Scott Macnab: Indyref2 battle lines clearly drawn

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The row over post-Brexit powers marks the new sparring ground between London and Edinburgh, writes Scott Macnab.

As Nicola Sturgeon takes her campaign for Scottish independence to the US, the battleground for the next referendum campaign is already emerging. 
The First Minister’s visit to New York and California this week was purportedly a trade mission, with advisers firmly insisting that it would be all about drumming inward investment for Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted Scotland is ready to take its place as an equal partner in the global family of nations by voting yes in a second referendum. Picture: John Devlin

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted Scotland is ready to take its place as an equal partner in the global family of nations by voting yes in a second referendum. Picture: John Devlin

But post-Brexit politics being what they are, the SNP leader couldn’t resist getting into the independence issue as she addressed Stanford University yesterday, insisting Scotland is ready to take its place as an “equal partner” in the global family of nations by voting yes in a second referendum.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon tells US that Scots are ready for indyref2

We can expect a similar approach when the First Minister speaks to the United Nations later in the week.

Westminster may have rejected the Scottish Government’s request for a second referendum for now, but the launch of a pro-union business campaign by the entrepreneur Robert Kilgour yesterday shows both sides are gearing up for the fight.

Nicola Sturgeon in California this week where she has been  talking about independence. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Nicola Sturgeon in California this week where she has been talking about independence. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Ms Sturgeon lit the touch paper when she told MSPs in Holyrood last week that she suspected Westminster was planning to use the repatriation of controls from Brussels as a “power grab” from the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP has an uncompromising approach here. Everything - absolutely everything - that is returned from the EU must come to Holyrood.

READ MORE: SNP seize on claim Brexit terms will be clear by 2019

This goes back to the founding principles of the devolution deal which saw the creation of the Scottish Parliament almost two decades ago. Unless areas of competency - like the defence of the realm of the constitution - are specifically reserved to Westminster then they must rest with Holyrood.

A spokesman for the First Minister last week accused the Tories of “obfuscation and flannelling” over this issue.

He warned that the Tory Government at Westminster is “going to have to break open the founding statute of this Parliament and go against the founding principles of devolution,” should it seek to hold onto a controls over areas like agriculture and fishing which are returning from Brussels.

Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell was in equally punching mood when the UK’s Government published outline of its Great Repeal Bill on the repatriation of powers from Brussels last week. He claimed that in all areas where “powers already belong to the Scottish Parliament the white paper continues to threaten that in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment, powers will be taken by the UK Government after Brexit.”

This suspicion that the basis of the devolution agreement may be in jeopardy appeared to win the backing of MPs at Westminster which accused Mrs May in a report of “grabbing power” from Scotland and warned there is a “real issue” about the protection of the devolved nations of the UK in relation to the way decisions are taken in London.

A new system of “intergovernmental relations, extending possibly as far as shared decision-making” is called for by the Exiting the European Union Committee at the Commons.

But the situation is far from clear. Areas of so called “shared competency” have always existed and devolution has been as much a tangled myriad of controls resting north and south of the border, as it is a clean split between Holyrood and Westminster.

Health has always been seen one of the flagship areas of devolved control, but it’s only very recently that MSPs at the Scottish Parliament gained control over abortion law which would naturally fall under this umbrella.

Law and order is another area where the Scottish Parliament is nominally in charge, but the National Crime Agency, charged with disrupting organised criminal gangs operates on a UK-wide basis. And it is only in the past year that control over policing of the railways was passed to the Scottish Parliament with the UK-wide British Transport Policing filling that role until now.

The row over Scottish Government plans to scrap the British Transport Police (BTP) north of the border and have Police Scotland take over the role is still raging amid widespread opposition from frontline officers. So these shared competencies have always been in place and more are likely in the post-Brexit landscape.

When it comes to areas like farming and fishing, which the Scottish Government is now agitating over, the picture is complex. How far does this go?

Do we get down to the minutiae of the size of trailer which livestock must transported in? Could this be different between Scotland and England and the logistical nightmare that would follow for the agriculture industry?

UK Government insiders point to areas like this where it would simply make sense for “shared competencies” to exist allowing both London and Edinburgh to work together and arrive at a common sense solution to these issues. Westminster also insists it has no interest in becoming embroiled in the running of crofting or hill farming where the authorities north of the border have a far better handle of things.

That’s before you even consider the subsidy system which will replace the hugely lucrative EU Common Agricultural Policy.

This collaborative approach has the backing of industry in Scotland with both the National Farmer’s Union and the Scottish Fishermen’s federation acknowledging the requirement for there to be some shared competencies - and even some powers being reserved - for the UK to export efficiently as a single unit.

It’s all about protecting the integrity of the UK’s single market in the post-Brexit landscape when global trade deals will be vital.

The issue is likely to come to a head later this year when MSPs are expected to be offered the chance to vote on the UK’s Government’s proposals in the Great Repeal Bill.

The Scottish Government is already threatening to block it, with Green support, unless the “power grab” concerns are addressed. So as Ms Sturgeon steps up demands for a second referendum it is likely the looming threat to the Scottish Parliament’s future - real or imagined - will be at the heart of the next campaign.