The city of London. Picture: 123rf/ Lakov Kalinin
The city of London. Picture: 123rf/ Lakov Kalinin

One of Boris Johnson’s first acts on becoming prime minister was to make himself “minister for the union”. The symbolic title is meant to signify commitment to strengthening ties between the four nations of the UK. That is a tacit acknowledgment that the Conservative leader is easily cast as a prime minister for England only, and that his Brexit plans put the union in jeopardy.

The threat is most potent in Scotland, where a majority voted remain and first minister Nicola Sturgeon is deft in tapping the frustration of people who do not vote Tory and feel over-ruled. Holyrood elections next May look likely to perpetuate the dominance of the Scottish National party and award Sturgeon another term. Nationalists would demand a second independence referendum. Johnson is disinclined to grant one.

The backdrop to those dynamics is the escalation of Brexit from divisive idea to disruptive legal change and economic shock. On the current timetable the UK leaves the EU single market on December 31. In preparation for that change parliament will legislate for a UK-wide internal market in the northern autumn, setting regulatory parameters for economic activity that have hitherto been compliant with EU rules.

The UK will regain regulatory autonomy in areas such as environmental protection and agriculture. There will also be more leeway for industrial subsidies, depending on the kind of deal, if any, done with the EU in the meantime. In any case, the default setting will be for powers previously routed through Brussels to be wielded from No 10, not Edinburgh or Cardiff. 

There are sensible, practical reasons why new internal market rules need to cover the whole union. The UK is a fully integrated economic space operating in a global economy as a unified country. There is also an incoherence in the Scottish nationalist position that demands regulatory independence from London, while mourning the fact that regulation is no longer dictated in Brussels.

But, as the Brexit debate demonstrated, appeals to economic pragmatism and national identity are different categories of political argument. Their advocates speak past each other more often than they engage in constructive dialogue/London, July 15

The Guardian

The city of London. Picture: 123rf/ Lakov Kalinin
The city of London. Picture: 123rf/ Lakov Kalinin

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