clear process for the participation devolved administrations creates the risk that many areas of devolved policy could find themselves subject to the demands of the UK Internal Market. There is a lack of clarity about which matters should be left to market competition and which matters might be subject to regulation on social, public health or environmental grounds. These are essentially as much political issues as they are technical implementation processes. But where will the judgements lie?

The risks are even greater as the UK Government itself will remain the final arbiter in international trade and treaties. As these treaties will be binding on all of the UK, the lack of a means to involve the devolved administrations could means – “Westminster rules, like it or lump it”. The track record of the Westminster Government of involving the devolved administrations in the Brexit process or even the response to Covid-19 does not bode well for any set of arrangements that are not copper-fastened by firm commitments to respect the devolution settlement in the UK and which work with the devolved administrations as equal partners.

Seeking to address these concerns will overlap with the UK’s final departure from the EU regulation at the end of this year and will in turn run into next spring’s elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd. There they are bound to take on additional significance as voters will also be having an opportunity to also cast a judgement on the performance of Boris Johnson’s Tory administration to date.

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  1. David says:

    Just noting a fact, unfortunately perhaps, but the devolved administrations, even if all 3 band together, still do not merit equal weight in comparison to Westminster Government, as they represent only a minority of the total population.
    The fact is that the total population of the UK voted for the current Tory Government and ALL that they stand for by a large majority. Not all of us may agree with them, but they are still a massive majority, and could argue reasonably that the minority ought to accept the majority view as it was decided democratically. (was it?)
    It does, however, have potential to disrupt voting in the devolved assemblies next spring massively – people will again vote strategically, possibly for break-up of the Union, and no doubt we will end up with a ‘hard break up’ , like with brexit, going much further than anybody actually wished to take it, probably involving bridge tolls and border checks or something daft – and let’s not forget we actually rely on neighbouring English hospitals for much of Wales’ specialist care, which would be worrying.
    Is it more important to shout ineffective minority dislike for the Government proposals backed by the majority of UK voters, or is it more important to bring back open, honest and truthful UK-wide democracy and a soon General Election?

  2. rotzeichen says:

    What we need to understand is that a small political elite are dictating what ordinary people must comply with, that we no longer have a democracy but a corporate dictatorship.

    Fragmentation and corruption are the main planks of the Neo-Liberal agenda, only when enough people realise this can we start to rebuild what is left of democracy.

    We need to start by recognising also that money is not a problem for a sovereign currency issuing government, this small elite want us to believe that we must rely on them for all wealth creation, therefore subservient to their demands, people create wealth not them.

    Time people everywhere understood, people need to take back the power being taken away from them, and Neo-Liberal politicians of political colours and persuasions are complicit in this.

  3. Eli Jenkins says:

    As time passes, Fintan O’Toole’s excellent analysis in “Heroic Failure” is being shown to have assessed correctly the likely outcomes of this flawed Tory Brexit policy – born out of a largely “English” analysis of past history and, now, an English approach to reconciling the irreconcilable as the UK leaves the EU,

    First, inter-governmental machinery set up to manage the tensions inherent in the devolving of major powers to Scotland, Wales,and N. Ireland seems to have withered on the vine. The UK economy as a whole will be differentially affected across the four parts of the UK – and not is a good way.

    Second, the devolution settlement has been undermined by a failure to neither honour nor update the Barnett formula – for example witness the cash used to buy DUP votes and the way that bailing out the English NHS with £13 billion did not result in the other three nations having their Barnett share.

    It is hard to see any process that, by early 2021, can restore trust between the four Governments, and thus restore trust among the four nations.

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