Interview: David Mundell on Brexit, Sewel and relations between the UK and Scottish governments

Written by Jenni Davidson on 28 September 2018 in Inside Politics

Scottish Secretary David Mundell tells Holyrood that the relationship between the Scottish and UK governments is not broken

David Mundell - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

It must be awkward being David Mundell.

He is a Remainer, representing a country that voted Remain, but has to defend Brexit on behalf of the UK Government while also putting the case for Scotland. Does he feel like piggy in the middle?

He tells Holyrood: “I think the starting point is I take collective responsibility very seriously and therefore I respect that, so, particularly in relation to the Cabinet, if we take a decision, then I argue my corner and then we move forward with that decision.

“And I think that’s essential in cabinet government. That’s sort of how it works, in that sense.

“It’s the same in the decision to leave the EU. I didn’t vote to leave the EU, but across the United Kingdom, the majority of people did vote to leave the EU.

“That was the parameters of that referendum and we have to respect the outcome.

“I would have respected the outcome of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum if Scotland had voted to become independent.

“I would have accepted that and worked to make it the best that it could have been. So that’s what I’m doing just now.”

He says his role is to argue Scotland’s case in the UK Government, but that case isn’t necessarily the SNP case or the Scottish Government case.

Although he’s “quite happy” to ensure that their views are put forward, and he did, for example, feed in Scottish Government views into the Cabinet meeting at Chequers.

“But that doesn’t mean I am required to agree and support their views,” he adds.

“I’m providing my own perspective in relation to Scotland, Scotland’s needs, aspirations, requirements, so I see it all the time as fighting Scotland’s corner, ensuring that the specifics of Scotland are understood, ensuring… that people understand that Scotland is not the SNP or the Scottish Government.”

He emphasises that in fact, there is much that the two governments agree on. When Holyrood meets him in the Scottish Parliament, it’s in a Conservative Party meeting room sandwiched between SNP and Conservative MSPs’ offices.

He has been giving evidence to two Scottish Parliament committees and he is going on to a meeting with Finance Secretary Derek Mackay.

Mundell says he’s “very keen” to get as much agreement as possible with the Scottish Government, adding that “it might be trite, but we actually do agree on far more than we disagree and if you can – and it’s very hard in the Scottish context – take the constitutional issue out of the way, then you can make a lot of progress”.

He adds that he is “very confident” they’ll be able to agree frameworks around agriculture and fisheries and the environment, “because actually, when you’re looking at real outcomes, the scope for agreement’s great”.

The Scottish Secretary suggests that virtually everyone, whether Brexit or Remain, recognises that the Common Fisheries Policy was not serving Scotland well and that Brexit also provides an opportunity to support agriculture in a way that is appropriate for Scotland and “not somehow linked to olive growing in Greece or the needs of other countries”.

“Brexit is about taking forward the opportunities that there are and minimising the risks and challenges that we face, but in a practical sense,” he says.

However, when asked what he sees as ‘making Scotland’s case’ in a way that’s different from the Scottish Government, he explains that “foremost”, it is about Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom, and secondly, while the Scottish Government is in favour of staying in the EU, he is clear we are leaving.

There has been a lot of talk about relations between Holyrood and Westminster being at a very low ebb, particularly after the EU Withdrawal Bill, but he denies that is the case.

“I completely dismiss that. I’ve been involved for nearly ten years as a minister and now a secretary of state.

“There have been ups and downs in that relationship, but the relationship was very difficult in the summer of 2014, I recall, so I don’t regard this as being at a low point.”

That evening, for example, he says he will be attending a dinner where he will be at the same table as Nicola Sturgeon, and notes wryly: “I’m sure that we’ll manage to speak to each other.”

He also says that while he has had public disagreements with the Scottish Government’s Brexit secretary on a number of occasions, “I really get on quite well with Mike Russell”.

Mundell is keen to point out that on “a lot of practical levels”, ministers are working together all the time and officials are in contact every day.

“Officials have very good relationships, UK Government officials, Scottish Government, because they’re working together every day, even on contentious parts of Brexit.

“So I don’t accept… that somehow the system is broken. It’s just that we have two different views and the Scottish Government aren’t getting the outcome that they want”.

However, the key question remains over the Sewel convention and what ‘normally’ means, after the UK Government overrode a Holyrood decision to withhold its consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Because of the potential for future disagreements, doesn’t it need to be set out in law? He disagrees.

“I don’t see why that should be the case. We’ve gone 19 years without there being any dispute… and that has included quite substantial legislation, quite substantial divergence between what the positon was here in Scotland with what it might be elsewhere in the UK.

“And even now, we’re continuing to see that in relation to issues of importance, like we’ve got an Offensive Weapons Bill just this week [that] has been recommended for legislative consent.”

He says the system hasn’t broken down over the EU Withdrawal Bill because they continue to seek, and gain, consent on other bills.

“The Sewel convention’s been very clear right from the start, from when it was set out by Lord Sewel himself that the Westminster parliament would always be able to legislate in devolved matters, but it wouldn’t normally do that if the consent of the Scottish Parliament was forthcoming, and that will continue to be the case.”

Holyrood points out that the examples he’s given, control of offensive weapons and pavement parking, are areas where the two governments actually agree, so consent for those would not be an issue, but the question is what happens when there is disagreement.

