David Mundell: Here’s why the Scotland Office is more important than ever

Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) last week produced a report on the state of relations between the UK and Scottish governments.

Among its recommendations, it called on the UK Government to review the role of the Scotland Office and to consider replacing it – together with the Welsh and Northern Ireland offices – with a single department for constitutional affairs.

As Secretary of State for Scotland, you’ll not be surprised to hear I’m making the opposite case.

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By all means let’s have a review of the Scotland Office (or Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, to use our official name).

Dover House, the home of the Scotland Office in London. Picture: WikicommonsDover House, the home of the Scotland Office in London. Picture: Wikicommons
Dover House, the home of the Scotland Office in London. Picture: Wikicommons

Indeed, I say bring it on.

But that’s because, far from calling time on the Scotland Office, I am confident it would lead to a very different outcome, giving us an enhanced role and an even more powerful voice.

To understand why, you just have to consider what we do.

Our job is to represent Scottish interests at the heart of Government and to promote the work of the UK Government in Scotland.

It’s done with the aim of strengthening Scotland’s place in the UK.

That puts us on the side of the large majority of Scots who voted to remain in the UK in 2014 and who continue to oppose a re-run of the damaging and divisive referendum.

As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to make plans for a second independence referendum next year, I would argue the role of the Scotland Office is more important than ever.

The SAC report rightly highlights our leading role in important constitutional events such as the 2016 Scotland Act, which transferred a swathe of new tax and welfare powers to Holyrood and which I was privileged to take through Parliament.

But of course our work does not end there.

We are a reservoir of expertise on Scotland’s devolution settlement (which is very different to those of Wales and Northern Ireland) and use that to advise colleagues across the UK Government.

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In Scotland, we are engaged on a daily basis with the Scottish Government and with stakeholders right across civic society as we manage the transfer of new powers, invest in the Scottish economy through our £1.3billion programme of city and growth deals, and discuss preparations to leave the EU.

That’s the work I’m responsible for as Secretary of State for Scotland. And I firmly believe that having a dedicated cabinet minister for Scotland is the best way to ensure our voice is heard.

The Union is under threat. Making the case for Scotland’s place in the UK must remain as big a priority for the UK Government under a new Prime Minister as it is under Theresa May’s premiership.

So the Scotland Office must also challenge misleading claims that are designed to undermine the Union. Claims about a ‘Westminster power grab’ as the UK leaves the EU, for example, or of relations between Scotland’s two governments breaking down. Those old myths resurfaced in the comment and commentary surrounding the SAC report and need to be called out.

Far from there being a ‘power grab’, Scotland’s two governments are working constructively to create common frameworks in a number of devolved areas such as agriculture – but only where we all agree it makes sense to have some shared rules and regulations, just as we do now as part of the EU.

Indeed, as a result of EU Exit there will be a significant increase in the powers of Holyrood. I was very pleased the SAC acknowledged the collaborative approach to our new common frameworks of the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments.

It is hugely important work that has the support of businesses on both sides of the border, and will strengthen the UK internal market that is so vital for the economy and jobs in Scotland.

And the Committee’s conclusion also undermined chairman Pete Wishart’s subsequent claim that relations between Scotland’s two governments have ‘broken down’. That is simply not the case.

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During the course of the Committee’s inquiry the Scotland Office submitted detailed evidence showing the range and depth of engagement between the UK and Scottish Governments.

It demonstrates a remarkable degree of joint working, at ministerial and official level, on everything from Brexit preparations to agriculture, from city deals to the transfer of Holyrood’s new welfare powers.

The two governments have also been working together to ensure the mechanisms we have to support intergovernmental relations – such as our Joint Ministerial Committees – are fit for post-Brexit era of devolution.

Now, of course, we have political disagreements and it would be silly to pretend we don’t. With a UK Government staunchly supportive of the Union and a Scottish Government campaigning for independence, there will always be tensions. But there is a clear difference between political disagreement and a failure of process.

Yes, we’ll disagree but that does not mean our system of devolution has failed, that relations between our governments have collapsed or that Scotland has somehow been ignored or disrespected.

It just means we don’t see eye to eye with Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m afraid that’s going to happen from time to time.

And as long as it does, I believe it makes sense to have a Scotland Office and a Secretary of State for Scotland making the strongest case for Scotland’s true interests at the heart of the UK Government.

David Mundell is Secretary of State for Scotland