Brexit is opening the door to the Balkanisation of Britain

In protesting the Brexit deal, devolved nations were joined by the mayors of England’s big cities. 

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Theresa May probably made the best of a tricky hand in securing a deal on phase one of the Brexit talks. Sadiq Khan, however, was having none of it. “I’ve commissioned independent economic analysis of the impact of different Brexit scenarios on Londoners’ jobs and prosperity – they’ll be published in January,” tweeted the capital’s mayor shortly after news of the agreement emerged. “It is outrageous that the Govt either failed to properly consider the impact of Brexit on Britain’s economy, or are refusing to release their analysis. We need to know the impact of different scenarios on our economy in order to deliver a Brexit deal that protects jobs & growth.” 

Nicola Sturgeon was only slightly less grudging: “Move to phase 2 of talks good – but devil is in the detail and things now get really tough. If #Brexit is happening (wish it wasn’t) staying in single market & customs union is only sensible option. And any special arrangements for NI must be available to other UK nations.” 

There was more from Scotland’s First Minister: “An aside – a UK government that is able to say that come what may, it will avoid hard borders with Ireland/NI after Brexit can never again tell Scotland that independence would mean a hard border between Scotland and rUK.”

Neither Khan nor Sturgeon were ever going to cheerlead for a Tory PM delivering a policy to which both are resolutely opposed. However, their comments came at the end of a week in which it was possible to sense an irrevocable shift in the way British politics is and will be done. The diminishment of centralised authority and the rise of discrete, autonomous forces across the UK’s regions is a real and growing thing. This particular genie, having slipped angrily from the bottle, is unlikely ever to be put back.

One of the problems with nationwide referendums in modern Britain is that they clearly expose the country’s drift into what appear to be entrenched regional differences. Brexit has shown that majorities have a different aspiration for their futures in Scotland and Northern Ireland than they do in England and Wales. Even within England, the great metropolises have more in common with the Scottish view of Brexit. Further, those big cities now have prominent politicians as mayors – some with national profiles – who are publicly agitating for the interests of their electors.

So it was earlier this week that May found herself confronted by something of a devolved democratic uprising. When it was revealed she intended to allow Northern Ireland to enjoy a distinct relationship with the EU after Brexit, she was harangued by a babble of voices. As the Democratic Unionist Party openly revolted against what they saw as a deal that would undermine the Union, Sturgeon demanded a similar deal avoiding hard Brexit for Scotland. Her Tory opposite Ruth Davidson challenged the PM by calling for equal terms across the UK. Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, wanted the same as Sturgeon, as did Khan in London.

Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram argued that Liverpool and Manchester should also be given a “differential” settlement. “If you think about Liverpool City Region and Manchester City Region and our functional economic geography, we have a bigger population GDP-GVA than Scotland,” the former Labour MP said.

It was perhaps inevitable that regional devolution would see strong localised lobbies spring up. But the controversial and adversarial nature of Brexit seems to be radicalising them quite quickly. Opposition to leaving the EU, or at least leaving in the style favoured by the more right-wing Conservatives, has seen them step up. Individually, they are strong voices, but when put together they are potentially a major new force in national politics (imagine the impact were they to team up on other issues on any kind of formal footing). It is a force that refuses to take its lead from London, that sees itself as often having competing interests with the capital, and that is in the hands of political parties and individuals of quite different hues to the one running the central government.

Even where mayors don’t necessarily have significant, sweeping powers, they act as a focal point for their community. They stimulate debate about their area’s future wants and needs, its distinct identity and history, and any grievances it may have. Local media is given an active, high-profile figurehead to splash and broadcast about. It’s quite the bully pulpit. And smart politicians will know how to use it.

Along with the DUP, which has special leverage over May and her administration, Sturgeon has so far been the most aggressive in putting her case. The Scottish National Party has regularly warned against a Westminster “power grab” when matters currently decided at an EU level are repatriated to the UK. It believes the British government will attempt to keep control over areas such as farming and fishing., transferring “only some and only those which they saw fit to” to the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

This is now an issue that has been take up by the Northern Powerhouse mayors. Rotherham, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen have written to David Davis about post-Brexit funding and the need for repatriated powers to be devolved. Their demands include the like-for-like replacement of cash that would have come from EU payments, and a role in designing and delivering an industrial strategy more closely shaped to local ends.

It’s too early to say that the Balkanisation of Britain is underway, but the centre has never looked weaker, less competent or less worthy of deference. Brexit might have been perfectly designed to usher in an era of belligerent regional muscle.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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