Brian Monteith: Nationalism has become greatest enemy of devolution

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Either conscious intent or mismanagement by the SNP is damaging a devolved Scotland, writes Brian Monteith

It is 20 years ago today that Donald Dewar, as Secretary of State for Scotland, published his government’s White Paper “Scotland’s Parliament” with great fanfare and the heady expectation that it would deliver a successful referendum campaign in September. He was not to be disappointed and the Scottish Parliament opened in the summer of 1999.

Now, with us well into our fifth administration, devolution is under serious attack – but not from diehard unionists such as myself who doubted its merits and campaigned for a “No, No” vote, but from a Scottish Government that, by either conscious intent or hapless mismanagement, is conspiring to see it fail.

That can be the only conclusion from observing the grandstanding of Scottish Government ministers who would rather pick a fight or find a grievance than use the powers that have been granted to Holyrood and then added to by two further amendments in 2012 and 2016.

When the 1997 referendum delivered the devolved parliament, those of us that opposed it (for a wide variety of reasons) accepted the outcome and committed ourselves to make it work. There were no campaigns to overturn the result, instead we made proposals for how devolution might be improved and have since seen some of those accepted through additional powers that will make the parliament more accountable.

The SNP response to the independence and EU membership referendums has been of a different order and has resulted in devolution falling into disrepute and the authority of Holyrood has been diminished.

Such is the low level of respect and esteem given to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, that it has been briefed she will no longer have easy access to the UK prime minister, but will be relegated to meeting the Scotland Secretary, David Mundell. Whether this is true or not, and Downing Street has not conclusively ruled it out, devolution has come to a sorry pass when relationships between the two parliament’s leaders are such a low ebb.

The seeds for poor relations were sown the day when the Prime Minister paid the compliment of going to Bute House for an early meeting with Nicola Sturgeon. The official photograph revealed in plain sight that the protocol of having the seated leaders together with their respective flags had not been followed – instead of having a Union flag representing the UK parliament, Theresa May sat in front of a second Scottish saltire. It remains the case that visiting dignitaries, such as the German ambassador or Indian High Commissioner, will find it easier to have their national flag displayed in a Bute House photo than our own Prime Minister will have hers.

Politicians understand the rough and tumble of partisan campaigning; they expect to be challenged by opponents on their policies, personal behaviour and judgment calls, but they do not appreciate the position they hold being publicly ridiculed – even more so when they are showing a less senior politician the respect that is normally reciprocated.

Such a cheap shot was no mistake or it could only have been approved at the highest level, nor was it to be a one-off. In the last year there have been a number of terrorist incidents committed on British soil and to show sympathy and solidarity cities and politicians around the world have seen to it that the Union flag has flown from public buildings or been projected on to important landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate. No such mark of support has come forth from the SNP government.

It is true that Scotland voted differently from England and Wales in the UK’s referendum on EU membership, but that’s what it was, a UK-wide referendum with a question to be decided by the whole of the UK.

Since becoming first minister, Nicola Sturgeon has consistently overplayed her hand and presented an over-inflated sense of her own importance – her response to the EU referendum illustrates this.

Demanding a seat at the negotiating table might have brought rewards had the First Minister publicly stated her acceptance of the UK’s decision. She could have used the outcome to build a positive relationship with Downing Street and advanced the cause of devolution by lobbying for extensive new powers to come from Brussels to Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

She could have established commissions to publish reports on how fishing, farming and other EU competencies could be administered in Edinburgh under a common UK framework. This would not have been counter to supporting eventual independence and would have demonstrated a commitment to good governance rather than party advantage.

Instead she immediately raised the likelihood of a second independence referendum that soured any possibility of good working relationships. Despite EU leaders not having Scotland’s interests at heart, no opportunity to lobby them has been wasted, although embarrassingly for Sturgeon none have borne any fruit.

To compound the repeated undermining of Theresa May and David Davis’s negotiating position the First Minister brought to everyone’s attention that she cannot be trusted to keep her private conversations confidential when she betrayed her discussions with Kezia Dugdale with the intent of seeking to embarrass the Scottish Labour leader. How could such a breach of faith do anything other than convince Downing Street to downgrade the involvement of Scotland’s First Minister?

Such has been the Scottish Government’s fixation with working to deliver the second independence referendum that devolution has been neglected at both the legislative and administrative levels.

Powers to vary taxation have been left unused, opportunities to take advantage of new welfare powers have been passed over – even though protest about welfare reform have been loud. If the Scottish Government believes in independence why can it not believe in devolution and use the authority it has?

With the exception of the necessary Finance Bill, only three government bills have been passed in the last year, further demonstrating how devolved powers are not seen as important enough even when they can change the lives of ordinary Scots for the better.

Likewise, majority votes in the Scottish Parliament calling for particular legislation to be repealed, such as the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, have been ignored.

It was once believed by SNP politicians that showing devolution could work would help convince the Scottish electorate that independence would not be that great a leap and could be made to work too. Now devolution is being undermined by the SNP and it is the arch-unionists that are its most ardent cheerleaders.

l Brian Monteith is editor of ­ThinkScotland.org