Brian Wilson: Brexit may have downsides but taking powers away from Holyrood is not one of them

This week's speech by Nicola Sturgeon to the David Hume Institute provided timely confirmation that fabrication of grievance is destined to prevail over honesty of appraisal as she manoeuvres to impose a second independence referendum. Buyers beware!
Holyrood will hold more powers over fishing post-Brexit than at present, says Brian Wilson. Picture: Getty ImagesHolyrood will hold more powers over fishing post-Brexit than at present, says Brian Wilson. Picture: Getty Images
Holyrood will hold more powers over fishing post-Brexit than at present, says Brian Wilson. Picture: Getty Images

Ms Sturgeon secured the headlines she was looking for. Westminster, she averred, is engaged in “an attack on the very foundations of the devolved Parliament”, posing a “grave threat” to “20 years of progress” by removing powers from Holyrood under cover of Brexit.

On first reading, it seemed like shameless nonsense though diligence demanded that I should consult the whole text in pursuit of the evidence which, surely, she would bring to bear in support of such a dramatic contention. Sadly, the rewards were even more frugal than I had anticipated.

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Her “evidence” was limited to a single sentence which read: “It is clear from (the UK Government’s) statements that even elements of farming and fishing policy – which have been wholly devolved competences from day one – now risk being taken back to Westminster.” And that was it – not a quote, not a source, not an explanation, nothing.

UK governments of all complexions have spent much of the past 20 years passing more powers to Holyrood. Some of the most significant remain unused by Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues for whom demanding is always more important than delivering. There is not a shred of evidence that there is any attempt to reverse that process and Ms Sturgeon felt no obligation to provide it.

All that mattered was that a wild allegation would take its place within the grievance narrative, focused on building the bogus case for another referendum. How demeaning it all is for Scottish public life and the quality of debate to which we are entitled. Scotland faces really serious challenges, not least because of Brexit, yet all we are fed is this constant diet of superficial politicking and self-interested manipulation.

Farming and fishing seemed like strange territories for her to invoke. Far from being “wholly devolved competences” to Holyrood, or for that matter Westminister, both have been constrained for 40 years by policy frameworks set in Brussels. I do not recall either the Common Agriculture Policy or Common Fisheries Policy being celebrated throughout Scotland as fonts of democratic perfection.

I voted to remain within the European Union and want to see maximum scrutiny of the terms on which we leave. However, I have never been blind to the fact that there are areas of policy in which there should be more democratic accountability, closer to home – with agriculture, land use and fishing very close to the top of that list.

These are areas in which Holyrood will hold more powers post-Brexit than at present – the diametric opposite of Ms Sturgeon’s unsubstantiated attack. That’s why most Scottish fishermen, for example, voted to leave and I am not sure how many will share her enthusiasm for promptly returning to the tender mercies of the CFP. Maybe she should ask when she is in the Western Isles next week.

The big issue for Scottish agriculture and associated industries is continuing access to existing markets. That is a subject on which large numbers of livelihoods depend. The people at the sharp end need to be assured that their interests are represented by politicians who have a serious commitment to succeeding – not by play-actors whose vested interest is in crying betrayal and conspiracy, while opportunities slip away.

In the same vein, a little research led me to a Scottish government press release which followed a meeting in London on the same subjects. The environment was also on the agenda and Roseanna Cunningham, the Holyrood Minister involved, declared: “European legislation and regulation offer vital protection for our environment and I have been pressing the UK Government that this will transfer in full, without any dilution of standards, either on exit or as a result of subsequent trade deals.”

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Again, I find this spectacular in its hypocrisy. For years, I have heard Scottish ministers justifying environmental designations on the grounds that they are forced to impose them by EU regulations.

(Check out the Sound of Barra, Ms Sturgeon). Now, when the prospect exists of Scotland making its own decisions, we are told that the EU regime must be transferred “in full, without any dilution”. Why does Ms Cunningham need Brussels to tell her what aspects of the Scottish environment need protection?

Another aspect of Sturgeon’s speech struck me as rather creepy. Apparently, we need another independence referendum to protect “Scottish values and priorities” from Brexit. I have no idea what Ms Sturgeon’s “values” are, other than promotion of division, but I would not assume they are the same as mine – or yours - on the basis that we are Scottish. And what about the million Scots who voted to leave 
the EU? Are their values anti-Scottish, requiring protection from themselves? Politicians should stick to advocating the “values and priorities” set by their parties and personal philosophies rather than attributing them to the nation as a whole. Just like any other politician, Ms Sturgeon speaks for a sectional interest and a very fixed agenda. Claiming to be the standard-bearer of “Scottish values” takes her into territory best steered clear of.

My own “values and priorities” tell me it is an outrage that our education system is failing so badly for so many children; that the constant drive for centralisation within Scotland is the antithesis of the devolution which Ms Sturgeon now claims to be defending; and that the last thing Scotland needs is another deeply divisive referendum.

When Ms Sturgeon rejects each of these propositions, she is speaking only for herself and her party – not for “Scottish values” – any more than I am.

Brexit may have downsides but taking powers away from Holyrood is not one of them, and Ms Sturgeon does her credibility no good by pretending otherwise. Every branch of the Scottish economy currently needs the genuine commitment of political representatives in the negotiations that lie ahead, rather than constant manipulation of reality in pursuit of an entirely different outcome.

An honest start would be to recognise that running an independence referendum alongside the most important diplomatic negotiations in our post-war history is an irresponsible proposition – and certainly not in the Scottish interest.