I sometimes wonder if the Conservative Party has a political death wish. I really do. At times throughout its history it has made significant errors of judgment that have put its future at risk, or much worse, risked the future of our country, by which I mean the United Kingdom.
Readers may have their own favourites. Those older than me (a diminishing group) might think of the period of appeasement of Hitler during the Thirties or the drive to take us into the Common Market that finally bore fruit in the Seventies. I certainly would include the selling out of British fishermen and their communities that led directly to the growth of the SNP in formerly Conservative Scottish coastal constituencies, giving them a genuine beachhead from which the nationalists have advanced.
Then there was the stubborn refusal to recognise that once devolution had triumphed in the 1997 referendum and a Scottish Parliament had been delivered to the Labour and Liberal Democrat design that it made better sense to embrace that outcome and propose improvements that would make it more financially responsible and accountable for its actions. Instead of leading the charge for Holyrood to raise its own funds for its excessive spending, the Scottish Conservative leadership had to be dragged by its opponents to adopt eminently modest and sensible proposals, but only to stop the SNP.
Now the Conservative government, which by definition includes the Scotland Office led by Cabinet Minister David Mundell, seems intent on causing an almighty constitutional row that could end in in a rupture for the party and the Union. That obviously sounds a tad dramatic, but it is that serious.
Those that have followed the debate and understood the detail about the UK leaving the European Union will know that in relation to Scotland (and Wales) the legislation is particularly clear – legislative and administrative competencies that are not listed in the Scotland Act as reserved to Westminster automatically are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Note my use of the word “automatically” for it is important.
Those, such as myself, who campaigned for Scotland to leave the EU pointed to this fact as evidence that once we departed the Scottish Parliament would enjoy new powers over the management of agriculture, fisheries and various aspects of the environment, employment law and education. At the time “Remain” campaigners, including an eminent Scottish MP and QC who sat next to me on a BBC panel, denied this was true, even though it is a matter of law.
I used to enjoy teasing the SNP leaders such as Sturgeon and Salmond that they would rather Brussels would continue to have those powers than see them administered in Scotland. Subsequent to the referendum, SNP figures such as Alex Neil and Jim Sillars called upon the SNP leadership to use the result as a means to secure the powers that should be automatically devolved, rather than demanding a second independence referendum.
Unfortunately for the SNP, the sage words of Neil and Sillars were ignored. So tired did the public become of the shrill repetitiveness of Sturgeon’s indyref demands that it finally lost patience with the SNP and gave it a bloody nose in the recent general election.
Thanks to Theresa May ignoring advice that she should concede a second referendum and telling Nicola Sturgeon that now was not the right time, the platform was set for Ruth Davidson and her team to campaign on a robustly Unionist ticket. Davidson did this very well but without the strategic rebuff first executed by Theresa May she would not have been able to advance her tanks on to the SNP’s lawn.
All the while I continued to argue that May’s government should be banging the drum about how Scottish farmers and fishing communities could benefit from Brexit – and the only way to prevent this would require amendments to the Scotland Act to repeal the automatic transfer of powers.
Throughout this period neither the Scottish Conservatives or the SNP (or the other major parties for that matter) considered it an important enough issue to put at the top of the agenda. That was until last week when the UK government finally published its European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to transfer EU law into UK law but also used it as the vehicle to prevent the “automatic” passing of EU competencies that are not reserved to Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.
Before I continue. let me say that I can see good reasons for wanting to ensure that there is a common framework for legislating and administering on farming and fisheries across the UK. For instance, it is vital that any deviation in policy between the UK’s constituent nations does not discriminate or erect barriers to trade between British citizens. Scottish fishermen should have open access to all British waters just as British fishermen should have open access to all Scottish waters, so long as the regulatory requirements that are the same for all are met.
Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced there is a necessity for amendments to the Scotland Act at this stage, for this particular approach gives an opportunity for those running the Scottish and Welsh administrations who wish to stop Brexit to deny the consent of a Sewel motion as a means to halt that whole process. Even worse, it gives Nicola Sturgeon a new grievance that she can say justifies a second referendum.
Having delayed indefinitely the prospect of a further referendum, the Conservatives seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of that victory.
I hope I am wrong but the route that the Conservative government has taken looks certain to reignite the sense of grievance that Nicola Sturgeon so cherishes and this time it will be a tangible act that will involve debates and real votes over laws. It will be elevated into high drama and is already being branded “a power grab”. That this is being said by the very politicians who have supported giving such powers back to Brussels will not register in the sound and fury of battle.
The SNP will present Whitehall’s legalistic but naive approach as an affront to Scotland, and the Scotland Office and the Conservative government – already on the back foot after losing its parliamentary majority – will struggle to win the hearts and minds of Scotland if it is presented in such a way.
l Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain