John McTernan: The will of the Scottish people has been betrayed

ALL political careers end when the public can say, "You're just like all the rest". In advance, it's hard to predict when that's going to happen; in retrospect, it's always blindingly obvious. In the United States, they have a phrase for it - you "jump the shark".

It's a TV term, derived from an appallingly bad episode in the last series of Happy Days when the Fonz literally jumped over a shark while on waterskis. That was when the show loosed itself from the surly bonds of televisual "realism". The phrase applies equally to politics, and last week was when the SNP jumped the shark.

I, for one, am sick of hearing people moan on about the Treaty of Arbroath. What a handful of Anglo-French noblemen who illegally seized Scottish land said to the Pope about another bunch of Anglo-Norman noblemen's claim of title for the same land is of so little interest to me. Freedom, cry the upper classes, immiserating 99 per cent of Scots (our ancestors - yours and mine.) Whatever, class enemy, I cry. But some in Scottish politics take this oh so seriously.

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Here in Scotland, they say with a choke in their throat, sovereignty derives from the people - not from the crown, as in England. To which I have always given a two-word response, the second most used in Scottish discourse - "Aye, right".

Suddenly, though, we are through the looking glass. Those who fetishise the will of the (Scottish] people have now decided not just to ignore it, but to denigrate its value. Until recently, the words on the lips of the SNP Scottish Government were constant and clear - we should have and hold a referendum on independence, because the people should choose. Their voice is sovereign - and has been since the Treaty of Arboath, yadda yadda…

They first backed off that. Sensible, as it is manifestly illegal for the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on breaking up Britain, just as it would be unlawful for Glasgow to hold a plebiscite on becoming part of Ireland. But who knew this was not just a tactical retreat, but a philosophical row? From being a party that believed in asking the public the same question again and again until they got the answer right - the "neverendum" - the Nationalists have decided that the people's voice should never be heeded, even when it has been invoked.

How else do we interpret the simply extraordinary decision by the Scottish Government to end the Scottish Parliament's ability to set its own tax rate through the tax-varying powers granted in the Scotland Act.Make no mistake, that is what they have done by refusing to pay the fair share to HMRC to ensure that the tagging of Scottish taxpayers continues - for that tag is what would allow a Scottish variable rate of tax to be raised.

The Scottish Government say they're saving money - the 7 million needed to fund software development so that Scottish taxpayers are identifiable in a real-time system. What they are actually doing is betraying the Scottish people. There were two votes held in 1997 - one for the establishment of the parliament, the other to vest in it tax-raising powers. There were majorities for both. Now the SNP have said that the vote on tax powers is irrelevant - or worse, wrong.

A government's core role is stewardship. They take in trust a country, powers and responsibilities - and they need to pass them on intact. The current Scottish Government have said that they know better than the people - powers that were explicitly endorsed by a referendum have been rendered inoperable by an administrative choice.

This is a betrayal of the people. We know it is - and the government know it is, that's why they failed to tell press, public or parliament about a momentous change.

This is the second charge against the SNP: they lied to parliament. And yes, lied is the word. For some reason our MSPs feel bound to use the Commons convention of "misleading Parliament".

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But let's look at the facts. John Swinney, when presenting his Budget, made a big deal of considering and rejecting the use of the variable rate. If he'd told the truth he would have said: "Previous finance ministers have chosen not to use the SVR. I, however, have chosen not to have that choice. In defiance of the will of the Scottish people, I have unilaterally, and privately - with no scrutiny - decided to abandon Scotland's current powers of taxation. And not just for this minority government. I have chosen, too, to bind the hands of future governments. I know there was a referendum to give the parliament these powers, but, hey, I know better. The voters were wrong. These powers are irrelevant. And I will repudiate them."

Truly, this will not stand. It's an abuse of power, an abuse of parliament and contempt for the people.

So, what next? For me, Holyrood has never yet had a defining parliamentary moment. Nothing has been raised, prosecuted and resolved on the floor of the House. No government has yet had to realise that the floor of a parliament is a killing floor. This is it. They were lied to. Worse, a key power of the parliament - granted by plebiscite - has been handed back secretly by the government. For a long time, the charge of being a London party has been central to the Nationalist critique of their opponents. Now it turns out that the most overtly Scottish party have done a deal to strengthen the English.

Now is the time for Holyrood to come of age.A proper parliamentary scrutiny would ask: (a) is this legal? After all, there was a vote of the people. To kill a power without parliamentary approval needs judicial review; (b) show us the papers. Traditionally, the Scottish Government have sheltered behind Freedom of Information exclusions. However, there's nothing that a parliament can't demand. Time for the committees to come of age - don't settle for the usual rubbish, remember contempt for you is contempt for parliament.

This week could see the Scottish Parliament come of age and assert itself. Go for it.