Brexit ‘stretching government to breaking point’

21 Nov 18

The process of extracting the UK from the European Union will stretch the system of government “beyond breaking point”, a leading academic has warned.

Jim Gallagher, visiting professor at the University of Glasgow and a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, told the Scottish Affairs Committee that Brexit was “one of the least ordered pieces of public policy” he had witnessed.

Brexit was always going to be an almost impossible challenge for any government and for any set of intergovernmental relations,” he said yesterday. 

“Deconstructing a political and economic union…which touches on every part of our national life would require the most careful disentangling.”

Even the most orderly of Brexits would have stretched the system, said Professor Gallagher.

“A Brexit where five months before the drop dead date we still cannot say with certainty what the outcome is will stretch an already stretched system beyond breaking point,” he said.

“The astonishing thing is the extent to which [officials] are still working away on this.

“This process has been one of the least ordered pieces of public policy that I have ever seen, and that has been reflected in its effects on intergovernmental relations.”

Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh, told the committee there had been an “unprecedented intensification” of intergovernmental relations within the context of Brexit, which had put “enormous strain” on officials.

That had contributed to frustrations over organisational matters such as the sharing of papers which could then become political, she said.

Professor McEwen said there was a strong case for an independent secretariat to take on the organisational work underpinning Brexit. This would also make the process more transparent, she said.   

She also said that mechanisms such as the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) raised expectations among devolved governments which, when these were not delivered, led to resentment.

Michael Clancy, director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland, said Brexit was a dynamic process during which many lessons had been learned.

One of the biggest issues had been the lack of consultation on the “crucially important” European Union Withdrawal Bill, he said.

Professor Gallagher said the UK government had failed to take the devolution settlements into account in the drafting of the bill.

“The UK government mishandled that, in my view,” he said.

Politics had then determined the responses of the Scottish and Welsh governments to the bill, Gallagher concluded. 

“That illustrates that you cannot design out political conflict by creating systems, so don’t say the systems don’t work if political conflict somehow overwhelms them,” he said.

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