Sketch: Michael Gove tries to help
Michael Gove arrived in front of the finance committee a worried man. Someone, it seems, has been telling the MSPs there’s something concerning about the Internal Market Bill. Frightening them. They had been the victims of “scaremongering”, he felt.
And you can see why. The Institute for Government, for example, has warned it “tries to insulate ministers from judicial scrutiny”, while Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis - a member of the actual government - has conceded it breaks international law. Liverpool University’s Professor Michael Dougan, meanwhile, described it as a “fundamental rewrite of entire devolution settlement”.
And so Gove appeared, attempting to calm things, by explaining that it wasn’t an attack on devolution at all. Those are just nasty rumours. The result of “myth-making”. In fact, the bill was really a “power surge”. So, there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. Everything is fine.
“Let me provide you with reassurance”, he said, speaking via video link. “There have been all sorts of myths that have been put about, which are nonsense. They are stories to scare children at bedtime, not real reflections of policy”.
That sounded good, even if it showed a questionable view of children’s bedtime reading, but MSPs were not to be distracted. Alex Rowley raised concerns the bill would allow privatisation of the NHS, adding that people were “revolting en masse” over these issues.
Gove looked politely baffled. No one is revolting, he said. Quite the contrary. “When you say people are revolting, I haven’t seen any evidence of that. I don’t think it’s the case that people in Aberdeen or Auchertmuchty are looking at the Internal Market Bill and saying this is a Trojan horse for privatisation of the NHS. If you can find such people, who are not paid-up members of the SNP, I’d be very interested to hear from them.”
Rowley, who is not a paid-up member of the SNP, looked somewhat taken aback by this. So, what about analysis suggesting the bill stemmed from the assumption that regulatory divergence, brought by devolution, was itself a problem?
Gove was unconcerned. “That is not the case”, he said cheerfully. “We welcome the innovation the devolved nations show,” he said, before downing a cup of tea.
Next up, Patrick Harvie had a go, “in the hope that this time we might get an answer that amounts to more than ‘oh no, it isn’t’”.
Would he get one? No, he wouldn’t. Again, he raised concern the bill would impact on devolved competences.
“Which competences would the bill sweep aside?” Gove asked, shocked.
Building regulations, Harvie said. There were no exemptions in the bill to allow regulatory divergence in Scotland for aims such as sustainability or social justice, he said.
“There is nothing in the bill which undermines high quality building standards”, Gove explained, pleasantly.
Yet still Harvie was not satisfied. If the bill is passed, he asked, and the UK and Scottish Governments had a dispute over regulatory divergence, would the Scottish Government be able to stick to its policy decision, or would it be overridden?
Gove looked puzzled, wracking his brain to help. “What sort of thing were you thinking?” he asked, helpfully.
“I’ve already given you an example.”
“The example you gave didn’t apply”, Gove said. “So, I’d like an example that is relevant.”
Time was running out, but Harvie was getting nowhere. It was like watching someone argue with a supermarket self-service machine, while a queue slowly grows behind them. On it went, with Gove’s obvious determination to be as helpful as possible undermined by the fact he apparently considered it impossible to think of an area where the UK and Scottish governments could possibly disagree, either now or in the future.
“I’m still looking for a hard, concrete example where a devolved competence is infringed”, he said. Was he enjoying this? It looked a bit like he was.
But Harvie seemed to find it irritating, for some reason. “You do appear to me to have the bearing of someone who is required to ask for consent, but who doesn’t ultimately care whether consent is given. Are you able to reassure the committee that the UK will not pass this legislation in respect of devolved areas, without the consent of the Scottish Parliament?”
Gove explained the Sewel Convention meant they would not normally pass legislation on devolved areas without MSPs’ consent. Yet, these are not normal times. “Leaving the European Union is not a normal occurrence, it is an exceptional one, and I hope we will secure a legislative consent motion, but of course it is vitally important we secure the UK internal market.”
Harvie didn’t take this very well. “So, you don’t actually care whether we consent or not.”
Poor Michael Gove was shocked by this. He was a man wronged. A man misunderstood.
“Oh, I do!” he said. “That’s why I am appearing here. That is why we are having this conversation. Because as the various bogus arguments against the bill are exploded, so I hope more and more people will realise it is a useful and indeed helpful piece of legislation that strengthens devolution.”
It was very helpful indeed. He absolutely wanted Scottish Parliamentary consent for the bill. But he absolutely needed it passed anyway. Nothing could be more important than getting the devolved administrations onside. But, equally, nothing could be more important than passing the legislation.
And maybe he was right. Maybe the Scottish Parliament will see the light, stop worrying and give its consent. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” Gove said, breezily.