The Scottish Tories now stand isolated over the EU withdrawal bill

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 14 May 2018 in Comment

Mandy Rhodes takes a look at the dispute between the UK and Scottish governments on the effect of Brexit on devolution

Next year the Scottish Parliament is 20 years old. It’s had its ups and downs but it has grown and it has passed some historic big picture legislation; the smoking ban, minimum unit pricing on alcohol and equal marriage. And it has tackled taboos on gender, race and inequality.

How much more fundamental than wanting to eradicate period poverty can politics get?

In terms of what devolution was meant to be all about, it has been a success and for a generation of Scottish voters, it is where power lies.

But devolution is, we are told, under threat. And while many Scots, bored or just scunnered by an ongoing constitutional debate, have not yet been energised by the idea that amid Brexit negotiations powers of the Scottish Parliament could be diminished, that threat is real.

This week in the parliament, MSPs will vote on whether to give their consent to the UK’s EU Withdrawal Bill. And it is unlikely they will.

And while, in truth, that will make no real difference to Westminster because that consent is more about courtesy than necessity, it will amplify a message that has always run counter to the devolution experiment, which is that the will of the Scottish Parliament can simply be overruled by Westminster.

What is in dispute here is Clause 11 of that UK bill which basically gives the right to the UK Government to overrule Holyrood and make changes to areas of law and policy devolved to Scotland, even if the Scottish Parliament explicitly rejects them, post Brexit.

And while this has predictably been caricatured as the SNP grievance agenda with the nationalists seeking to always look for the independence imperative, that is a false presentation of the facts.

Indeed, it is the Scottish Tories that now stand in isolation. All three of the other opposition party leaders have told a committee of MPs that they will not accept the controversial clause. And last week a cross-party Holyrood committee recommended rejecting it to prevent a Westminster “power grab”.

Far from this being a Scottish nationalist argument, it is the Scottish Conservatives that now appear as the extreme British nationalists in this fight.

The SNP, Labour and Greens all want the UK and Scottish governments to be given equal power in deciding “common frameworks” following Brexit in 24 areas. These include farm payments, food standards and animal welfare.

And while it is fair to argue that citizens north and south of Hadrian’s Wall live by the same approach to life so there would be no divergence in approach to safety and standards, that premise rests on trust.

At the heart of this debate is a UK government that says MSPs should accept the clause and trust MPs to do the right thing by Scotland.  But how can you confer trust over devolution on a government that was so ill-informed about Scottish affairs that it seemed to not even know that Scotland has a separate legal system and has had for hundreds of years?

On Tuesday, MSPs will make an historical decision when they decline to give their consent to Westminster over a bill that they believe threatens the very principle of devolution. To do otherwise would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

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