He answers: “Well, what we do is to respect the current constitutional settlement, which was endorsed by people in Scotland in the referendum.

“I was in a number of debates back in 2014 where people talked about the Sewel convention and what it meant and those people who support independence don’t think the Sewel convention is enough because it isn’t absolute, but we had that debate and discussion and the people of Scotland chose to have two parliaments, and they endorsed the relationship between those parliaments which is set out in the Sewel convention.”

But Labour and Lib Dem MSPs also voted against legislative consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill and they are not known for their support for independence.

Mundell responds by going on a side-track, pointing out that the Lib Dems voted against the EU Withdrawal Bill because they don’t believe Scotland should leave the EU and noting that Lib Dem peer Lord Wallace had said the UK Government did everything it could to get consent.

Then he appears to suggest that Labour’s decision to vote against legislative consent is a sign of the party becoming more pro-independence.

Mundell says that Labour peers were “surprised” to find Richard Leonard supporting the SNP on that, and that he himself has been “surprised” that “the natural Labour reaction seems to be to line up with the SNP” and that this “is a move away from Labour’s strong unionist credentials”.

Holyrood contests that actually, the issue of legislative consent is about devolution and not about independence.

“Well, no, no. I don’t accept that,” he says, mentioning the expected forthcoming announcement at SNP conference on a future second independence referendum.

“We have a different constitutional position and we have a different position on the EU. The Scottish Government do not wish to leave the EU.”

Nor, in fact, do the Scottish people, Holyrood notes.

“I don’t accept that,” he says. “We had a referendum across the United Kingdom.

“That was the basis of that referendum, the people of Scotland having voted to remain within the United Kingdom when the possibility of there being a referendum [on leaving the EU] was a live one, and therefore, it was a United Kingdom vote.

“It wasn’t a vote that said that different parts of the United Kingdom would have a different vote.”

However, despite the tetchiness so far about the 24 devolved areas the UK Government has opted to reserve after Brexit, Mundell is confident that agreement can be reached for pan-UK policies, noting that there is unlikely to be disagreement on issues such as the size of a lorry carrying livestock.

Why, then, was it necessary to impose UK control over those areas?

He says this is a misunderstanding and all they have done is freeze current EU rules until agreement is reached.

However, asked whether he can guarantee that the UK Government will not impose something if they don’t get agreement, he answers: “Well, we haven’t evolved the processes for doing that.

“And again, coming back to approaches, I would rather we put the effort and energy into the substance of what we’re discussing and looking to get agreement, rather than always being focused on what will happen if we don’t get agreement, because I think we should be endeavouring to get that agreement.”

Mundell disputes Mike Russell’s recent assertion that the Scottish Government don’t so much get consulted as asked to fact check, saying that there isn’t “any validity to an argument they haven’t been listened to, they haven’t been heard”.

He says: “They have and they continue to do that and we continue to evolve the process so that it is more effective in doing that. There are sometimes things that of course we can take on board, so we want to move to a more scheduled JMC arrangement, so that it’s not ad hoc; we’ve created this ministerial forum which allows ministers to have a less formal dialogue about issues of importance, headed up by my colleagues, Chloe Smith in the Cabinet Office and Robin Walker; we’ve got official working groups; we’ve got officials in a dialogue.

“So I don’t think it’s the case that the Scottish Government haven’t had the opportunity to make their case.”

We are now around six months or 200 days out from Brexit day, but Mundell remains positive that they will get a deal with the EU.

He says: “I’m confident that there will be a deal and I always have been confident that there will be a deal because I think it’s in the EU’s interest to reach a deal.

“It’s not in the EU’s interest to have Britain leaving the EU on a disorderly basis. There’s so many areas where we have mutual interest…

“Now, there are challenges because the commission has adopted certain approaches, it likes uniformity, but the member states ultimately, the 27 member states, they’re the ones that will decide what the outcome is, and I’m confident that they’ll see that their interest lies in getting a deal.”

But there’s quite a difference between knowing it’s in your interests to get a deal and actually making one that is acceptable to 27 different countries and the European Commission and the UK. Isn’t it now increasingly unlikely?

“I don’t accept that analysis,” he says. “I think there’s no doubt that we’re into the hard ball end of the negotiations.

“There’s discussions obviously going ahead at a level of officialdom, but there’s going to be a summit in Salzburg, we’re moving forward to the EU summit in October.

“We are coming to a head in terms of being able to do that.

“I think, as I say, that focuses minds. The EU has a lot of history of always just taking very serious things right to the wire, so I think it’s inevitable, almost, that we’re going to go to the wire, but it also has a history of reaching deals.”

Mundell appears quite relaxed about the split within his own party over the issue, noting that “the position that the Conservative Party is unchanged over 40-odd years in terms of there are people who have different views on the EU and that is not a secret”.

However, while accepting of party colleagues’ dissent, he appears to expect more of opposition parties, calling on them to fall into line behind Theresa May.

“We hear other political parties going on about not wanting no deal.

“Well, there’s an opportunity for them to do something about that and that’s when we come to a choice between the Prime Minister’s deal and no deal.

“They should back the Prime Minister.”

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