Business leader urges SNP to drop disruption plan

SNP MPs pose for a picture following the Westminster walkout last week. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
SNP MPs pose for a picture following the Westminster walkout last week. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
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The SNP’s Westminster walkout has triggered a business backlash with a leading figure from Scottish industry calling for a swift end to the Brexit powers dispute.

David Watt, executive director for the Institute of Directors in Scotland, said politicians needed to show more respect for each other at the end of a tumultuous week that saw the SNP and Tories at loggerheads over EU withdrawal.

David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland

David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland

Watt’s remarks came as the SNP was promising a campaign of disruption at Westminster whereby they use House of Commons procedure to frustrate parliamentary business.

Senior figures in the party have compared their guerilla plans to those adopted by the 19th-century Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, who used standing orders in the Commons to impede work at Westminster.

As Watt made his plea for politicians to work together, a senior SNP figure cautioned his party against going too far in its campaign of obstruction. Jim Sillars, a former deputy SNP leader, argued that a promise of disruption could backfire, because the party’s 35 MPs would struggle to deliver it.

Relations between the SNP and the UK government plummeted to a new low last week after the party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford led his MPs out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions.

The SNP made the gesture when Blackford was suspended by the Speaker after he refused to sit down in protest over the House’s failure to debate his party’s claims of a Brexit power grab.

Reacting to last week’s drama, Watt said: “Business needs some clarity about what is actually going on so they can start planning for Brexit. Any disruption between governments will cause uncertainty. This is about things like agriculture and fishing and any lack of clarity over control of these areas will not help us. Politicians need to sort these things out otherwise the economic consequences of Brexit could be severe. The politicians need to get co-operation internally [within the UK] and externally [with the EU] to get resolution on these issues. They need to get on with it.

“The UK government has got to respect devolution and the Scottish Government has got to respect that we are in the UK. They need a bit more respect for each other. There is not much more than nine months until Brexit. It is going to happen and we need to get the best arrangements.”

After the walkout the SNP succeeded in securing an emergency debate on the impact of Brexit on devolution, which will take place tomorrow morning.

Sillars, who himself was suspended from the Commons in 1989 when he was MP for Govan, said Blackford had been “very clever” to ask for parliament to sit in private to discuss Brexit – the demand that led to his suspension.

But he warned that the tight timetabling of the modern House of Commons would prevent the SNP from “doing a Parnell”.

Sillars said Blackford had “won an important battle” by securing a debate, but urged the party not to over-promise when it came to talk of disruption, arguing the SNP should avoid the type of scenario that saw Nicola Sturgeon forced to backtrack on her second independence referendum plans in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

“I think we have got to be very careful of promising what will be very difficult to deliver. It could backfire,” said Sillars. “We already have one example when the day after the referendum in Europe Nicola marched the troops up to the top of the hill and very, very gradually took them back down again. You can’t have that too often.”

Tomorrow Blackford will use the SNP’s emergency debate to make the case for emergency legislation to remove the contentious EU Withdrawal Bill clause at the heart of the devolution Brexit power row.

It was clause 15 of the EU Withdrawal Bill that led to the Scottish Parliament refusing to give its consent to the legislation, triggering the current constitutional stalemate.

Clause 15 would enable certain powers in devolved areas, which are returning from the EU, to be frozen by the UK government for a limited period of time while common frameworks are drawn up across the country.

The SNP believes this amounts to a “power grab” while the UK government argues that the move is essential so that a British-wide approach can be developed in certain areas to protect the UK internal market.

Blackford said: “I am very grateful to the Speaker for granting us this time to debate devolution following the shambolic proceedings in parliament.

“The Prime Minister gave a commitment that she would treat Scotland as part of a ‘union of equals’. Yet she pressed ahead with a power grab in direct opposition to Scotland’s elected Parliament. We hear from the Prime Minister about respecting devolution – but the Prime Minister has ignored Scotland.

“The Tories haven’t won a democratic mandate from the people of Scotland for over 60 years, yet they press on to claw back powers from Holyrood without consent. Their respect for Scotland is skin-deep at best.

“History will remember this defining moment when the UK Parliament chose to reject devolution. This will haunt the Scottish Tories for a generation.”

Blackford’s colleague Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, said there were “lessons to be learned” from Parnell, but said it would be “daft” to obstruct parliament every day.

“We are exploring options for what can be done,” he said. “If that means frustrating business, delaying votes, procedural tactics to delay government statements so be it.

“If it means doing that kind of stuff in order to be heard properly, we have no problem in doing that. We have used the procedures to make a point. I don’t want to abuse them. We will pick and choose when to do it. I am not saying we will disrupt every item of business on every day’s order paper. That would be silly. But when the time is right then we will.”