On an Independent Scotland
This has been a momentous week in Scottish politics. There is now a full-blown constitutional crisis between the Scottish government at Holyrood and the UK government at Westminster. It would be premature to say that Scottish independence is now inevitable, but the momentum towards independence is greater than ever before. In this article I will describe the situation in terms that I hope will be comprehensible to outsiders, and also give my own views as a relative newcomer to Scotland.
Contrail saltire © Karl and Ali - see here for original and licence
It is nearly 4 years ago that I moved with my family to Scotland from England, where I was born and bred. Going back just 3 generations though, I have ancestors from every part of the British Isles. Our primary reason for the move was to be closer to my wife’s family. The timing was chosen to cause the least possible disruption to the younger family members, coinciding with my stepson’s transition to secondary school and stepdaughter’s starting at university.
It was entirely coincidental that we arrived here just in time to join the electoral register and vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum. Scottish independence was not a subject I’d felt particularly strongly about. So that summer I listened to the arguments, talked it over with my wife — a habitual Labour voter but indy supporter — watched some of the debates on TV. The adjective invariably attached to “referendum” by Unionists is “divisive”, but that was not my experience. There seemed to be genuine interest in the arguments. Worries, yes, particularly about the economy, pensions, the currency question, the border. And the EU: would the new Scotland be allowed to continue as a member, or rejoin immediately, or would it have to wait at the “back of the queue”?
Well, in 2014, independence, the “Yes” answer on the referendum lost, albeit by a narrower margin than pundits had expected. But the Yes movement did not wither away. Having won over so many hearts, having planted the idea of independence in so many minds... surely time and care would allow that seed to grow, flourish, and eventually prevail? Nevertheless, independence was firmly on the back burner, till the 23rd June 2016. That was the day that the UK voted by nearly 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (EU). Scotland however, backed remain by 62% to 38% (as did Northern Ireland, by nearly 56% to 44%). It was soon after the EU referendum that I joined the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) which supports independence, and has formed the Holyrood government since 2007.
My own political views seem much more at home in Scotland than England. All my life I’ve voted for left or centre parties... and more often than not ended up with Conservative governments at Westminster. Scotland has the same problem, in spades. We both remember Margaret Thatcher with loathing. The hated poll tax, which was her eventual undoing, was introduced to Scotland a year before the rest of the UK. Having suffered as Thatcher’s guinea pigs, Scotland only had to endure another 5 years of Conservative misrule under John Major till at last in 1997 we got Tony Blair’s Labour government.
Labour, of course, made some bad mistakes, most obviously the Iraq war. But the early years were good, particularly to Scotland. Soon after coming to power, Labour passed the Scotland Act 1998 which established the devolved parliament for Scotland at Holyrood in Edinburgh.
The EU Withdrawal Bill
The row this week concerns the EU withdrawal bill. Among other issues, this deals with powers which are currently exercised by the EU (or “Brussels”). When the UK exits the EU, do these powers pass to Westminster or to Holyrood? The Scotland Act, which is the constitutional basis of Scottish devolution, is quite clear: powers not explicitly reserved to Westminster devolve to Holyrood. But the Conservative government’s EU withdrawal bill wants to reserve some of the powers returning from the EU to Westminster for 7 years.
Any bill, such as the EU Withdrawal bill, which impinges on devolved matters is debated in the Scottish parliament, which votes to give consent to, or withhold it from, the bill. This is known as the “Sewel convention”. The EU Withdrawal bill failed to gain consent at Holyrood. Since the Scottish parliament has only been in existence 20 years, such a Legislative Consent Motion has only fallen once before — in that case the matter was fairly easily resolved. So there is little precedent on how to proceed in such a case.
It’s important to note that it was not just the SNP (the main party of independence) that opposed giving consent to the bill at Holyrood. It was also opposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats (both Unionist parties) and the Greens (who also favour independence). Only the Conservatives supported it.
The Conservative government of Westminster — no friends to devolution — have decided that they can simply ignore the lack of consent, effectively trashing the Sewel convention. When the EU Withdrawal bill came to the House of Commons this week there were supposed to be three hours to discuss the part of the bill that deals with the smaller nations of the UK. So not just the Scottish question, but also Welsh and Northern Irish devolution, and the matter of the Northern Ireland border with Ireland. (The NI border is undoubtedy the most controversial part of the Brexit negotiations so far.) So that’s a lot to get through in 3 hours. Yet due to frankly archaic parliamentary procedures, this time was reduced to 19 minutes. During the “debate”, only a single Conservative minister was given time to speak.
This travesty of parliamentary democracy was scarcely reported in the Scottish media, and even less in the national UK media. But the SNP were not going to let it go by the board. The next day, they attempted to call an emergency debate during Prime Minister’s Questions. Although this was not directly successful, the ensuing row did make national headlines. As a result, the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, was required to make a statement to the House. And the SNP have been granted their emergency debate tomorrow. And, last week alone, the SNP gained over 7000 new members. This is the tide which the Conservatives must now compromise with, or attempt to resist.
