It was a modern-day David versus Goliath.
Scottish Secretary David Mundell spent last week facing down the massed ranks of intemperate nationalism – and he did it almost single-handedly.
Some say the SNP’s Commons walkout was a masterstroke. I am not so sure. How many voters saw Joanna Cherry – the phrase ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ in human form – waving facetiously as she breenged towards the exit and thought: ‘That’s changed my mind, it’s independence for me’?
When the Nationalists returned the next day, they not only got their debate on the Sewel convention, but Mundell agreed to take their questions there and then – only to be met with heckling, jeering, pungent rhetoric and downright dishonesty.
He was accused of defying Sewel, which says that Westminster will not ‘normally’ legislate on devolved matters without Holyrood’s consent. Yet it was the Scottish Government which conceded Sewel did not apply by fast-tracking its Continuity Bill on the grounds that ‘these are not normal times’.
In a sign of how accomplished the SNP is at dissembling – and how effectively it has cowed the Corporation – the BBC ran a ‘Reality Check’ which incorrectly asserted the Nationalist position as fact.
Mundell didn’t help himself when he sputtered: ‘Scotland isn’t a partner of the United Kingdom, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom.’ We knew what he meant but his poor phrasing was a gift to the SNP. Not that anyone could blame him. The vehemence to which he has been subjected strayed close to bullying. SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford sneered that Mundell had ‘shafted Scotland’ – a particularly coarse choice of phraseology.
The game was a bogey when a Nationalist MP left a sheet of paper behind, revealing scripted questions and instructions to express ‘outrage/disappointment’. It’s a sorry state of affairs when you can’t find lobby fodder capable of thinking up their own spurious points of order.
Against this onslaught, waged in Parliament and online, Mundell held his own. So much so that the Nationalists called for his resignation, a sure sign that he did better than they hoped.
Insiders are divided over the impact of the wannabe-Parnell stunt. Some say Mundell was ‘spooked’; others that it was ‘water off a duck’s back’.
But a Tory MP tells me: ‘I actually think he’s done very well. He’s being increasingly robust with the Nats and was solid under sustained pressure on Thursday.
‘He’s got an entire government machinery working flat out to attack him and pull him apart. Not sure the half-baked opposition other Cabinet members face from Labour is remotely comparable. He doesn’t get half the credit he deserves.’
The suggestion he consider his position is met with incredulity down south.
A senior government source says: ‘The UK Government has spent more time in discussion with the Scottish Government on this single issue, from officials right up to the Cabinet officers and the PM, than any single issue in recent memory.
‘The Secretary of State has been knee-deep in the dialogue. Day in, day out, David Mundell has been getting on with the job. Rather than wait mere minutes to get their debate on devolution, SNP MPs left the building to talk to the Press.’
Mundell must contend with: a cohort of 35 Nationalist MPs, some of them thoughtful partisans, but most braying caricatures; a Scottish Government whose ministers, and too many of whose civil servants, act as though it is an extension of the SNP; a third sector in thrall to the First Minister and in hock to her purse strings; and a commentariat that still, even now, swoons over Nicola Sturgeon’s social conscience and strategic nous while damning Westminster as cruel and out of touch. It is always ‘Nicola and Mundell’ – never ‘David and Sturgeon’.
Last Wednesday’s stunt, and the attempts to intimidate Mundell, have exhausted what good will remained for the SNP. Westminster’s long thread of patience, grown taut over years of grievance and dishonesty, has finally snapped.
The SNP was little more than a droning gnat to Tony Blair and a swarming nuisance to Gordon Brown. Alex Salmond’s 2011 majority victory put independence on the agenda – and No 10, now home to David Cameron, went on a respect offensive, doling out courtesies like bon-bons to clamorous children while indulging every petulant stamp of their foot.
Theresa May maintained this approach until Nicola Sturgeon’s insistent demands for a second referendum. The Prime Minister said No (a word the SNP seems incapable of taking for an answer) but kept up the charm spree, treating the Nationalists like constructive colleagues rather than the implacable wreckers they are.
In their 11 years in St Andrew’s House, the Nationalists have been humoured, accommodated and appeased.
That is finished now. A Whitehall source tells me: ‘Contrary to their claims they were always being ignored or disrespected, we were constantly bending over backwards to accommodate them.
‘We weren’t just polite. Behind the scenes we were doing everything to minimise the risk of even perceived slights. We don’t have to do that now.’
The gloves have been a long time coming off but now that they have, there can at last be a fair fight.
David Mundell is not one of life’s natural combatants. He presents as a mildly mischievous provincial vicar but is, I’m told, ‘a canny Whitehall operator’. His geniality should not be mistaken for weakness; the Scotland Office is determined to give as good as it gets.
Fighting is best reserved for the War Room and in public Mundell will want to retain that geniality. However, there is an opportunity to overhaul Scotland’s relationship with its national government.
At present, Scots only hear about the UK Government when something goes wrong. Instead of lamenting another design flaw in devolution, Mundell can learn from the SNP and work around constitutional constraints.
The Scottish Government has no qualms about involving itself in foreign affairs, from grandstanding on Catalonia and Gaza to Nicola Sturgeon’s presidential-style visits and failed Brexit diplomacy. Fair enough. There will be no objection, then, if the UK Government involves itself in devolved matters.
The Scotland Office could establish a Union Dividend Fund to disburse grants to Scottish charities and voluntary organisations and support community projects in the most deprived areas. Where a school has scrapped music lessons because of SNP cuts, parents could apply for a grant to fund after-school classes. Where the Scottish Government has slashed support for a worthy cause – for example, HIV Scotland – the Scotland Office could step in to help.
The UK Government is already investing directly in Scotland through City Deals and on broadband delivery has shown its willingness to go around the SNP. The Union Dividend Fund could serve as a model for the post-Brexit Shared Prosperity Fund the Prime Minister plans, or operate alongside it.
Either way, it would demonstrate in eye-catching fashion that Scotland does indeed have two governments.
This kind of spend would require Treasury buy-in but, should the Chancellor be resistant, he might be advised to try doodling ‘Shadow’ in front of his title and seeing what he makes of it. Without the dozen new Scottish Conservative MPs who arrived last year, Philip Hammond would likely be sitting on the Opposition benches right now. If Downing Street can find £1billion for ten DUP votes, it can rustle up a few quid for 12 Scottish Tory ones.
The Prime Minister has not paid a Scottish price for Brexit – yet. Scots voted Remain but have thus far resisted the temptations of independence as an escape route. Battling Brussels and Holyrood at the same time would be overwhelming but it sometimes seems the Scottish Secretary is alone at Westminster in resisting that eventuality.
The Prime Minister has her David but she must give him more rocks for his sling.
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