Wakey wakey, devolution is under threat, we must act now - Lesley Riddoch

Power grab or power surge? Even with our polarised politics, how can last week’s Westminster White Paper yield such vastly differing interpretations? Who’s right and does it much matter?

You have to give the British Government credit for creating such impressive doubt and confusion about its likely motives. Despite having the worst trust and competency ratings of any recent government, despite a record of ignoring devolved governments on everything and consulting next to no one during Covid, it has thrown critics off the scent by making its prospective Internal Market Bill sound a bit cuddly (who doesn’t like mutual recognition?) and dull.

But beware. The intentions of Messrs Johnson, Gove and Cummings are not honourable. They aim to loosen up cash and control so subsidies can be directed towards Tory Red Wall seats and to close down any Scottish “Walloon-style” intervention over the desperate trade deal they’ll have to agree with the United States.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Admittedly that doesn’t come tripping out of the White Paper – a 104-page masterpiece of disguised intent. Yet it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing which has produced half-truths, distractions and curved balls aplenty.

Googly Number One – there can be no chlorinated chicken sold in Scotland without Holyrood’s consent. Besides, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said yesterday, EU food standards were incorporated into UK law in the Withdrawal Bill. So what’s all the fuss about?

Simply put, the British Government could change its view overnight on the merits of chemically treated meat, enact new regulation and then use the Bill’s new “mutual recognition” powers to force Scottish acceptance of England’s new, lower standards.

But wait. Mr Jack promised that if Westminster ever changes standards it will need the consent of Holyrood. Righty. That’ll be like the “consent” it obtained for the Withdrawal Bill, which was no consent at all. Let’s remember how Britain works. Diktat, not discussion.

Googly Number Two – the internal market is just a friendly way to support Scottish business and ensure doctors can still practise in England after Brexit. In fact, the British government already regulates the Scottish medical profession – Scotland Act 1998 Schedule 5 Section G2. So there’s no danger of non-recognition. The White Paper also mentions possible problems for Scottish plumbers yet most of their qualifications are delivered by the English-based City and Guilds.

Indeed, cross-border trade of all kinds has worked seamlessly since devolution thanks to voluntary frameworks. Why aren’t they good enough now? If the current proven, voluntary system ain’t broke, why fix it? And if cross-border business doesn’t need this new legislation, then what is it really for?

Which leads to Googly Number Three – that not a single power is being taken away from Holyrood in the new Bill.

These are weasel words from Mr Jack. The parallel Agriculture Bill will wrest control over the distribution of agricultural subsidy payments from Holyrood by placing a cap on the amount the Scottish Government can pay. Last week the House of Lords’ constitution committee described this as an “invasive measure” – a power grab by any other name.

But even if it contains nothing as obvious as a list of Holyrood powers Westminster wants to usurp, the White Paper does something more powerful. It installs mechanisms to make future power grabs easier and stealthier, such as the dispute resolution procedure that gives unelected Johnson cronies the right to subject future Holyrood Bills to “market impact” and “mutual recognition” tests. Minimum alcohol pricing and free university tuition could have been ruled out of order this way and Scottish “anomalies” such as publicly owned water could yet be undone.

But softening the terrain for dreadful trade deals is just one motive. Les Huckfield, former Labour industry minister and MEP for Merseyside East has identified another. Huckfield, now an independence-supporting research analyst based in Scotland, observes: “The new dynamic in the UK is that Johnson and Cummings need to protect Red Wall seats and use every power to steer subsidies, investment and jobs into those areas. So the clauses in the Internal Market Bill that ‘reserve subsidy control to the UK Parliament’ and talk of legislating for ‘a single, unified subsidy control regime’ are designed to force the Scottish Government to seek Westminster permission before interventions like Prestwick, Ferguson Marine or Invergordon – permission that will in future be denied because Scottish manufacturing competes directly with similar industries in Teesside and Red Wall seats.”

Indeed, the White Paper is a cunning effort to kill several birds with one stone. It clips the wings of the powerful Scots Parliament, reserves the right for Westminster to further unravel devolution when convenient and does what Margaret Thatcher could not do – it makes Scottish institutions, governance and civic society legally subservient to the marketplace.

Currently whole areas of Scottish public life consciously exclude or limit market control. That will end if the bill progresses unamended, and Scotland’s hauled into shabby, post-Brexit trade deals with “investor dispute resolution mechanisms” that give corporations the right to challenge “restrictive” Holyrood legislation. The White Paper is that serious and its likely repercussions are that bad.

The question is how to make this situation sufficiently vivid that every part of civic society in Scotland is mobilised. All Under One Banner will have a small static demonstration outside Holyrood tomorrow but symbolic protest may cut little ice. The Scottish Government plans to take this complex power grab to the Supreme Court. But time is of the essence.

With a four-week summertime consultation ending on August 13 and a short Bill, Michael Gove could push the Bill through before the Queen’s Speech in the new session. Will the SNP turn this into a major constitutional battle? Will Keir Starmer side with it or the Tories? Will farming interests resist this attack on Scotland’s hard-won reputation for food excellence? Will voters lobby Scots Tory MPs? Will councils, professional bodies and trade unions respond and prepare to send legal teams south this autumn, to sit in the public galleries during the committee stage and formulate objections to each clause?

In short, are Scots serious about defending the Home Rule settlement? Because if we are, it’s time to act. Wakey, wakey.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.