2019 will change Scottish politics forever

Written by Tom Freeman on 11 January 2019 in Inside Politics

As the Scottish Parliament marks its 20th anniversary, the political year promises to be an eventful one 

Scottish parliament foundations - credit PA

In 1999, As Europeans welcomed their new currency, in Scotland MSPs took their seats for the first time in a new parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was described as “a means to greater ends” by the First Minister, Donald Dewar.

As Holyrood looks forward to a year marking the institution’s 20th birthday, there is still a debate over what those “greater ends” might be.

For Dewar, it was upholding the values of wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, words which are engraved into the parliament’s ceremonial mace.

“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves,” he said.

And with the first foray of the new parliamentary session starting with one former first minister winning a legal case against the very government he used to lead, those words feel more relevant than ever.

This week, Alex Salmond’s legal challenge over how the Scottish Government handled sexual harassment allegations against him was settled after civil servants admitted there had been “procedural unfairness” in the process.

The Scottish Government accepted “institutional responsibility” for conceding the case. 

Speaking after the decision, Salmond called for permanent secretary Leslie Evans to consider her position.

“It is a matter of great personal sadness that I have had to bring the Scottish Government to court simply to ensure that those within it are acting fairly, honestly and with due regard for the law,” he said.

It was one victory for Salmond in a case that is still the subject of a police investigation which, depending on the outcome, could have far-reaching ripples into the current political make-up of Scotland.

At the very least, a parliamentary inquiry into what went wrong in the process and the current first minister’s involvement seems likely, and could dominate 2019.

However, whatever reputational damage comes from the case, and to whom, the institutions of devolution which Salmond says he holds dear, as a whole, have grown over the last 20 years.

The Scottish Parliament has gathered more powers and become more outward looking. This year its relationship with the rest of the UK – and the world – will continue to change.

In her New Year message, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Whatever the outcome of Brexit, Scotland will always offer a warm welcome to the world. In fact, our reputation for being an open, warm-hearted, hospitable country has never been more important.”

The current Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard quoted Dewar and said tackling “poverty, homelessness and food banks” were the “greater ends”. 

Acting Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw said that “with Brexit being delivered, there is a real chance that this year Scotland can put a decade of disruption behind us”.

But now the UK is on an uncertain constitutional journey of its own, as it attempts to ‘take back control’ from Brussels. 

A year ago, 2018 was heralded as the year when everything would change and the UK would forge a new relationship with a new world order.

In fact, however, coming as it did on the back of four straight years of elections or referendums, 2018 was remarkably uneventful by comparison.

Theresa May’s tactic of repeating the same phrase again and again until something happens, a strategy which had spectacularly backfired in the 2017 general election, proved ineffective in her government’s negotiations with both the European Union and the devolved governments within the UK.

Despite her insistence that significant concessions were won from Europe, MPs remain unconvinced, and she continues to dig her heels in, repeating the same arguments in the hope they will eventually change their minds. 

We will find out on Tuesday, but at the time of writing, her best hope is an abstention by a Labour party which has refused to provide a clear position on the biggest issue facing Britain for decades.

A year ago, it was reasonably expected that by this point our politicians would be laying the groundwork for our new relationship with the world. Instead, the same internal squabbles persist, between party members, between parties and between the nations of the UK.

But 2019 is here, and with it the fast-approaching deadline set by the triggering of Article 50. Whatever happens, the words ‘nothing has changed’ will no longer apply after 29 March. Unless the UK seeks to delay the process, of course.

In May, the first post-Brexit EU elections will take place as Europe moves on without Britain, and the following month, world leaders will congregate at the G20 summit in Japan. Among them will be the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose pro-torture stance will add to the rising numbers of far-right voices on the world stage.

Closer to home, far-right voices are making themselves heard outside the House of Commons, with more than 50 MPs writing to the Met to complain about a group of “intimidating” British nationalist campaigners.

Meanwhile, Brexit will damage the UK economy in whatever form it takes, according to the UK Treasury’s own analysis. The political stage, too, will change. Both Theresa May and Vince Cable have indicated they will not remain as leader of their party for the long term. Will either be giving keynotes at party conference by the autumn?

With chasmic divisions in both the Conservative and Labour parties exposed by Brexit, and with a rift growing between the SNP and its former leader, could another party emerge this year?

Another decision which has been put off but could be addressed this year is a second independence referendum for Scotland. It was in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto to hold one during this parliamentary term and the Scottish Parliament voted to hold one. 
Theresa May’s response was that “now is not the time”, and this remains her position.

It would be hard to contest the fact that Brexit provides the “significant material change” which was named as the trigger in the SNP manifesto.

Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon told Good Morning Scotland this week that Brexit had “materially strengthened” the case for independence.

While she wasn’t drawn on a timescale, she said she would set one out at the end of the current phase of the Brexit process, which will be “very soon”.

“Everything that has happened over the past couple of years, from Scotland facing exit from the EU against our will to every reasonable attempt at compromise to protect Scotland’s interests by the Scottish Government being spurned, to the powers of the Scottish Parliament being eroded, to the UK Government even taking the Scottish Government to court, all of that has strengthened and reinforced the case for Scotland to be independent,” she said.

“Because these are not just academic arguments, all of this will have a material impact on Scotland’s economy and wellbeing for decades to come.”

Responding, Carlaw said that Sturgeon was “stuck in the past”.

“As at the start of 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015, her priority is to rerun the referendum of 2014. People across the country will correctly be thinking, ‘There she goes again’.”

He added: “The best new year’s resolution the SNP could make would be to drop the independence obsession and concentrate on delivering for the people of Scotland.”

Both sides of the argument will be focusing on the opinion polls closely, as support for independence has barely moved from the 45 per cent registered in the 2014 vote.

Even if there was to be a marked rise in support, the ability to hold a referendum is not ultimately in Sturgeon’s power. Whoever replaces Theresa May as prime minister is unlikely to be keen to open up any possibility for the break-up of Britain. 

David Cameron’s willingness to allow referenda to decide constitutional arrangements has become a legacy politicians may want to avoid repeating.  

We are in a new era of devolution, however, one which seems destined to be characterised by poorer relations between parliaments.

In passing the EU Withdrawal Bill, Westminster bypassed the will of the Scottish Parliament, and in December, the Supreme Court ruled that it meant the Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill could not then become law.

In her analysis, public law professor Aileen McHarg concluded: “The UK’s Government’s ability to halt the progress of the Continuity Bill by using its Supreme Court reference powers, and thereby to rig the race to the statute book decisively in its favour, further underlines the weakness of the devolved institutions within the current territorial constitution.  

“In choosing to press its tactical advantage, the UK Government may yet find that it has committed another strategic error in its handling of the devolved aspects of Brexit.”

The fact that an act of the Scottish Parliament was referred to the Supreme Court by the UK Government was unprecedented in itself, but combined with the consent motion being disregarded, deteriorating relations between governments, the prospect of Northern Ireland getting favourable trading arrangements and the diverging income tax regimes, Scotland’s devolution journey is on course for uncharted waters. 

The 20 years of that journey up to this point will be marked by Holyrood this year through a series of interviews and features, starting with Dewar’s successor, Henry McLeish, in this issue. 

If devolution really is about who we are and how we carry ourselves, this year could change both.

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