That’s not a power grab, THIS is a power grab

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They say the older you get the more right-wing you get but I find myself becoming more contemptuous of politicians of all stripes.

Maybe this is how the education of a young idealist plays out: the faster the years pass, the greater the impatience with the failure of political promises to manifest in material change. There is plenty talk about belief in a better world but a distinct lack of things getting better. 

Somewhere things are not getting better with any great haste is Holyrood. We have a legislature that most provinces and federal states would grab with both hands if they got half a chance. But our powerhouse parliament is never more animated than when it is talking about itself, or rather shouting about itself in the direction of another parliament. 

The latest stramash between St Andrew’s House and Whitehall isn’t all that different to previous stramashes, but my tolerance is markedly diminished. A BBC producer called me over the weekend to ask if I could come on and talk about the testy exchanges between SNP constitution minister Mike Russell and UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma. I made up an excuse but the truth is that I am fed up being asked to talk about intergovernmental indignation and other petty narcissisms passing for serious ministerial business. Is this really what devolution was supposed to be about? 

If you have been fortunate enough to miss this nonsense, it goes something like this: Sharma is responsible for making the UK internal market more coherent after our final severing from the EU. This will make it possible for friction-free commerce to continue throughout the country but it will also make it easier to negotiate trade deals with foreign nations. As such, while some competencies currently held in Brussels will transfer to Holyrood, the final say over certain regulatory frameworks will revert to Westminster. 

The SNP charges that this is a ‘power grab’ and that Sharma’s plans will expose Scotland to substandard goods. Agricultural products from the United States are typically cited because, while demanding the US drop tariffs on Scotch whisky, the Scottish Government is not above stirring up a little anti-Americanism for political gain. 

Anything that strengthens the UK is welcome and Sharma’s blueprint should contribute to a more seamless internal market. But it is important that ministers in central government be sensitive to the concerns of businesses and consumers across the country. The Nationalists will ever be on the lookout for divisions to exploit and prejudices to stoke but that does not mean that every grievance is illegitimate. Do not confuse the Scottish Government with Scotland. The former you have to tolerate, the latter you are there to serve. 

However, while this is no ‘power grab’, Downing Street is trying to use internal market regulation to reassert itself and the unity of the United Kingdom. I happen to agree with the ends but the means are sneaky. Instead of facing up to the weakening of the Union, for which the Tories deserve much of the blame, they want to act surreptitiously to repair some of the damage. 

Nevertheless, there is a power grab at work, but it has nothing to do with the machinations of devious Whitehall. Rather, it is the SNP, with its misuse of devolution to advance its separatist agenda, that is embarked on the true power grab. The Nationalists have hijacked a parliament intended to improve the administration of public services in line with discrete local needs and turned it into a battering ram against the Union. 

They have done this not only in their exploitation of devolution’s legislative platform to provoke, obstruct and divide but in turning the machinery of government itself into an engine for separation. One area in which this behaviour has been particularly egregious is foreign affairs, a matter wholly reserved to the UK Parliament. Yet Nicola Sturgeon has used her office to work against UK Government policy on Brexit, including in meetings with international political figures and addresses to national parliaments. The Scottish Government is effectively crafting a separate Scottish foreign policy and, until now, Westminster has shown utter complacency. 

The Scottish Parliament was not established to progress the cause of independence. In fact, when Labour sold devolution to the voters, it promised that: ‘The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’ That worked out well. Now Scottish Labour joins the orchestra of umbrage from the Nationalists, with the party’s constitution spokesman Alex Rowley calling the internal market proposals ‘nothing short of an attack on the devolution settlement’. Not many arsonists have the chutzpah to offer commentary on the efforts of the fire brigade. 

Has it occurred to the Nationalists or their fainter echoes that if Holyrood wants more powers it should prove that it warrants them? That if the SNP is so concerned with Westminster power grabs it should grab those welfare powers Westminster has tried to transfer but which Scottish ministers prefer to keep in London? Legislative competencies are not an end in themselves. Instead of constantly seeking to further empower themselves, MSPs should be using their existing (and extensive) legislative options to empower ordinary people across Scotland. 

The more-powers consensus is a creature of Holyrood, the commentariat and Civic Scotland. Scots who want to leave the United Kingdom want independence for Scotland, not more tinkering with the status quo. Scots who want to remain in the UK, though they may divide over whether further devolution is desirable, are more interested in schools, hospitals, and job opportunities than the interactions between one parliament and another. 

The Scottish Parliament should pull itself out of the morass of constitutional dispute and arid, time-consuming rows about process and repay the confidence the electors placed in it two decades ago. Be for independence or be for the Union but be better than this. 

Holyrood isn’t the only parliament in need of hearing some harsh truths. Westminster viewed devolution as an opportunity to pass the buck for the political and democratic difficulties of the Union to a distant body. Since then, MPs have done much harm to the Union through ignorance and indifference. If only they would mount a power grab, it would at least indicate that they give a damn.

Neither parliament is putting the country first. One is exploiting the deficiencies of devolution while the other pretends they don’t exist. It’s not powers or frameworks we lack in this country, it’s leadership and honesty and courage. 

*****

Adam Tomkins’ decision to stand down next year was no surprise. It was an open secret that the Tory MSP was unhappy. The father-of-four wants to spend more time with his family and return to teaching law. From Holyrood to academia; the man doesn’t make things easy on himself. 

Tomkins has never fit in at Holyrood. He is a first-rate mind in a third-rate parliament and if he succeeded in proving that curiosity, critical thought and intellectual rigour could be the hallmarks of an MSP, he failed to inspire others to do the same.

Talent is a minority pursuit in the Scottish Parliament. A smattering of members elevate the place by their participation but most do not. Some are good people doing their best, others dreary partisans unable to distinguish the common good from the party line. 

Two decades in and MSPs like Tomkins aren’t merely the exception, they’re getting out of the game altogether. A reflective political culture would be troubled by that. 

*****

Donald Trump is mulling a ban on video-sharing app TikTok as part of a national security crackdown on Chinese-owned social media firms. This prompts some urgent questions:

  1. Would such a ban be consistent with the First Amendment?
  2. How would the United States go about blocking TikTok’s software?
  3. Could a Chinese company please buy Twitter? 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Waldo Miguez from Pixabay.

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