What can the Union still do for us and what is the SNP's problem? - Brian Monteith

What did the Union of Parliaments ever do for us?

It is a question supporters of the Union would benefit from asking themselves far more often, for I hold that many who see it as merely an economic transaction would discover far more positives than they are aware of.

They might also find gaps in our country’s development that merits attention, for the Union is not beyond adjustment, it will always be unfinished business open to improvement.

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One of the benefits of bringing the Scottish and English Parliaments together was the creation of a single market, using a single currency within a single customs union.

The SNP's former constitutional secretary Michael Russell. Picture: PA

The resulting political economy that harmonised our trade also melded our academic, scientific and engineering cultures that favoured reason and discovery – and so together we created the industrial revolution that, amongst other things, gave birth to the railways.

There is no better memorial to the triumph of the Union of Parliaments than the Forth Bridge; designed by Englishmen Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, using steel from Wales, Glasgow and Motherwell.

The viaducts leading to the cantilever structures were designed separately by Scotsman James Carswell, while the navvies that built the bridge, including the 73 workers that died, were from many corners of the Empire.

There should be no doubt the spread of such connecting infrastructure that reached all the way to the Highlands pulled Scotland closer together as well as closer to England and her ports in the west and south that connected with the rest of the world.

As new technology has developed at pace – such as air travel and containerisation – it is easy to forget we still have some blind spots that were we to give them our attention might create new opportunities, new enterprises, new jobs and even new communities.

It should therefore be applauded that our Prime Minister is so supportive of the concept of strengthening the connectivity of the United Kingdom by establishing a review by Sir Peter Hendy, the current chairman of Network Rail and previously commissioner of Transport for London under both Ken Livingstone and Johnson himself.

Sir Peter published an interim report in March of this year and is expected to publish his final conclusions in autumn that should bring joy to many who will see it as providing greater opportunities for commerce across the UK as well as making our ability to travel around our island easier and safer.

Amongst the weaknesses in our country’s connectivity that Sir Peter is the failure to dual the whole of the A1 and the many bottlenecks on the A75 that impacts on trade from Northern Ireland as well as South West Scotland.

Others include the M4 corridor that holds back economic benefits for Wales and the state of many ports that receive goods from Northern Ireland. Weaknesses in both rail and aircraft connectivity are also on his list as is the possibility of HS2 stretching beyond the border.

These are not problems the devolved institutions can necessarily solve alone as the routes often traverse more than one jurisdiction and the financial costs may also be prohibitive. The benefit of a United Kingdom approach is obvious.

Unsurprisingly the SNP Government has been less than co-operative, preferring as it has on previous occasions to discourage joint working by Scottish civil servants on such projects.

Michael Russell would not allow any collaboration on the Internal Market Bill that would smooth the legal paths for delivery of competencies returning from Brussels to the UK. Putting nationalist ideological purity ahead of practicality resulted in the UK Government simply going ahead with its own ideas when devolution could have achieved a more harmonious and complimentary outcome.

Ironically this now means that while the UK Government will undoubtedly seek to work with any Holyrood administration, it now has the powers to dual the A1 in Scotland by itself if Nicola Sturgeon’s government refuses to work with it.

Likewise it can upgrade the A75 and deliver freeports without the need for Scottish Government involvement. The obvious question is what is the SNP’s problem?

Surely Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues would not turn down British money for improving Scottish infrastructure? After all, they are willing to receive the £15.2 billion fiscal transfer that ensures Scottish public services are funded more generously than in England – so why not work with the grain of efficient government and honest intentions to improve the links between Scotland and England, be it road, rail, sea or air?

Yet my own enquiries inform me that the SNP minister for transport Michael Mathieson has told his civil servants – just as Michael Russell told his on the Internal Market Bill – not to work with UK Government departments to develop greater connectivity. I would hope it is not so, but there appears to be a modus operandi that might simply be described as working to make devolution fail.

Although myself a critic of devolution on various grounds I recognise it can work, and work well, if the administrations of the various jurisdictions seek to co-operate at the ministerial and administrative levels.

By seeking to create grievances where there are none and politicising decisions that will not now be reversed even with a change of government, the true enemies of devolution – those nationalists that would break up the United Kingdom – conspire to divide our people and bring everything crashing down around us. We all lose.

The Union of Parliaments brought us much we can be proud of – we should encourage and welcome the practical improvements it can still bring irrespective of our political views.

- Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.


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