One benefit of all this snow is that we have heard less than intended about the “constitutional crisis” advancing upon Scotland. Flake news has eclipsed fake news though the respite may be temporary.
Constitutional crises do not come along often. Lloyd George’s Budget in 1911, the Abdication in 1937 … then you run out. Perhaps promoters of new “constitutional crises” should be equipped with top hats and frock coats to add authenticity to the event. Michael Russell MSP, as chief purveyor of portentousness, could show the way.
Before the snow melts and normal service resumes, we should be clear. Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill creates a range of interesting conundrums which are perfectly capable of solution through negotiation. If they are magnified into anything else, it will be for political ends rather than legal or constitutional ones.
The Scottish Government has embarked on legislation which it knows cannot become law, because it falls outside the Parliament’s jurisdiction – in other words, a complete waste of time and focus. In a unique gambit, the Lord Advocate, James Wolff, was wheeled before MSPs to give legal cover to a political ploy that is intended to run and run.
I suspect most Scots who have noticed these matters through the blizzards of hype have worked that out for themselves. Picking fights and dressing them up as points of high principle are well-recognised tactics of the current Holyrood administration. How would we know if there was a genuine reason for complaint among all the bogus ones? The girl who cried Wolff, you might say.
In order to prevent a “power grab”, they assure us, the Nationalists are compelled to introduce their own “Continuity” Bill which will block these fiendish designs. A document containing 111 “powers” is waved around as proof positive that the very fabric of the Scottish Parliament is under threat. It is complete and utter nonsense.
The list was actually drawn up by the Cabinet Office and offered to the Scottish Government as the basis for discussion. At that point it was turned into a charge sheet and the “power grab” narrative created. Yet all evidence points in the opposite direction. Whatever Brexit’s other merits or demerits, it will (if it happens) undoubtedly result in Holyrood having more powers rather than fewer.
That’s one of the curiosities of the SNP’s posture. They are always telling us what they can’t do or what they must do because of “Brussels”. A very topical example is not getting rid of Air Passenger Duty. You would think they might therefore see opportunities in freedom from these constraints (real or imagined), at least to temper their unremitting negativity and doom-mongering.
To any rational person, it might also seem unlikely that these alleged “power grabbers” are, at the same time and unrelated to Brexit, continuing to devolve additional powers to Holyrood. The most recent of these was control over oil and gas licensing which transferred to Holyrood last month. Is that the stuff of “power grabbing”?
There is a practical problem requiring a range of practical solutions. EU involvement in great swathes of policy dates back to the European Communities Act of 1972. If these powers are being restored to the member state, which has undergone its own constitutional changes in the interim, there are bound to be grey areas, not least because the three devolved administrations within the UK have significant variations in their own remits.
Some of the powers which Holyrood exercises are the result of informal agreements, largely entered into in the early years of devolution. The current process creates an opportunity to entrench these powers at Holyrood. We hear nothing of this – only the evidence-free “power grab” whinge that suits the grievance script. Mr Wolff should be wary.
Under a small number of the 111 headings, there will be genuine issues of Scottish (or Welsh, or Northern Irish) interest in ensuring that devolved powers which emerge are no less than those which currently exist. Of course, the opportunity also exists for stronger powers to be devolved, a possibility which does not feature in the Nationalist spin. At this moment, hardly anyone in Scotland knows what these “genuine issues” are. It was pointed out to me that whereas you can go to an EU website and find the working papers relating to Brexit negotiations, meetings between Mr Russell and his Whitehall interlocutors take place in camera with no transparency about matters of substance at stake. Why should this be so? It simply creates a licence for spin.
My guess is that if a short-list was produced of outstanding issues – stripped of flowery language about “power grabs” and “points of principle” – it would become clear that each is capable of resolution without resort to legal or constitutional theatricals. But from a Nationalist perspective, what use are sensible solutions compared to the language of grievance and division?
The wider narrative being promoted by Nationalist commentators is that all this proves the UK is breaking apart, so let’s finish the job. Yet the only genuine constitutional issue which arises out of Brexit involves the position of Northern Ireland – and anyone who thinks there is an analogy between that and Scotland’s contrived “crisis” is seriously deluded.
The non-negotiable fact is that there can be no hard border within Ireland. From that starting point, an awful lot follows. Moving the problem to the Irish Sea is a non-starter. So too is having a customs-free Ireland-UK relationship while half of Kent is covered by lorry parks for traffic waiting to cross into the EU. Therefore, Ireland (as Boris Johnson has belatedly recognised through his fog of arrogance) is the tail that will wag the Brexit dog. It would be as well to recognise that now and get on with it.
One final word about the unpleasant divisiveness of Scottish politics. Following Scotland’s momentous victory at Murrayfield, Christina McKelvie MP tweeted: “Unionists … right miserable bunch tonight. Just enjoy the result folks.” Remarkably, Ms McKelvie is convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee – presumably in order to promote the doctrine that some Scots are more equal than others. She should be sacked.