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by John Cooper
07 June 2024
The record of the Scotland Office speaks for itself

Alister Jack outside the UK Government offices in Edinburgh | Alamy

The record of the Scotland Office speaks for itself

The Scotland Office is a “husk”, wrote Paul Sinclair in his piece for the current edition of Holyrood. It is a “Sleepy Hollow” of a government department. Most ridiculously of all, Sinclair claimed the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has made “nothing of the job”. 

In fairness to Sinclair, his piece was not complete nonsense. He recognises there is a strong case for strengthening the Scotland Office and he notes correctly that Labour have no clear plan for the department if they win the election on July 4.

But to suggest the Scotland Office has been inactive or ineffective over the past five years is wide of the mark and requires to be corrected. Sinclair has either a short memory or he hasn’t been paying attention. Perhaps he is the one who has been sleeping. 

Here I happily declare an interest. 

I worked as a special adviser at the Scotland Office for most of Alister Jack’s five years as Secretary of State (he is the only cabinet minister to have held the same job throughout the last Parliament). But you need not have been an insider to see that under his leadership the record of the Scotland Office speaks for itself. 

Far be it from me to assist Labour with their apparent confusion but the purpose of the Scotland Office is and has been very clear. 

I was part of a team that represented Scotland and Scottish interests in Whitehall. We championed the work of the UK Government in Scotland. We sought to defend the devolution settlement against Nationalist efforts to undermine it. Our guiding mission was to strengthen the Union. 

That is why the Secretary of State was prepared to challenge the SNP-Green Scottish Government even when, at times, it felt difficult. 

For example, the Scotland Office intervened when it became clear the nationalist administration was acting beyond its powers with its nill to enshrine the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law - and not only that, using it cynically to manufacture a constitutional grievance just in time for the 2021 Holyrood election. 

The Supreme Court ruled very clearly we were right. The SNP’s attempt to play political games with an important issue backfired on them. 

The Scotland Office also challenged Nicola Sturgeon’s Supreme Court stunt over her Referendum Bill. 

Again, the court ruled in our favour and to the surprise of no one threw out the SNP’s attempt to re-write the devolution settlement by giving themselves the power to hold a vote on Scotland leaving the UK. 

It was very clear that, among a long list of problems, former Green minister Lorna Slater’s bottle deposit return scheme threatened to disrupt cross-Border trade, protected since Brexit by the UK Internal Market Act. 

So the Scotland Office intervened with a  plan that would have allowed a more limited but workable scheme to proceed (though it was petulantly rejected by Slater). 

A final example: the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform legislation. 

For the first time since devolution, the Secretary of State used an Order under Section 35 of the Scotland Act to prevent the Holyrood Bill becoming law. 

The bill would have had a serious adverse effect on the working of GB-wide equalities law. When challenged by the Scottish Government, the Court of Session upheld the Secretary of State’s decision and his reasons for taking it. 

There is a common thread here: the Scotland Office under Alister Jack has consistently stood up to the nationalists whenever they have tried to abuse devolution. 

Did that create friction between Scotland’s two governments? Of course. Did the Scotland Office feel like Sleepy Hollow? Far from it. But the Secretary of State was doing his job and the decisions he took were the right ones. 

I’d go further. By showing the UK Government could challenge the nationalists, even at the height of their power, yet emerge on the right side of public opinion Alister Jack’s Scotland Office did more than any other since devolution to weaken the grip of the SNP and to strengthen the Union.

So what of ‘beefing up’ the Scotland Office as Sinclair suggests? 

Well, in my view there is a strong rationale for that, though it is not one that seems to have occurred either to Sinclair or to Labour. 

It rests with the £3bn that is now being invested directly in Scotland by the UK Government through city and growth deals and a range of other schemes under the Levelling Up banner. 

Many projects are small scale and community led. They put resources and decision-making in the hands of local people who know best how to use the money.  The process has been widely welcomed, not least by local authorities across the political spectrum, and it is making the UK Government much more active and visible in Scotland.

In my view that approach should continue and grow - and it would be driven forward by an even stronger Scotland Office. 

John Cooper is a former UK Government special adviser and the Conservative and Unionist Party candidate for Dumfries and Galloway at the general election.

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