Will new Conservative Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan improve cross-Border relationship with SNP? – Alastair Dalton
Momentous change in royal and political leadership this month could alter Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK – and with it the handling of key transport issues.
Significantly, new Prime Minister Liz Truss has appointed as her Transport Secretary an MP with a constituency on the Border with Scotland – Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s Berwick-upon-Tweed seat is fewer than 60 miles from Edinburgh, six times closer than Westminster.
That could prove important in relations between the UK and Scottish Governments as the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum moves back centre stage.
A British Social Attitudes survey published on Thursday found the Union “has become decidedly less popular” in Scotland.
Trevelyan leads a new six-strong ministerial team at the UK Department for Transport, four of them women.
Even if that long-overdue gender re-balancing is not unprecedented, it’s a very positive sign, and follows Nicola Sturgeon in January appointing Scotland’s first female transport minister since Labour’s Wendy Alexander 20 years ago.
In contrast to back then, when Labour was in power on both sides of the Border and there was much co-operation over transport policy, I’ve detected a distinct lack of communications since between the SNP and Conservatives.
A low point was reached in 2020 over the UK Government’s Union Connectivity Review to improve travel links between the four countries of the UK, which Holyrood Transport Secretary Michael Matheson criticised as a “blatant power grab” – effectively telling Scotland what to do despite major transport projects being devolved.
However, the Scottish Government does not appear to be considering potential improvements with any urgency, such as upgrading the A75 between the M6 and the Northern Ireland ferry ports at Cairnryan, which was suggested in the review.
A further gulf has opened up between the governments over the Britain-wide rail strikes which have brought much of the network, especially in Scotland, to a standstill for six days so far, with a further stoppage due on Saturday, October 1.
SNP transport minister Jenny Gilruth has repeatedly sought to contrast the way the UK Government has handled the dispute, principally involving the Network Rail track and signalling body it owns, with her own government’s involvement in disputes as ScotRail, which she said “could not be more stark”.
While Gilruth said she had ensured Scottish Government-owned ScotRail could “engage constructively” with the unions, she said her UK Government counterparts had “threatened staff with compulsory redundancies and new anti-union legislation”.
Her approach didn’t avert months of disruption during the train drivers’ dispute when many declined voluntary overtime, while other ScotRail staff voted on Tuesday to strike over pay.
However, I have detected far less bitterness and political edge in the disputes than in the Britain-wide one.
But that could now change, as former UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, the main target of Giruth’s ire, has been replaced – an MP with a Home Counties constituency in Hertfordshire has now been replaced by a Secretary of State perhaps more finely tuned to what’s said north of the Border.
Trevelyan’s team includes Baroness Vere being re-appointed as one of her five transport ministers, with her remit including devolution and “Union connectivity”, so she will also be one to watch for any change of tone in dealings with Matheson and Gilruth.
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