Yesterday the House of Commons voted by 340 to 256 in favour of the Conservative government’s Internal Market Bill, which undermines the devolution settlement and threatens international law. No Scottish Conservative MP voted against the bill. Now there’s a surprise. This is a bill which is opposed by the Scottish Parliament, and despite the Conservatives themselves signing up to the proposition that no Westminster Government should ever be able to alter the devolution settlement without the express consent of Holyrood, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
The bill not only seizes certain devolved powers for Westminster, powers which have hitherto been exercised by the EU on Scotland’s behalf, it goes a lot further. It will see Scottish legislation being overseen by an unelected committee of Conservative appointees and struck down if they are deemed to be incompatible with the UK internal market. This bill also gives UK ministers the right to spend on devolved areas in Scotland like health or education.
This is what the Tories mean by strengthening the union. They mean imposing policies on Scotland that Scotland doesn’t want. They mean overruling Scotland’s own democratically elected bodies. They mean lecturing us about the meaning of democracy while they themselves traduce it. They mean telling us that we have to respect the result of the 2014 referendum while they trash all the promises that they made to win it.
This is a historic development in Scottish politics. A Westminster Conservative Government that Scotland did not vote for and which is pursuing policies which Scotland does not support has unilaterally decided to rewrite the devolution settlement. Naturally this is headline news in the Scottish media. Oh wait. Nope. It’s buried away under a ton of other stuff, and its impact is minimised to discussions about food standards instead of being exposed as the all out assault on the devolution settlement that it really is.
According to the Tories, this bill is necessary because of the SNP. Yes really. They’re blaming the SNP for Brexit now. Small Business Minister Paul Scully said on Good Morning Scotland that the bill was only necessary because the SNP had walked away from talks. Which isn’t actually true, but since when did the Tories ever allow the truth to get between themselves and some political point scoring. What the Tories are really complaining about is that the Scottish Parliament won’t just roll over and play dead. At every step along the way during the Brexit negotiations, and the pandemic, the Conservatives have sidelined and ignored not just the SNP, but the entire Scottish Government and Parliament, the Welsh Government and Parliament, and only paid attention to one faction in Northern Ireland when they needed the DUP’s votes. This is a Tory mess, put together to a Tory recipe, cooked in a Tory oven, and served up on a Tory plate.
Anyone who is paying attention can now see that the devolution settlement is not and cannot be safe within the UK. The safety net provided by the devolution settlement was a key factor in the Better Together campaign in the last independence referendum. Vote no for stronger and better devolution, they told us. They won’t be telling us that again. It is now clear that a devolution settlement which was introduced in order to protect Scotland from the effects of a Conservative government that it didn’t vote for cannot withstand a Conservative Government that is quite happy to ignore the self-denying ordinance that Westminster will refrain from meddling upon which the devolution settlement depends.
When devolution was introduced its opponents were reassured by a Labour government which told them that a power devolved was a power retained. Indeed that’s why we have the word devolution in the first place. It was intended to represent the delegation of some of Westminster’s power to a body that was always to be regarded as subordinate to the supremacy of a Westminster which has invested itself with absolute sovereignty. A power that is delegated remains with the body doing the delegating. It’s only since Brexit that Scotland has seen that devolution is incapable of performing as that bulwark of protection which it was sold to Scotland as being. What was sold to Scotland as a partnership can be unilaterally altered by one of the parties to the agreement. Scotland can’t make unilateral changes to the devolution settlement, but Westminster can and does.
There’s a couple of important points here. This bill is a travesty, it’s a disgrace to the devolution settlement, and is the embodiment of Tory bad faith. However despite the fears of some on social media, it does not prevent the Scottish Parliament from pursuing independence. It will not prevent the Scottish Government from holding a referendum under the terms of its Referendum Act and it won’t prevent the Scottish Government from taking legal action to clarify the lawfulness of an independence referendum without a Section 30 order. Neither does it have any impact on a future plebiscite election. (Yes, I know that the Scottish Government have stymied the attempt that is already before the courts to clarify the law. I don’t agree with this decision personally, but it is obviously because they believe that at this stage in the political process it is better to maintain ambiguity. Sometimes ambiguity is useful politically.)
It’s also certainly true that the Conservatives could abolish Holyrood entirely, or could significantly restrict its powers in ways beyond even the measures included in this dreadful bill, but they could always have done that. This bill doesn’t change things in that respect. However the Conservatives know how the polling land lies. They can see the surging support for independence and how the SNP are crushing them in the polls. They won’t make any real moves over and above what’s contained in this bill before the Scottish elections in May next year, because if they did so they know that what is already going to be a difficult election for them will turn into a rout. It is imperative that Scotland tells them at the next Scottish elections that we will not tolerate this any more.
However what will most certainly embolden the Conservatives in Westminster to take further steps to reduce the powers of Holyrood will be if pro-independence parties fail to do well in the next election. Don’t say you’ve not been warned. Scotland stands at a crossroads. One route takes us to independence, the other to infighting, mutual recriminations, Tory domination, and misery for decades to come. You choose.
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