The conclusion in an MPs’ committee report that Whitehall officials don’t understand devolution may have silver lining.
To be fair to Theresa May’s Government, the Brexit referendum did come as a bit of a surprise.
For most of the 20 years of Scottish devolution, nobody thought for a moment that the UK would leave the European Union and that this would have consequential effects on relations between Holyrood and Westminster.
But, given we have had two years of dithering as the UK Government decided what kind of Brexit it wanted, there was surely time to come up with a sensible compromise that respected devolution but also did not undermime the UK’s own internal market.
Instead, relations descended into a bitter row over what the SNP has described as a “power grab” of issues that currently controlled by the EU but which would otherwise be devolved.
To be fair, both the UK and Scottish Governments had a point. Westminster wants to make sure the UK doesn’t leave the wealthiest single market in the world and end up with further sub-divisions inside the UK. But it’s not unreasonable for the SNP to be concerned that matters which are supposed to be devolved might end up being controlled in London. The UK Government insists this will not happen and it will all be sorted out eventually, but it feels like ministers ran out of time to sort out a deal in advance of Brexit. The resulting constitutional ‘crisis’ – with the Scottish Parliament passing its own EU ‘Continuity Bill’ in an attempt to grab the disputed powers – is currently being considered by the UK Supreme Court.
And now we have an indication of the reason behind the chaos with a report by MPs finding that Whitehall officials don’t actually understand devolution. It was all the more surprising given the committee is chaired by Sir Bernard Jenkin, a prominent Conservative Brexiteer.
As Scotland’s Constitution Secretary Michael Russell remarked, it is an “astonishing” state of affairs and one that should be rectified as soon as possible, which will be after Brexit now. But perhaps there is a silver lining from the report. The UK Government hasn’t been deliberating trying to grab powers that should be devolved. It’s simply been struggling to understand what to do.
That could be the basis for a general cooling of tensions between Edinburgh and London and a chance to find a reasonable way forward. In these turbulent times, we could certainly do with one.