SNP are making 'power grab' at Holyrood, not Boris Johnson – Murdo Fraser

SNP ministers are proposing that rules currently set by the European Union would be introduced at their discretion with absolutely no ability for the Scottish Parliament to amend them, writes Murdo Fraser MSP.

Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures have accused Boris Johnson's Government of a 'power grab' that threatens devolution (Picture: Fraser Bremner - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures have accused Boris Johnson's Government of a 'power grab' that threatens devolution (Picture: Fraser Bremner - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It’s a reasonable rule of thumb that the more hysterical and histrionic the language used by politicians, the weaker their arguments. An excellent case in point is the SNP response to plans by the UK Government to legislate to protect the UK internal market; plans denounced by the Scottish Government Constitution Secretary Michael Russell as an outrageous power-grab.

Both the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon got in on the act, the former describing the plans as “the biggest assault on devolution” since 1999, and the latter “a full-scale assault on devolution”.

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What lies behind this hyperbole is the White Paper published last Thursday from the UK Government, aiming to ensure that businesses across the UK will be able to trade freely post-Brexit, without regulatory barriers getting in the way.

There should be no debate about the economic importance of this. The UK internal market is vitally significant to Scottish business, worth over £50 billion a year, and is the destination for 60 per cent of all our exports. If regulatory differences were to occur across the UK post-Brexit, that could create real challenges for, for example, Scottish farmers wishing to sell their produce in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, or vice versa. It is estimated that some 500,000 jobs in Scotland are dependent upon the smooth operation of the UK internal market.

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SNP anger over post-Brexit trade standards ‘power grab’

The issue has been crystallised in relation to the rules on state aid. Each part of the UK makes its own spending decisions on subsidies, but the rules around state aid are at present set on an EU-wide basis. Without this new legislation, there could be different state aid rules in different parts of the UK, creating confusion and leading to the ludicrous position where nations of the UK competed with each other with public funds to support, or attract, businesses.

Moreover, the negotiation of future trade agreements, either with the EU or with other third parties, would effectively be impossible without a single state aid regime applied in all parts of the UK.

Massive transfer of power to Scotland

The key point in all this is that the powers that are being described are all presently held by the EU in Brussels. There can be no “power-grab” as the SNP claim, for the simple reason that there are no powers being grabbed.

There is not a single power currently being exercised by the Scottish Parliament that will be taken away by what is proposed. Rather, what we will see is a massive transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament, with some 111 powers which are coming back from the EU post-Brexit being transferred to Holyrood. And, we should never forget, that every single one of these powers the SNP want to see returned to Brussels at the first opportunity.

From all we have heard so far, it seems that the SNP would rather grandstand and scaremonger about the UK internal market legislation, than give serious consideration to what is in the interests of the Scottish economy.

It is little wonder that only last week Jim McColl, a member of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisors, and a prominent campaigner in the 2014 Yes Campaign, criticised the lack of business experience within the SNP Government. Their lack of understanding of the needs of the Scottish economy has never been more evident.

The Edinburgh Government has an alternative to the UK internal market proposals, and that is their own EU Continuity Bill, which proposes to tie Scotland to EU rules and regulations even after Brexit.

Rule-taker, not rule-maker

If this Bill is agreed by the Scottish Parliament, it would mean that, for example, Scottish farmers would be bound by EU rules, despite there being zero Scottish or British influence in how these were created. We would be a rule-taker, but not a rule-maker.

Perhaps worst of all, what SNP ministers are proposing is that these EU rules will be introduced at their discretion. There will be no requirement for primary legislation to be introduced to Holyrood, to go through the normal process of detailed scrutiny and consultation. Instead, these EU rules would be introduced by secondary legislation, with truncated opportunities for scrutiny and discussion, and absolutely no ability for the Parliament to amend these.

This is the real power-grab that we should be concerned about, and one which has not featured in the present debate to any extent thus far. Post-Brexit, we will not be members of the EU, we will have no say in formation of EU rules, and yet these could be imposed upon us at the whim of SNP ministers, without the requirement for detailed consultation and assessment. We could end up in the situation where the ability of Scottish businesses to trade within the UK internal market is hampered by the fact that we are having to adhere to EU laws, laws which we have had no say in making.

With the UK internal market worth three times more to Scottish business than the EU single market, on any assessment it makes no economic sense to favour the EU over the rest of Britain. Yet that is exactly what the SNP are currently proposing, putting their constitutional obsessions ahead of what is in the best interests of the Scottish economy. And to achieve that, they will grab powers from Holyrood – the very sin that they accuse the UK Government of. Behind the overblown rhetoric, that is what is really going on.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife

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