Brexit exposes ‘deep fault line’ in Scotland’s constitutional settlement

Holyrood and Westminster have clashed over the issue of powers returning from Brussels following Brexit. Picture: AFP/Getty
Holyrood and Westminster have clashed over the issue of powers returning from Brussels following Brexit. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Brexit has exposed “a deep fault line” in the constitutional settlement and how Scotland fits in the UK, a devolution expert has warned.

With the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament being marked tomorrow, Professor Michael Keating said long-held “informal” agreements on devolution could break down as Holyrood and Westminster argue over who should gain powers reclaimed from Brussels following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Speaking at a debate organised by the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), Prof Keating said the European framework had helped formalise devolution across the UK.

“Political power was restored to Scotland, but in a very strange way,” he told the meeting in Glasgow on Thursday evening, which coincided with Europe Day.

“The devolution settlement changed everything in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it changed nothing whatsoever at the centre. It’s an odd kind of federalism.

“The deep ambiguity of that settlement is something that we have managed to live with for 20 years because we have an informality about the way we deal with devolution. There is a convention that Westminster does not overrule the Scottish Parliament needlessly.

“But if we look at that settlement it’s actually full of holes. One reason it has held together is that the whole thing is embedded in the European framework, which fills in for what’s missing in a normal federal system.

“The devolution settlement is largely unwritten and down to convention. The EU is a system of laws and regulations.”

The Scottish Government has repeatedly accused Westminster of a “power grab” after it was revealed key controls over economic sectors such as agriculture, the environment and fishing previously held by the EU would pass to Whitehall in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

UK ministers insisted such a transfer was vital to retain the integrity of the UK’s “internal market”.

Scottish secretary David Mundell has claimed that Brexit, for from being power grab, would actually see Holyrood gain “substantial” new powers as a result.

The escalating row saw Nicola Sturgeon last year claim the UK Government had “ripped up” the devolution settlement by pushing through the EU Withdrawal Bill despite four of the five Holyrood parties voting against a legislative consent motion.

Prof Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen, said the UK Government had backed down to a degree on the issue of devolved powers.

But he added: “The position of the UK has always been ‘we will have the last word, this is not a federal system’.

“But we’ve always managed to work our way around it. It didn’t really matter as Europe dealt with a lot of the issues. It exposes a deep fault line in our constitutional settlement in relation to Scotland and the way Scotland fits in.”

He added: “In Scotland we have always thought of power in a very different way. We have been in a system of union for 300 years. Power is divided, power is dispersed. Sovereignty exists in multiple kinds of places. So with Brexit, the question is where does the power come back to?”