Last week the Scottish Secretary of State, Alister Jack, saved devolution from itself. Indeed, he saved it from a full-frontal assault by the nationalists currently in control of it. The SNP/Green Government will do anything to bring devolution into disrepute, to create a grievance against the UK Government and to deflect attention from their own failings that mount by the day.
The First Minister’s typically hysterical reaction to the moving of a Section 35 Order by Jack, preventing the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill from being put forward for Royal Assent, seeks to play her Government, transgender people in particular and the Scottish people in general as the victims. It does not stand up to examination. Instead, it suggests the First Minister is either wholly ignorant of the Scotland Act 1998, or is being wilfully disingenuous.
You choose, but neither is a good look for a First Minister who is meant to work for all of us.
Sadly, the evidence available suggests it is the low motives of cynical manipulation of the Scottish electorate that is at hand, served up, as ever, with lashings of hypocrisy. Let us be clear, there is no greater threat of a full-frontal assault to devolution than from Nicola Sturgeon and her nationalist followers, who would destroy it if they could. Pot and kettle don’t even come close.
Division is a natural consequence of debate, but when our politicians seek to exacerbate any division so as to polarise communities and corral support for their benefit it needs to be condemned. That is the behaviour of the demagogue and that is the behaviour our First Minister now stands accused of.
When warnings are given of potential threats to women and children from passing new, more relaxed legislation – warnings backed by evidence of offences that have happened already across the whole UK under the tighter existing laws – then there are no excuses for carrying on regardless. The Government ministers have a duty of care to all Scots, not just those whose rights they are seeking to improve.
When warnings were given last year by both the UK Minister for Equalities and the Chair of the UK’s Equalities & Human Rights Commission that the new legislation could impact on existing rights and protections – such as already provided by the Equalities Act 2010 – then there are no excuses for driving ahead with legislation that would inevitably have to be struck down.
Yet without any apparent qualms of conscience, ignoring the warnings is exactly what the SNP/Green Government has done – no wonder so many people now believe Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie intentionally wanted a constitutional fight rather than to make good law that could command public support.
They could have accepted amendments that would have lowered the temperature and created consensus – without weakening the core achievement of their reforms.
The chief political leader in our Scottish Parliament intentionally dividing the nation rather than uniting and healing it is a shameful political act that should be rewarded only by Sturgeon forfeiting her position. Those who continue to serve in her cabinet, by their actions, become accomplices to her great shame.
Of course there is always an element of partisan party politics at play in the passing of legislation, even if it is only to define differences.
Nevertheless, the behaviour of the Scottish Labour Party in enforcing its MSPs’ support for the SNP/Green Bill was, to say the least, disappointing. This ensured the safe passage of the Bill when the refusal of the Scottish Government to accept even modest amendments (to provide protection to women and children from proven sex offenders abusing the new rights) gave leader Anas Sarwar the opportunity to withdraw Labour support and vote the Bill down.
Had that happened, as it should have, the Bill could have been brought back afresh with suitable safeguards for women and children, it would not have been weaponised by turning it into a constitutional issue. This outcome only served to benefit the SNP/Green Government by deflecting attention away from their education and health failures under Nicola Sturgeon’s watch.
For me, it was Sarwar’s biggest tactical mistake to date and raises serious doubts about his ability to lead Labour against the nationalists. Alister Jack was left with no alternative and was right to move the Section 35 Order in the circumstances.
The Scottish Conservatives beat a different drum and accepted a few of their MSPs abstaining on, or supporting, the Bill at early stages. There are times when accommodation can and should be given for matters of conscience; nevertheless, when the amendments to protect people from known sex offenders were defeated a three-line whip opposing the Bill should have been introduced.
The point here is parties exercising their own discipline by making or withdrawing support lays down for posterity their position on any particular legislation.
As a consequence of the pusillanimous behaviour of both the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties the SNP/Green Government is able to make the disingenuous claim the Bill had all-party support, which is stretching the truth.
When the Scotland Bill was passed in 1998 the SNP – who had only reluctantly campaigned for it as their sub-optimal position – voted for the whole Bill, Section 35 included. The Section 35 Order is part and parcel of Devolution, being designed to fit within the UK. There has been no full-frontal assault, instead devolution has been robustly defended – and by a Tory Government.
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and Editor of ThinkScotland.org
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