It’s fair to say the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill – which sets out how trade and business will be conducted within and between the UK’s nations after Brexit – hasn’t gone down well in the devolved administrations.
I’ll almost certainly end up coming back to it at some point but the law, as it’s currently drafted, could mean economic development powers in devolved areas – pre-Brexit being used by the Welsh Government within EU-set rules – are set to go straight to the UK Government.
In principle, certain rules and regulations should be the same across the UK (as they are across the EU), but the way this is being introduced could enable the UK Government to directly influence, override decisions or control matters in devolved policy areas in a way the EU never did or never could.
Despite the political froth, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise. Under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – one of the cornerstones of the UK’s unwritten constitution – the UK Parliament (and, by extension, the UK Government) is a supreme authority and can make or unmake any law or decision they choose, including on issues which are otherwise devolved. As demonstrated this week, they’re even willing to break laws to do this.
Unlike federalism, devolution should be seen as a loan of powers from the centre. It’s only through conventions – a series of glorified gentlemen’s agreements, courtesies and outdated traditions – that the devolved governments wield any power at all and the UK Government’s ability to work in devolved policy areas limited on a promise-only basis.
Nothing is stopping the UK Government or Parliament from doing anything they want other than a stormy cloud of potentially negative political consequences. If they believe a decision would carry enough support – reigniting the M4 Newport bypass saga, for example (which will be popular with many) – then they’ll do it. Should the Internal Market Bill eventually require the Senedd’s permission via a Legislative Consent Motion and MSs reject it, they can ignore that too.
It also wouldn’t matter if a majority of Welsh MPs opposed such decisions relating to Wales because there are only 40 out of 650 as things stand.
Devolution hasn’t died; it’s working exactly how it was designed to work. The UK isn’t a federation and the “four nations approach” ultimately boils down to the government of the Union and biggest nation deciding to do one thing and if the rest of us don’t like it – tough.
The question now, as posed by Ifan Morgan Jones yesterday, is what are the Welsh Government and Senedd going to do about it?
Somewhere in a virtual brainstorming session amongst MSs, they’ll be prepping the equivalent of a horse’s head on a pillow; the most fearsome, pants-filling weapon in the Welsh political arsenal:
The strongly-worded statement.
And if they really want to send a message, there may even be a binding debate during Welsh Government time – a sure as sign as any that this is serious business.
You can imagine BoJo, Dom and the rest of them quaking in their boots at the prospect of cutting remarks and a face-melting blast of hot air.
There’ll be Cassandra-like warnings on what this will do to the Union and calls for “sensible discussions” on federalism or a constitutional convention some point this side of the year 2500.
The Welsh political Twitterati will ensure clips from any inevitable debate will briefly become the fourth most popular trending item in Cardiff, while the person in the street won’t care about any of this until it directly affects them – by which point it’ll already be too late.
We know how this ends. The Welsh Government will let London know in no uncertain terms that they haven’t been this unhappy since the last time, and the time before that, and the several dozen times before that. Then they’ll quietly acquiesce like an old mutt that growls before slinking back to the same owner that’s just given them a beating.