Details of the Bill
What are the powers that Westminster wants to reserve? Among them are agriculture, fisheries, and food labelling. These are incredibly important to Scotland: whisky and salmon are our biggest exports. Scotland’s farmers, fishers, and food producers should have their interests represented by the Scottish government.
Why does the Conservative government want to reserve these powers? They claim that they need them to protect the internal UK market, which is “so vital to Scotland’s businesses”. This is patronising, as if the Scottish government were unaware of the importance of the UK market, or was unable to act in the best interests of the people they represent. What they are not saying out loud is that they need these powers so they can negotiate trade deals for the UK without needing input from Scotland. There is particular concern about a possible trade deal with the US. Securing a US trade deal is vital to prevent Brexit becoming an unmitigated disaster, but it has been widely reported that it is likely to include acquiescing to US demands that we accept chlorinated chicken, GM foods, and whiskey which has been matured for less than three years.
It’s hard to imagine that any part of the UK will be pleased by such proposals. Why should Scotland give up control of areas where it is clear that the UK government will act only in the interests of the biggest businesses? We have been repeatedly told during and after the Brexit referendum that negotiating trade deals after we left the EU would be easy. It seems those making such claims do not even understand how the UK is constituted!
The Conservative spin is that the Scottish government is being obstructionist but the claims do not stand up to scrutiny. (The following are paraphrases, not direct quotes.)
- “We have compromised: originally we were planning to take 153 powers, but now it’s only 24.”
- “Scotland has never had these powers, they were ceded to the EU in 1973.”
- “SNP wants an independent Scotland to remain in the EU and these powers to remain with Brussels so they clearly don’t want or deserve the powers.”
These first three claims each receive the same simple response: so what? Whatever the number and history of the powers and the debates surrounding them, they are powers which will be newly exercised in the UK and the Scotland Act says where they should reside.
- “The Welsh assembly gave consent to the bill: you should too.”
More fools the Welsh then! In any case, the Welsh and Scottish devolution settlements are very different. And the Welsh Assembly is dominated by the Labour party, whose own thinking on Brexit is extremely muddled. As far as I am aware, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party) did not consent to the bill.
- “The Sewel convention only applies ‘normally’: these are not normal times.”
They certainly are not normal times! The UK is in crisis, and may only be months away from complete economic meltdown. The government is beset on all sides with intractable dilemmas. But this situation has been brought about solely by the actions of the Conservative Party.
Theresa May did not have to trigger article 50 before she had the faintest idea where she planned to take the country or how to get it there. She did not need to call a general election last year, throwing away a workable majority. David Cameron did not have to call the damned referendum. (Well, probably he did as it was a manifesto commitment. But he didn’t have to put it in the manifesto in the first place. That was a cynical gesture to win UKIP votes, made in the belief that were he still Prime Minister after 2015 it would be in another Lib Dem coalition and the Lib Dems would never permit the referendum to go ahead.) Cameron and May both were extremely foolish to stoke fears of a country overrun by immigrants, welfare scroungers and health tourists, and to make promises to reduce immigration numbers which they knew they could not keep. They did so to deflect attention from the savage cuts to services enacted in the name of austerity by George Osborne. (Osborne was Cameron's chancellor, who resigned alongside his boss after the EU referendum.)
Yes the Conservatives are in a hole, and they can ask the Scottish government for a favour. But it is hardly surprising if they are given a shovel rather than a rope. Imagine if it were the other way round, and the SNP were asking the Conservatives for help!
- “Scotland is only one part of the UK: it cannot be allowed to derail the whole Brexit process.”
That may be true, but part of the point of a constitution is to prevent democracy from becoming a tyranny of the majority. It is right and proper for the Scottish government to do the best for the people of Scotland, though they be only 10% of the population of the UK. And it is simply false to think that Holyrood is trying to stop Brexit. It has engaged as far as possible with Brexit, having published several papers on the matter, passed its own EU Continuity Bill, and engaged in dialogue with the other nations of the UK. It is fair to say that Holyrood wishes to stop a hard Brexit, but that puts them in the good company of a majority of Westminster MPs and — as far as anyone can judge — a majority of the UK population.
Tomorrow there will be an emergency debate at Westminster on the Sewel convention. My guess is that the Conservatives will come out fighting. This will only serve to make starker the choice that Scotland now faces: independence must be embraced while we have the chance before the Conservatives can succeed in completely undermining devolution.
These are not formal references, more like a dump of the tabs I had open in my browser at the end of writing this piece! The first is particularly interesting — it is a BBC “Reality Check” article, so it is attempting to establish the unbiased facts of the matter. Here's a quote.
So Ms Sturgeon [leader of the SNP and First Minister of the Holyrood government] is correct to say that pushing through the EU Withdrawal Bill without the consent of the Scottish Parliament means that the long-standing convention has, in effect, been "ripped up".