Tom Peterkin: Surprising uneasy peace at Holyrood can’t last

The SNPs Brexit minister Michael Russell did not use the phrase 'power grab' and opted instead for a conciliatory tone as he addressed MSPs at Holyrood this week.
The SNPs Brexit minister Michael Russell did not use the phrase 'power grab' and opted instead for a conciliatory tone as he addressed MSPs at Holyrood this week.
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The unusual spirit of consensus over more powers for the Scottish Parliament suits both SNP and Tories writes Tom Peterkin

To those of us who are used to the clatter of constitutional clashes coming from Holyrood, there was a certain amount of puzzlement when the sound and fury gave way to something else this week.

Under normal circumstances, a ministerial statement from the SNP’s Michael Russell on Brexit would be expected to see MSPs going at it hammer and tongs across the chamber.

So there was some head scratching from seasoned observers when there was an unexpected outbreak of constructive cross-party discussion on EU withdrawal. It was almost as if the grown-ups had entered the playground.

Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw offered to sit down and talk with SNP ministers in an attempt to resolve the impasse between the Scottish and UK governments over EU withdrawal.

Things grew curiouser and curiouser when the offer was taken up with alacrity by Mr Russell, who was keen to respond positively to the new and unfamiliar collegiate spirit that was sweeping across the Holyrood chamber.

Stranger still was the fact that the conciliatory noises coming from Mr Russell came just a day after Nicola Sturgeon had used the 20th anniversary of devolution to ramp up the anti-UK government rhetoric.

Marking two decades since Scotland voted for the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister warned that Brexit was undermining devolution and repeated claims that the EU Withdrawal Bill was nothing more than a “Westminster power grab”.

Her beef is that devolved policy areas such as agriculture, fishing and the environment, which are currently carried out at EU level, will be automatically reserved to Westminster – unless the UK government decides to devolve.

It was a complaint that the SNP have been making for months with increasing intensity. Yet when Mr Russell stood up to speak on Tuesday he studiously avoided using the “power grab” phrase and even reached out to the Tories.

The Brexit minister made a plea for MSPs who can influence the UK government (i.e. the Scottish Tories), to help the Scottish Government in its quest for more powers.

Mr Carlaw responded positively, saying he and the party’s constitutional expert, Professor Adam Tomkins, would be prepared to meet Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Mr Russell to ensure an orderly EU exit and a “substantial and coherent future additional settlement of responsibilities for this parliament”.

So as the SNP and Tories agree to set aside traditional animosities (for the time being at least), it begs the question: why the softening of tone between such sworn enemies?

For the SNP, it is something of a departure. For as long as anyone can remember, the SNP’s default position has been to seek a row over powers. No matter what extra levers come Holyrood’s way, the SNP’s response is to argue that they are not enough. By focussing on the process, the SNP are past masters at turning attention on to the constitution.

But with the complexities of Brexit presenting an enormous challenge, there are signs that the public is growing tired of the idea that the answer to a constitutional wrangle is more constitutional wrangling.

“The SNP is in a difficult position because they can’t do their usual and crank up the grievance. That is the traditional SNP tactic but it doesn’t work any more,” was the view of one influential Tory yesterday.

For Ms Sturgeon’s party there is the added complication that many of its supporters happen to have voted for Brexit. Disrupting EU withdrawal and threatening a constitutional crisis by withholding Holyrood consent to Brexit would not play well with them.

Furthermore the issues at stake – while worthy and important – are not the sort of things you can imagine the SNP’s footsoldiers going over the top for.

As someone close to the Brexit process put it yesterday: “If Mike Russell starts trying to wage constitutional war on the labelling of fertiliser bags it will not go down well with the Scottish public.”

But fundamentally, there is also a recognition that more powers can be delivered to Holyrood as a result of Brexit, despite SNP complaints that they will go to Westminster first. According to the UK government, it is simply a question of sorting out which ones are best dealt with at Holyrood and which ones would benefit from a common UK framework to protect the internal UK market. For the moment at least, the SNP appears willing to take the common sense approach of working for more powers.

The motivation for talks doesn’t just lie with the SNP. For the Scottish Tories the incentive of securing a deal is a strong one. Like all Tories, Ruth Davidson’s political fate is inextricably tied up in how Brexit goes. With 13 MPs at Westminster, she has an influence at UK government level and she will be hopeful of keeping her hard Brexiteer colleagues in check. At Holyrood, Brexit remains the Conservatives’ Achilles Heel. But engaging with the SNP and being seen to act constructively may neutralise the SNP’s Brexit-related attacks.

Even so, the threat of a second independence referendum is still brandished in the background by the SNP. So too is the possibility of the Scottish Parliament failing to endorse the Brexit Bill and triggering a constitutional crisis. So whatever peace may have broken out at Holyrood on Tuesday, it is an uneasy one.