MPs on all sides descend to petty squabbling when a vital bill required serious consideration, argues David Maddox
The regular mantra from SNP MPs on Monday night during the debate on the Scotland Bill was that the “people of Scotland were watching” and would no doubt draw their judgments on what was being decided.
But while viewing figures from Scotland for the Parliament Channel may not ever come to light, it could perhaps be hoped that only a handful of people north of the Border could be bothered to watch one of the more unedifying spectacles in the Commons, which is saying quite a lot given the regular atmosphere in the House. To describe it as “fractious” would be an understatement, the ill-temper from all sides over a process which had begun with an all-party agreement in the Smith Commission was quite depressing.
It began with SNP shadow leader of the house Pete Wishart taking up more than 20 minutes berating the lack of time to have the debate for the two final stages in the bill.
“Get on with it then,” shouted Tory MPs as the debating time ticked further down with what can only be described as an angry rant.
But then Labour’s veteran Nottingham MP Graham Allen started to waffle on endlessly about English devolution in a bill about Scotland before any SNP MP actually had a chance to speak on the issues at hand. As time moved on and on, he was being shouted at by Nationalists waving at him to sit down.
“Being shouted and gesticulated at by SNP MP’s is the Parliamentary equivalent of spitting at your opponents in the street,” he responded before going on for even longer.
Even the usually cheerful Tory Scottish Secretary David Mundell appeared to lose the sense of humour which normally characterises the way he approaches such debates.
His opening gambit to Mr Wishart was: “I acknowledge the anger of the honourable member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). He is always angry at something. Each time we have dealt with the bill, we have had this sort of stunt. In the newspapers in Scotland at the weekend, the honourable gentleman called on other members of the House of Commons to be nicer to him. We will try, but he does make it a bit difficult.”
Later he accused Labour MPs complaining about the devolution of abortion as “verging on the patronising”.
And then there was the moment where SNP MP Ian Blackford appeared to compare Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray to a “beached whale”, although Mr Blackford later clarified that he meant Scottish Labour, not any individual.
And so the tone continued but perhaps it was the strange game playing over the votes on different amendments which raises serious questions about the purpose of the whole debate.
The question was whether the amendments put down had more to do with what was good for Scotland in terms of devolution and further powers or had more to do with point scoring for next year’s Holyrood election and after. It was hard to escape the conclusion that it was the latter.
This was perhaps best underlined by the way that the first part of the debate saw the SNP argue for the importance of full fiscal autonomy – control of all tax and spend for Holyrood – to support an amendment they had put down which was backed by some right wing Tories including Sir Edward Leigh.
But when it came to the votes, the SNP somehow failed to – or rather decided not to – press full fiscal autonomy to an actual vote.
Instead they trooped through the lobbies with the Tories to vote down a Labour amendment calling for an independent study on the effects of full fiscal autonomy.
Clearly the Nationalists wanted to say they had tried to push what they misquote former prime minister Gordon Brown as calling “as close to federalism as possible” but did not want to actually get that result and certainly not prioritise it.
But it would be deeply unfair to suggest only the SNP may have been playing games with this Bill because they did push their ammendment to give Holyrood control of a future independence referendum.
There is no way that the Unionist parties want this to happen. It would be the ultimate guarantee of a neverendum and give Holyrood a constant source of blackmail to force Westminster to change its decisions.
But when it came to the vote, rather bizarrely, the Labour Party sat on its hands and abstained. It seemed that they did not want to be seen to oppose this form of devolution and had made the calculation that it would damage them next year.
Mr Murray gave a strange reasoning for the decision saying: “We think the current system of partnership is best and voting against it would have broken that partnership and Edinburgh agreement type working together.”
That doesn’t really explain why Labour failed to properly oppose something it disagrees with, but clearly they thought actually voting against the amendment was an SNP elephant trap which would be used next year.
However, Labour did tumble into the pit when they marched through the lobbies with the Tories to oppose devolving tax credits to Scotland.
The SNP were fairly cock-a-hoop about their amendment showing Labour was not willing to devolve control of an issue which has been the source of so much political controversy lately.
But then you have to ask why the amendment was put at all. Last week Scottish Government cabinet secretary for welfare Alex Neil actually admitted that the new powers will allow Holyrood to reverse the tax credit cuts in Scotland planned by George Osborne for the whole of the UK. Mr Neil went so far as to welcome it, much to the embarrassment of the SNP.
Scottish Labour, meanwhile, have been using tax credits as an example of how it intends to use the new powers and point out that even if the Chancellor abolished tax credits altogether, the new powers would allow them to be created in Scotland. So this amendment was not so much about more powers for Scotland and more about face saving for the SNP.
But all the parties were culpable on the third reading, the final stage of the bill in the Commons where they all conspired not to have a vote. Labour and the Conservatives did not want any of their MPs being seen to oppose more powers for Scotland. The SNP did not want to be seen to either oppose more powers or support a bill it wants to discredit.
What happened on Monday is, though, typical of the way bills are treated in the Commons. It is all too often an exercise in point-scoring rather than strengthening and properly scrutinising legislation. Ironically, that is more likely to happen at the second half of the process when the unelected Lords have their say.