Sketch: Is Mike Russell a wizard?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 29 June 2018 in Comment

Parliamentary sketch: A debate on Brexit and devolution gets bogged down in questions of sorcery

Image credit: Iain Green

Mike Russell is not a wizard. Let’s make that clear from the off.

There’s already far too much speculation in politics as it is – especially during a reshuffle – but we can probably nip that one in the bud. Is Mike Russell the new Cabinet Secretary for Constitutional Relations? Yes. Is he a wizard? Almost certainly not. Not at the time of writing.

But when the going gets weird, the Scottish Parliament gets going. And here, during a long, pointless, meaningless debate on Brexit and devolution – there was no vote or anything – it was certainly going.

And so it was that Mike Russell found himself standing in the chamber, boasting of his sorcery. “I was completely unaware that I have those overwhelming special magical powers,” he announced, glancing around.

He actually looked quite pleased. As though he was expecting someone to burst in at any moment and tell him: “You’re a wizard, Michael!”

It certainly gave a new meaning to ‘Magic Mike’. Though, interestingly, not being a wizard is one of the many, many things Mike Russell and Channing Tatum have in common.

There’s no escaping it, Scottish politics is obsessed with powers. Parliamentary powers, constitutional powers, magic powers – it doesn’t matter. But with power comes protest, as the SNP demonstrated in storming out of the House of Commons chamber over the UK Government’s approach to leaving the EU. Labelling the move a ‘power grab’, the party says it’s going to start disrupting Brexit. Though a critic could be forgiven for questioning what exactly the party has been doing to facilitate the process up until now.

The party’s response – to try and hold another referendum on leaving the UK – was certainly an extreme reaction to making a success of Brexit, but then it’s all relative. We’ve all been so desperate to help with a difficult situation that we’ve ended up making things worse. Maybe the SNP, convinced it should try and make a success of a vote it always said would lead to dramatic national failure, just did too much. Like a waiter trying to carry too many plates. Or someone who tries to do too many jobs at once, and ends up doing all of them badly. Or Boris Johnson, who tries to do one job at once, and ends up doing all of it badly.

And there are of course lots of ways to protest the actions of those in power – as Johnson himself set about proving, with the Foreign Secretary choosing to protest against airport expansion by taking a long-haul flight around the world. Or Dominic Grieve, leader of the pro-EU Tories, who chose to rebel against Theresa May’s approach to Brexit by doing everything she told him to.

So yes, protests are confusing. As, it seems, are power grabs – magical or otherwise. In this case, Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution Adam Tomkins did not accept there had been any such heist. In fact, as Tomkins pointed out in the chamber, Lord Sewel himself – the architect of the Sewel Convention – has been clear that the UK Government’s behaviour was justified.

But then, just because the Sewel Convention is named after Lord Sewel doesn’t mean he can decide how it is interpreted. Baron Barnett was pretty critical of the Barnett formula, for example. The Hamburglar  never seemed to know a lot about hamburgers. The Milky Bar Kid was no chocolatier.

So who knows – clearly constitutional law is a minefield. The whole thing seemed to come down to interpretation of the convention, under which the UK Parliament cannot normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

For the SNP, the decision to push Brexit through without MSPs’ consent constituted a breach. For the Tories, though, the key bit is “normally” – with the party arguing these are not normal times, and so the UK’s decision was justified.

So it depends what you mean by normal, which was obviously problematic. In fact, looking around the MSPs in the room, it was actually quite hard to think of a group of people worse placed to define normality.

As far as Adam Tomkins was concerned, the whole mess was Mike Russell’s fault, with the Tory MSP arguing Russell had handed Westminster the right to rule on devolved areas during a speech on the Continuity Bill earlier this year, when he had announced “these are not normal times”.

“Oh, dear. What a blunder,” Tomkins lamented, reflecting on the choice of words. Though to be fair to Russell, if we are going to wait for normal times before devolution can operate normally, we might as well dissolve parliament.

But surely Tomkins couldn’t be right? Surely the Brexit Secretary couldn’t hand over power for all devolved areas, simply by uttering the magic words ‘not normal’? Surely constitutional law couldn’t be that ridiculous?

Which brings us back to Mike Russell, who was still talking about being a wizard. “I intend to use a substantial part of the time during the recess flexing my muscles and learning how to use those powers,” he announced.

“If I can do that to magic away the Sewel Convention, maybe I can magic away Brexit and all the Tories. I shall be practising.”

And it is of course entirely up to Mike Russell to decide how he uses his summer holidays, though it’s worth keeping in mind that if he’d said the same thing in response to a polite question in the barber’s, he would probably have been thrown out.

But at least the holidays are upon us, giving everyone the chance to get a good rest, and perhaps gain a sense of perspective. Because regardless of who was right on the question of power grabs, or the nature of magic, neither Russell nor Tomkins seemed a very good judge of normality.

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