I have spent the past few days in foreign climes doing my ambassadorial best to promote excellent Scottish products that create jobs and prosperity at home. A long-distance perspective on domestic politics does not improve the view.
The outside observer might conclude that nothing matters in Scotland but the constitution – a constant argument about “powers” which bores on even while the devolved government is having great difficulty utilising the queue of new powers which already exists.
Those countries I visited are challenging for exporters – customs delays, bureaucracy, tariffs, all that pesky stuff which has to be overcome by diligent people. Ideally, the whole world would be a single market but meantime it seems sensible to hang onto the ones we’ve got, the UK and EU.
Then, lo and behold, I read the Scottish press through the wonders of modern telecommunication and find the Sage of Glendaruel, Michael Russell, declaring that “there is no such thing as a single market in the UK”. There is, he conceded, an “integrated market” while failing to elaborate upon the distinction.
What is he talking about? A single market is one in which goods and services move freely, without restrictions or tariffs. On what conceivable grounds does the UK not meet that test – as well as being overwhelmingly the biggest market for what Scotland produces and provides?
Yet we cannot laugh off Mr Russell’s protestations for they tell us a lot about what is going on. Truth has to be stood on its head in order to serve a single, over-riding imperative. To justify breaking up the UK and its single, unfettered market, it is first necessary (however brazenly) to deny one exists.
This also addresses (however absurdly) the contradiction at the heart of SNP posturing. While prepared to die in the last rhetorical ditch to defend the EU single market, they toil night and day to extract us from one that is of far greater significance to Scottish families, jobs and prosperity.
My preferred logic is to stay in both. Anti-EU Nationalists like Jim Sillars are unconcerned about staying in either, which also has its own intellectual consistency. The only position devoid of that quality is to wave flags for the EU single market while striving to break up the UK. That is not a policy but a prejudice, as its less discreet standard-bearers would cheerfully confirm.
The context of Mr Russell’s remarks was the supposed “constitutional crisis” he has been trying to crank up for the past year. In reality this is no more than a political problem and an inevitable by-product of Brexit which (as in Wales) is perfectly capable of resolution – though not by those whose vested interest is in prolonging and inflating it.
We are invited to believe the crucial issue is whether some powers go direct to Holyrood or via a transition period while the complexities evolve. That is not a power grab but common sense. When one looks at (to take just one example) the current inability of the Scottish Government to pay EU grants to farmers and crofters on time, it is difficult to sell the case that “powers” per se matter more than the competence with getting things right.
I read the transcript of the Holyrood debate and its striking feature was the complete absence of real-life examples of why all this matters. One might have expected Mr Russell’s speech to bristle with illustrations, genuine or contrived, of how it impacts upon communities, businesses, jobs. There was not a single one.
It is all about manufacturing a high principle in order to keep the words “power grab” in the headlines. Labour, as guardians of the devolution settlement, do not wish to be outflanked but at least are looking for a solution. And well they might – for in an auction of grievance-driven indignation, there is only one winner and it isn’t Scottish Labour.
When the 1998 devolution settlement was agreed, the EU was ignored and the divvy-up took place between Westminster and Edinburgh. If we had been leaving the EU at that time, exactly the same issues would have arisen and been dealt with in a grown-up manner. But we weren’t, so the questions did not arise. Repatriation of powers from Brussels will lead to Holyrood having greater responsibilities. Equally, it is clear to any reasonable person that there are policy areas where every part of the UK has a legitimate interest in how these are balanced and co-ordinated. Wales, which served as a fig-leaf for a while, has accepted a sensible accommodation. Why not Scotland?
What else does one see from afar and marvel at how its proponents can be taken seriously at home? Try standing back for even a slightly broader perspective in order to consider the farrago of dishonesty which has been revealed in the Court of Session case about fracking. I am neither pro- nor anti-fracking because I am unqualified to have an absolutist view. That is why we have a planning process to determine the merits of each and every development proposal. Undermining that process with a “ban” always seemed disrespectful and cavalier.
Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos should enjoy the nation’s gratitude for going where others fear to tread, discretion usually being deemed the better part of valour in the New Scotland. He challenged the “ban” on grounds that Scottish ministers acted unlawfully. For once, the Nationalists were called to account.
So what was their case for the defence? James Mure QC informed the Court: “The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement.” So the apparently categoric assertions from Ms Sturgeon downwards were meaningless. I repeat – this was the case for the defence and it took shamelessness to a new level, not that the disciples will care.
Mr Mure’s words should now hang over everything the Scottish Government touches. Nothing is as it seems. Until proven otherwise, it is all “a gloss” and “the language of a press statement”. Where better to apply that brave new mantra than to the utterly bogus “constitutional crisis”?