It is undeniable that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, whether you support it or not, leaves Northern Ireland just a little bit more detached from Great Britain – at the least.
Our theme of the week is that the Government needs some counterveiling moves to strenghten the Union – which, frankly, it needs to do in any event.
The Blair devolution revolution in Scotland, Wales and indeed Northern Ireland, followed by the Coalition’s own local government restructuring in England, has left the Union without strategic thought, coherence and protection.
Here are 15 ideas for unleashing the power of the Union, as Policy Exchange would put it. We have run three pieces by them about how to do so this week –
- Ensure that government becomes a “persuader for the Union”. After all, the Conservative and Unionist Party is by definition a pro-Union party. So without breaching any commitments it has entered into it should seek to persuade Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay.
- Boris Johnson has labelled himself “Minister for the Union” – a sign that he understands the importance of the issue. If he remains Prime Minister after the next election, he should appoint a Secretary of State for the Union to find and further ways of strengthening it – and pursuing necessary constitutional reform.
- Our choice would to make this post the next stage of Michael Gove’s great adventure. A major political heavyweight should also be sent to Northern Ireland to how seriously Johnson takes it. He could do a lot worse than send for Jeremy Hunt (if the latter would take the post.
- Re-brand the Northern Ireland Office as “UK Government in Northern Ireland” – and establish it as a presence there, as the UK Government has done in Scotland. As a persuader, the department could campaign on the benefits of the all-UK economy – a far bigger animal in Northern Ireland than the north-south economy.
- Brand UK spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland prominently. The Coalition started to do this with overseas aid. As Warwick Lightfoot and Will Heaven wrote on this site earlier this week, there is no reason why Westminster should not spend more in the devolved areas if necessary.
- Use the UK Shared Prosperity Fund promised in the 2017 election manifesto as means of doing so. As Lightfoot and Heaven say, “if projects have local support, and are subjected to rigorous auditing, the Government should be more ambitious in its pursuit of spreading the benefits of the Union”.
- Slash corporation tax in Northern Ireland to Republic of Ireland levels or lower. revive England should take any such move on the chin, recognising that it would give Northern Ireland a swing to make up for the new customs roundabout, and that it is our collective duty to the Union to help.
- Create a new Economic Council of the Union that reports to the Prime Minister and Cabinet on how the UK economy works and can grow. Its membership should include business leaders, financial market practitioners, trade unions and entrepreneurs from across the UK.
- Ensure that the Treasury “takes a more ambitious approach to funding new transport infrastructure projects across the whole of the UK, rather than just those that begin and end in England”, as Jack Airey has put it. Devolved administrative boundaries should not artificially hinder cross-border growth.
- Ramp up road capacity to better link North Wales to Merseyside and Greater Manchester; improving the capacity and quality of road networks around Belfast Harbour and Cairnryan Port to make life easier for people using the ferry service that runs between north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland.
- Launch a new Forest of Britain project: a green spine running the length of Britain. It would consist of a single, unbroken, two mile-wide line of protected natural habitats from John O’Groats to Land’s End, via the east of Wales. It should aim to connect as many existing nature conservation sites as possible along its route.
- Relocating or establish the capacity of central government departments in places of the country where their work is most relevant, and in particular, in the case of departments with reserved functions, in the constituent nations. For example, DEFRA could expand its operation in places like Peterhead.
- Make the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 a UK-wide bank holiday – it falls on the 5th May 2021 – so that its impact and significance is felt across the entire country, as Jan Zeber has argued on this site. Whitehall departments should also consider how they can support the planned Northern Ireland ‘Expo 100’ that year.
- Establish a presence for key cultural institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (such as the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Scottish National Gallery, National Museum Wales, Ulster Museum and Titanic Belfast).
- Make at least one of England’s home cricket test matches each summer and coverage of the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cup final and semi-finals, as well as women’s national football tournaments, available on free-to-air TV, the latter of which already has the backing of Nicky Morgan.
See Policy Exchange’s report Modernising the United Kingdom.