To be a Conservative means never accepting that you’re to blame for anything, ever. Today our part time Prime Minister has provoked anger and upset by claiming that the high death rate in care homes was due to care staff not following procedures. So it wasn’t anything to do with British Government policy which shunted elderly people out of hospitals and into care homes as quickly as possible without testing them for the virus, spreading the infection amongst the most vulnerable elderly people. Except in Scotland of course, where according to the Conservatives the exact same policy is indeed the government’s fault, because that would be the government led by Nicola Sturgeon.
It’s the same with the increasing support that we’ve seen recently for independence. Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to Scottish politics over the past few years understands that the primary driver of increasing support for independence is the way in which Conservative led British Governments have treated Scotland with contempt. At least that is when they can be bothered even to acknowledge Scotland’s existence. Our part time Prime Minister is very fond of likening the four constituent parts of the UK to a band of superheroes. Scotland’s British superpower is invisibility.
At every step along the way during the Brexit process, Scotland was ignored and traduced. There was little if any effective consultation with the Scottish Government. The exact same pattern has repeated itself during this coronavirus epidemic. All too often the Scottish Government only discovers significant changes in UK government policy when Scottish ministers read about them in the newspapers along with everyone else.
The Scottish Government only discovered that the British Government was dropping its Stay At Home slogan when the news was briefed to a Conservative friendly newspaper. There was no consultation with Scotland or Wales about the British Government’s decision to introduce so called air bridges between the UK and other countries, avoiding the need for quarantine. Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman told a House of Commons Committee recently that throughout the current crisis she has had almost no messages at all from the Scotland Office – the UK Government Department supposedly responsible for representing Scotland at the highest level of British Government. These are not isolated events. This represents a deliberate and conscious pattern of behaviour from the Conservatives.
The Conservatives seek to introduce strains in the devolution process in order to be able to claim that devolution isn’t working. They have never liked devolution, seeing it as a threat to their supremacy at Westminster. The Tories consistently opposed devolution all the way through the 1980s and 1990s, even though it was clearly the settled will of the Scottish people. They have continued to be opposed to devolution despite the fact that it’s only the proportional voting system of Holyrood which has allowed them to avoid electoral oblivion in Scotland. And now they seek to use Brexit and the coronavirus epidemic as excuses to weaken and undermine the powers of Holyrood.
Last year Michael Gove set in motion a grubby power grab when he unveiled plans to allow UK Government departments to spend money in devolved areas in order to “strengthen the Union”. The Conservatives imagined that the epidemic would make people in Scotland see that Scotland depended upon the UK and would weaken support for independence. They’ve been shocked and angered to see the opposite happen. How dare that Scottish Government be more competent and capable. How dare that Nicola Sturgeon enjoy greater public trust than Johnson.
Something must be done, and now the Conservatives are planning to introduce measures to undermine the powers of the devolved parliaments under the guise of “protecting the UK’s internal market” after the end of the transitional period when the UK is no longer tied to the EU. The Conservatives are proposing the introduction of a so called market impact test on legislation passed by Holyrood. Laws passed by the Scottish Parliament in future would have to be scrutinised by a unelected panel of British Government appointees who would assess whether new laws had an impact on the UK’s internal market. Any laws which were deemed by this unelected body to contravene UK Government regulations would be struck down. It would represent a direct assault on Scottish democracy by an unelected and undemocratic body of Conservative cronies.
There is no significant support in Scotland for a reduction in the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed opinion polling consistently points in the opposite direction, people in Scotland want more power for Holyrood, not less. But that doesn’t stop the Conservatives. Opinion polls only need to be appealed to when they show results that the Conservatives can spin in their favour. The results of Scottish elections don’t matter either. Scottish democracy is merely a serving suggestion and not a fundamental right. Nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the supreme right of a Conservative Government in Westminster to be absolutely sovereign throughout the UK. And if that’s not what the people of Scotland want, tough.
The Conservatives propose to respond to an increase in support for independence in Scotland by attempting to suppress Scottish democracy even further. They see devolution and calls for increased powers for Holyrood as the appeasement of an enemy. Scotland is not to be negotiated with. It’s not to be accommodated. It is to be crushed. Scotland is to be forced to love the UK by chains, compulsion, and punishment. It’s the 50 Shades of Gove, and it’s a strategy which will receive a critical reception in Scotland every bit as poor as the critical response to the movie.
It should be clear now that devolution is not safe within the UK. We have a government in Westminster which is deeply and viscerally antithetical to Scotland having any right or ability to make its own decisions, and which will do its utmost to undermine and weaken the existing devolution settlement. There is a universe in which this strategy might be successful for the Conservatives. But that’s a universe in which the Conservatives were more popular in Scotland than the other parties, a universe in which the Conservatives were competent and capable and were delivering policies that the people of Scotland actually wanted. That’s not the universe that we live in. It’s a sign of the Tories’ desperation and delusion that they think that it is.
All that’s going to happen is that support for independence will continue to strengthen as more people in Scotland come to realise that devolution is not safe. The entire purpose of devolution was to provide Scotland with a measure of protection from the malignity of Conservative rule. That’s why there was such a clamour for it after the long and bitter experience of the Thatcher and Major years. The Conservatives will not reconcile an increasingly pro-independence minded Scotland to the UK by dismantling it. They are only signing the death warrant of the preciousssss union that they claim to love.
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