There were many reasons why people voted to leave the European Union in 2016. But my impression, having campaigned to remain in the EU, is that above all else, people throughout this country sought to regain a feeling of control – not just of our laws, but over our lives, too, and the people we elect into office. The referendum result expressed a rejection of EU membership, and also a sense of pent-up frustration that the political system had become too remote from the people that it exists to serve.
That is why, as we leave the EU, we should work for a future that fosters wealth creation, opportunity and innovation in every part of the United Kingdom, and that strengthens the sense of belonging and solidarity in all communities, building a country that works for everyone. Conservatives believe in patriotism, but equally in community and the importance of local identity. We believe in devolution. We believe in localism. We believe that decisions should be taken locally wherever is practical; and that communities matter.
Our record in government since 2010 highlights our strong commitment to devolution: two Scotland Acts in 2012 and 2016; a Wales Act passed just last year; city deals in Swansea, Glasgow, Inverness and many others; and new directly elected mayors across England, with Conservatives such as Andy Street in West Midlands and Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. We are unabashed believers in the virtue of devolving powers as close to communities as possible, but we know, too, that all four nations of our United Kingdom are stronger and more prosperous when they come together to form a whole that is greater than the mere sum of its parts.
We are a union of peoples with a long – often uneasy – history, but whose shared experience at times of great success and grave danger has come to represent one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of freedom, liberty and democracy anywhere in the world. The proudest citizen of Aberdeen, Plymouth, Coleraine or Wrexham can also take huge pride in being part of the UK.
As we look now to a world beyond the EU – one that presents both challenges and opportunities – we need to bring the peoples of the UK together, instead of loosening the ties that bind us. Last week the UK Government made a considerable offer to the governments in Scotland and Wales. We proposed that powers returning from Brussels which touch on devolved matters should transfer directly to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont. Westminster would only be involved where, to protect the UK internal market or to meet our international obligations, we need a pause to give the governments time to design and put in place a UK-wide framework.
By maintaining legal UK frameworks where strictly necessary, we retain our ability to act in the national interest when we need to
I hope that the talks which are now continuing between the UK and devolved governments will lead in the coming weeks to an agreement that can be taken forward in the EU Withdrawal Bill and that we can all welcome as being to our mutual benefit.
For the UK is at a crossroads in our history. We face a choice that will define our future journey together as leave the European Union next year. We could choose to leave as a country split and an economy disjointed, struggling to make our way in a new world outside the EU. Or we can come together as one United Kingdom, confidently seizing new global opportunities as we build a prosperous, secure nation fit for the future challenges we will face.
That is why we are committed to preserving the UK internal market – one of the most fundamental expressions of the constitutional integrity that underpins our existence as a union. By maintaining legal UK frameworks where strictly necessary, we retain our ability to act in the national interest when we need to – protecting our nation’s security or signing trade deals with the growth markets of tomorrow, using the leverage and the diplomatic network of the UK to sell Islay whisky, Caerphilly cheese and buses from Ballymena throughout the world.
It has always been our intention that the devolved governments will have more powers as a result of this process – while protecting the freedom of both businesses and consumers to buy and sell freely across the UK’s internal market. But if we had different sets of rules, businesses and companies would face unnecessary disruption and higher costs – making it harder for the factory in Preston to continue to sell to Paisley; for the family firm in Swansea to do business in Swindon.
We need the right balance: a strong, fair devolution settlement that ensures powers are exerted as close to people as is practical, with common frameworks in place that maintain the integrity of our union and ensure maximum certainty for families and businesses on exit day. If we reach this agreement together, I am confident we will be able to build a better, bolder Britain that is equipped not only to tackle future global challenges head on, but to exploit those new opportunities outside the EU as well. If we forge this consensus together, I am optimistic that when we do speak and act on the world stage, we will be able to do so with a united voice.
If we come together and work with each other; if we make that choice with a sense of ambition and focus – I am confident we can and will thrive together.
David Lidington is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster