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IFG - No-deal Brexit would be high-stakes gamble with the Union

A no-deal Brexit would be highly controversial in all three devolved nations and increase risks to the Union itself, argues a new report by the Institute for Government. 

No deal and the Union finds that since Boris Johnson became prime minister, engagement between Westminster and the administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales has declined. Short-term no-deal planning has diverted attention away from longer-term questions about the relationship between the UK and devolved governments. No deal will mean no transition period, so unresolved issues will need to be addressed immediately in what will be a highly charged political atmosphere.

Johnson’s commitment to strengthen and protect the Union is in direct tension with his promise to implement Brexit by 31 October with or without a deal.

In the event of no deal, the authors say the Union will come under direct threat:

  • Restoring the Northern Ireland executive will become much more difficult, and pressure for a border poll on the island of Ireland is likely to increase.
  • The Scottish government has signalled its intention to accelerate its plans for a second independence referendum and support for independence may increase.
  • A modest independence movement has developed in Wales and this may continue to grow if dissatisfaction is not addressed.

The government must develop a new strategy to strengthen the Union. This should be designed to improve Whitehall’s approach to devolved issues, and set out a new approach to joint working between the UK and devolved governments. The government should accept that the Union is a voluntary partnership between the four parts of the UK, each of which has the right to self-determination.

A no-deal Brexit will cause significant disruption throughout the UK. Some consequences, including for the agriculture and fisheries sectors, will be felt particularly acutely in Scotland and Wales. But it is in Northern Ireland – where departmental functions are currently exercised by civil servants without ministerial direction – that the consequences will be most severe. To manage these consequences the UK government will need to impose direct rule, and work closely with Dublin to mitigate a likely backlash against this.

Akash Paun, Institute for Government senior fellow, said:

“If the Union is to survive and prosper, people in all parts of the country need to be persuaded of the value of remaining within the UK. The UK government needs a new strategy to make the positive case for the Union and improve its approach to working with the devolved governments.”

Jess Sargeant, Institute for Government researcher, said:

“No deal will make intergovernmental relationships much more challenging, but meaningful engagement between the UK and devolved governments will be necessary for negotiations on future international agreements. If the UK government continues with the same approach it has taken to EU negotiations, the cracks in the Union are likely to widen.”

Notes to editors

  1. Full report can be found on our website.
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact / 0785 031 3791.

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