Picture the scene. There are four of you in the car and everyone has chipped in for the hire and the fuel. The driver fails to consult any of the passengers about the direction of travel. And when three of them demur at the speed, the likely destination or both, the driver merely presses harder on the accelerator. Even though, as they can all now see very clearly, he is proposing to take the vehicle off the end of a pier into a watery grave.
A not particularly fanciful analogy of the situation we find ourselves in this week. If you want a classic example of the utter disdain with which the driver of the Brexit vehicle is treating his passengers and supposed political partners, look no further than a tweet posted by Michael Gove. In it he confirmed he had just officially told the EU that the UK would not be seeking an extension to the December 31st cut off point for trade negotiations. A tweet he posted at the precise moment the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales had written to the Prime Minister explaining just what a ruinous outcome this would entail for all concerned. A tweet he posted in advance of a conference call at which the policy and the timelines were supposed to be the subject of discussion with the devolved governments.
It would be a mistake to think Mr Gove is guilty of much in the way of strategic thought. In many ways he is just Dominic Cummings suited and booted. His erstwhile pal, David Cameron, called him a Maoist, given Mr Gove’s predilection for taking a wrecking ball to the political process. It helps, of course, if you are financially insulated from the consequences.
The Scottish Government used to be merely patronised by Westminster. Now it is ignored from a great height. The mechanisms set up post devolution supposedly to encourage co-operation and consultation are a thoroughly unfunny joke.The Joint Ministerial Committee was born to facilitate discussion and liaison. It was supposed to meet monthly – it never has. It was supposed to be chaired by the PM – it isn’t. You may be surprised to learn that one of its very few sub committees – the EU negotiations sub committee – came into being specifically to discuss the UK’s Brexit strategy. Its objective was to “agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations.” What you might call, say, a four nations strategy.
Not only has that objective never been fulfilled in the smallest degree, but ministers from the devolved administrations have been locked out of every meaningful decision making process. To be clear: an outcome the Scottish electorate rejected by a massive majority, was actively sought and driven forward by a Tory administration the Scottish electorate rejected by a massive majority. Anyone who thinks this resembles democracy should seek urgent optical advice.
And it’s not just a no deal Brexit, catastrophic enough as that would be. (It is not unreasonable to question the sanity level of an administration which, finding itself in the deepest of economic holes, calls for more spades.) But, at every level and on every issue, Scotland finds itself in an ante room when anything of moment is under discussion. The SAGE committee, over whose wisdom questions are now being posed, was open to devolved governments’ “attendance” only by pre meeting written interventions.
I have no doubt many in the Scottish Government rue the day they followed the UK government’s Covid timetable in March, but at least, unlike their Westminster counterparts, they have had the grace to acknowledge that there have been errors of judgement along the way as everyone tried to negotiate the steepest of new learning curves.
The subsequent instigation of a Scottish scientific advisory panel allowed a more accessible perspective. It’s instructive too, that a previous chief scientific advisor to a UK government felt moved to set up a parallel advice forum. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom in this strange new world, but it helps if you can participate in honest debate rather than be handed pre-inscribed tablets of stone.
The only forum where there might have been an opportunity for face to face conversation is the COBRA committee which meets in times of emergency and should be chaired by the Prime Minister. It last met over a month ago. If Johnson doesn’t think this is an actual emergency, you have to ponder what level of national disaster would qualify. Then again we know that when the Covid solid matter first hit the fan, the PM managed to miss five COBRAS on the trot.
Jeane Freeman, the Scottish Health Secretary, wondered aloud at the Scottish Affairs committee last week why COBRA had been apparently sidelined. She noted that over the whole piece she had had one solitary evening meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland. Meantime, as you may have observed, Mr Alistair Jack -understandable if you can’t recall the name – broke Scottish lockdown rules by travelling to London because, he said, he had a duty to appear on the Commons front bench. But not a duty, it seems, to consult with the government of Scotland.
So here we are at five minutes to midnight and still hurtling towards self destruction; forbidden to touch the handbrake, unable to wrench the wheel around. I read many commentaries suggesting that such is the peril of the moment, we must avert our eyes from any constitutional questions. An alternative view is that the current constitutional arrangements are what got us in this degree of peril in the first place. An alternative view is that, if we passively go along with them, we will be past the point of no return; and that we will be the partial architects of our own demise.
An alternative view is that anyone with half a brain would jump out of the car before all the occupants drown. Or, at the very basic least, give the passengers a vote on it. I’m guessing self preservation would win the day. It usually does.
First published in The National 15.6.20