Twenty years ago the often lugubrious face of the late Donald Dewar broke into a satisfied grin as he read out the first line of the Scotland Act at the Commons dispatch box: “There Shall Be A Scottish Parliament”. “I like that,” he added. And 8 months later he gave an impassioned speech to the inaugural meeting of that parliament in Edinburgh in which he referred to the restoration of a national legislature as “the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland.”This morning, the day after that parliament overwhelmingly rejected the EU Withdrawal Bill in its current form, it’s worth remembering that Dewar’s Labour party was godfather to devolution, that he campaigned alongside the SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens to deliver the Yes vote which brought it into being. And that Labour, alongside the Lib Dems, formed the first coalition administration in 1999.
It helps explain why every party at Holyrood bar the Tories voted to reject this UK legislation, all agreeing it would strike at the heart of the devolution settlement. Tellingly, it was that perceived disempowerment which formed the centrepiece of yesterday’s debate. The constitutional battle, which may well end up in the Supreme Court in July, centres around the C word.
Since its inception the Holyrood parliament needs to pass a legislative consent motion any time Westminster wants to introduce legislation in areas which are devolved. Under the Withdrawal Bill Westminster is only offering to consult, rather than seek consent. And, it adds in a less than winning rider, we will go ahead if you agree, and we will go ahead if you don’t. Unsurprisingly Holryood, by a 93 to 30 vote, failed to be seduced by this “our way or the highway” variation on a devolved theme. In fact the Scottish parliament has already passed a so called “Continuity Bill” to protect its core powers when they return from Brussels oversight post Brexit. It is that Bill which Westminster plans to test in the Supreme Court if there is no breakthrough deal at what Scotland’s First Minister calls “three minutes to midnight.”
To protect the integrity of the UK market, it says, all powers should come straight back to Westminster, until such time as they sort out the technicalities of who does what. Having watched Mrs May’s finest mud wrestle for 24 months over the deal they will put on the EU table, the thought of these gladiators sorting out Scotland’s economic direction of travel failed to fill the Scottish Government with optimism. Neither were they soothed by a 7 year “sunset” clause. Seven years is a very long time in politics. It’s certainly a very long time in the life expectancy of the current Prime Minister. But this is not merely a debate about the dry legal niceties. Under administrations of various political hues, the Scottish Government has forged a distinctive path from its Commons cousins. It has just passed social security legislation which veers sharply from the punitive model of the Department of Work and Pensions. Previously it spent a small fortune mitigating the effects of the “bedroom tax.”
It pioneered legislation on free personal care for the elderly, a smoking ban in public places, and minimum pricing for alcohol. It has comprehensively more ambitious policiesa on renewable energy. Its NHS has not been atomised or privatised and its education system has not embraced the academy or free school model. You can legitimately debate the quality of Scottish services, but not that they are philosophically distant from the worlds of Gove, Duncan Smith and Rees Mogg.
Scotland voted by almost two to one to Remain in Europe. Its legislators have not forgotten that they were told the only way to protect European membership was to vote NO in the 2014 Independence Referendum. They are acutely conscious of the potential damage of Brexit to core Scottish interests like agriculture, fishing, financial services, and bio technology as well as exports of whisky and other branded products. The Tories like to pretend yesterday was all about another bid for independence. But it wasn’t a bid to grab more power for Scotland. It was a bid to prevent Westminster grabbing back existing powers from Holyrood.