rant |rant

verb: [no objectspeak or shout at length in an angry, impassioned way.

noun: a spell of ranting; a tirade.

This month’s Ranter is John MacDonald

During a period where there has been no shortage of political issues to fume over, the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations (henceforth JMC) has emerged as a subject worthy of particular derision.

The purpose of the JMC, in the words of Scottish Secretary David Mundell, is to bring together the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and to work together to formulate our position as we go forward in the [Brexit] negotiations.’ The official remit of this body thus seems quite clear. When viewed from Scotland, the JMC can be regarded as an important platform – indeed, the platform – for facilitating meaningful Scottish input into the UK’s Brexit negotiating strategy. The disgrace of recent months – one of many in terms of how it is handling Brexit – is how wantonly the UK government has let slip the chance to make the JMC work in accordance with its remit.

The writing may have been on the wall from the start. The government’s stance was made pretty clear early on by its refusal to commit to regular JMC meetings, despite calls for it to do so. Labour had insisted that the government should consult regularly with the governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland throughout Brexit negotiations, urging that the JMC should be on a statutory footing which would require the government to consult the JMC at least every two months. The dismissal of this demand was a worrying sign that the UK government was not taking the JMC seriously. By extension, this cast clear doubts over its stated commitment to meet with, and incorporate the opinions of, the UK’s devolved governments ahead of Brexit negotiations.

These concerns have certainly been borne out. The JMC is supposed to meet every month. At the time of writing, it has not sat since February. When they have sat, the JMCs have done little to demonstrate that the devolved administrations can expect a meaningful say in the Brexit preparation process.

The entire JMC process seems designed to leave representatives of the devolved nations under no illusions over who is in charge, or what they can expect to achieve. JMC meetings have only once been held outside of London. A single meeting was held in Wales. On that occasion, the Welsh government was not permitted to organise the event – it seems that only the UK government has the capacity to undertake that Herculean task.

These meetings are always chaired by a UK Minister and are always heavily populated by UK government officials. Those who have attended admit that this does much to colour the dynamic of meetings. Incredibly, the JMCs are scheduled for just one hour. This is surely a ludicrously short time to allocate to a ‘monthly’ meeting on an issue as serious as how we leave the European Union.

Scottish government representatives report typically having only around ten to fifteen minutes to articulate Edinburgh’s position during these meetings. They also express concerns over how receptive UK government officials are to discussing areas where there is clearly a divergence of view between Edinburgh and London. Indeed, Scotland’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell is on record as saying that such divergences are not necessarily acknowledged by London at all; he contends that key substantive issues which have been raised during the JMCs have been ‘simply taken away after discussion for UK officials to consider, and they have never re-emerged.’

These dynamics can, perhaps, be placed into some context. The UK is the sovereign state and EU member. It is perfectly understandable that London sees the need to have a covetous approach to how it stewards preparations for Brexit negotiations. However in a politically restive UK, the manner of how politics is conducted from London is extremely significant. And London cannot be unaware that the devolved nations all have huge interests in what Brexit negotiations will yield.

Ahead of these all-important negotiations, it was reasonable to expect that the status of the devolved administrations – as national, if not sovereign, governments – would be respected by London,  This ‘respect’ should certainly have extended to ensuring, as far as possible, that the JMCs were run in a manner which allowed the devolved governments to feel that their concerns and aspirations were being taken seriously. This has not happened.

The truth is that the UK government’s handling of the JMCs represents a derisory offering to the devolved governments and the people they represent. This at a time when sensitive, intelligent engagement was the order of the day. They have offered a meagre platform for discussion between London and the devolved capitals, leading to frustration and incredulity in equal measure.

The frustration felt in Edinburgh was summed up last week by Mike Russell’s public call to the UK Brexit Secretary David Davis to arrange a sitting of the JMC in all haste. Russell’s call reflects the impotence felt in Edinburgh: his was a demand for the return of a meeting platform which he himself admits is totally unfit for purpose. This is where we are at this point.

From early on, the UK government made clear to the Scottish government that it didn’t want a running commentary on the JMCs – that Edinburgh shouldn’t make waves. Looking back, it is hardly surprising that London wished to keep a lid on how the JMCs were faring. They epitomise the dysfunction of the UK government’s Brexit negotiation preparations and its efforts to keep the devolved governments at arm’s length throughout them.

John MacDonald is the editor of CABLE. Email him at: editor@cablemagazine.scot  He is on Twitter at: @1johnmacdonald