This week there will be an almighty row about Westminster stealing powers from Holyrood.
You may be wondering how that differentiates it from any other week. Ginning up grievance over imaginary encroachments on your authority is infinitely easier than governing. Scottish ministers are so concerned they could lose some of their powers they might even start using them.
The UK Government’s white paper on the internal market is the latest trigger for SNP anxiety. Downing Street says its desired reforms are necessary to smooth the path for post-Brexit trade and investment across the UK and clear some of the hurdles put in place by a messy and uneven approach to devolution.
The Scottish Government has set aside time at Holyrood tomorrow for what it calls a ‘debate’ on the internal market but which will inevitably be another round of constitutional rammy bingo. Play along at home by writing ‘power grab’ in every square and shouting ‘full house’ before Mike Russell even gets to his feet.
The internal market white paper is measured and modest — too measured and too modest to match the scale of reform that devolution needs and that the Nationalists are beginning to fear it might get. The proposals, if enacted, would make for more coherent commercial and regulatory regimes, important for trade deals presently being negotiated. You might have heard of this as Liz Truss’s dastardly plot to force-feed you Domestos-flavoured chicken drumsticks. A campaign of sinisterly chipper ‘I Feel Like Chlorine Tonight’ ads will hit your TV screens any day now.
The white paper would also make it simpler for the UK Government to invest directly in Scotland. I have been arguing for this as a means of redistributing yet more cash from the Treasury to Scottish communities but also as tangible proof of the economic benefits of unity over division.
So, the proposed reforms are not without a political dimension but the benefits to Unionism are theoretical and probably quite small. At the very time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been funding the salaries of one-third of the Scottish workforce, support for independence, a policy that would mean forgoing such funding, has become the majority position among the voters. Democracy requires a thick skin but nothing so much as a sense of humour.
Last week, the Finance and Constitution Committee issued a call for ‘mutual trust and respect’ on the internal market discussion. Holyrood committees are much weaker than their Westminster counterparts because they lack the independence from party whips and, candidly, the intellectual rigour that make Commons committees a source of trepidation for ministers.
The Finance Committee is one of Holyrood’s best, in large part thanks to its convenor Bruce Crawford, an SNP veteran who respects rather than reviles opponents, and its deputy convenor Murdo Fraser, a Tory with a hairline streak of nationalism running through his unionist soul.
If there was a little more Crawfordism in Bute House and a touch of Fraserism in Downing Street, intergovernmental relations would be smoother, more courteous and more dignified than they are today. Instead, the Scottish Government’s response to everything Westminster does is to take the entire apparatus of devolution to Defcon One, whereupon Westminster suddenly remembers the existence of its Scottish front and dispatches a few generals northwards to pose with a bottle of malt and a giant trout.
The way the Finance Committee wants the internal market discussed — with collegiality and consultation — is how it ought to be but categorically won’t. Neither administration is above political point-scoring, but while the UK Government often gets it wrong through ineptitude or arrogance, the Scottish Government is by intent a bad faith actor.
When Crawford calls on ‘all four governments and legislatures across the UK to work constructively together’, he introduces a concept alien to the Scottish Government’s attitude to Whitehall. When he urges ‘mutual trust and respect for the existing constitutional arrangements’, he must do so because the Scottish Government has treated them with deliberate contempt. When he says ‘the solution cannot be left to the UK Government to decide’, he is addressing a government that has tried to work cooperatively with St Andrew’s House and has the scars to prove it.
The Salmond-Sturgeon strategy of antagonising Downing Street, a course of action largely responsible for wrecking relations between the two governments, was predicated on the assumption that Downing Street couldn’t respond in kind. Bute House could chuck bottles but Number 10 had to walk on eggshells. Number 10 has finally had enough.
As I understand it, the UK Government now recognises that the constitutional status quo is broken and putting the Union in mortal danger. However, the question of what to do about it remains up in the air. The internal market reforms are meant to be a nod towards a more united UK but, beyond that, Downing Street has not decided which road to take. I say they should pluck for the one marked ‘devolution reform’, for it is the only way to secure the Union for the longer term.
If the Prime Minister ultimately decides that legislation is needed — either in the form of another Scotland Act or a new Act of Union — the SNP will have brought it upon themselves. Across 13 years in power, they have acted with disregard for the purpose and parameters of the devolution settlement, advancing separatism legislatively and administratively, imperilling the neutrality of the Civil Service, and even developing a separate foreign policy. There have been power grabs but not in the direction that the devolution industry mithers about.
That the Nationalists react with apocalyptic angst at such minor changes as those contained in the white paper is revealing. Devolution as captured and reoriented by the SNP is threatened by moves to strengthen commerce across the four nations. This is a devolution fundamentally at odds with what Scots voted and MPs legislated for, a devolution that has already internalised the logic of independence.
Supporters of the Union accuse the SNP of hijacking devolution but the truth is that the UK Government handed over the controls willingly. For the past two decades at least, Whitehall has been derelict on Scotland and the Union. In a sense, this is the devolution paradox — ‘Stop interfering in our affairs!’, ‘You never bother with us anymore!’ — but the Tories in particular have dismal form here. In 20 years they have gone from opposing devolution to radically expanding it then growing sceptical once more, all without any intervening analysis of the state of the Union or its prospects for the future.
Any structural reforms to devolution will require a minimum consensus among Unionists. Almost all nationalists agree about using devolved institutions to achieve secession but the pro-Union side’s political diversity puts it at a disadvantage.
Some believe passionately that devolution is a process that must continue, perhaps to full federalism; others are just as determined that it has gone too far and should, in part at least, be reversed; others still, thoroughly fatigued by constitutional conflict, prefer the status quo. The separatists are united which lends an air of cogency to their fuzzy and counter-factual ideas. Their opponents will either have to agree broadly on a few basic reforms to devolution or take the risk of letting it drift into formal separation.
The current devolution settlement has been fatally undermined by the opportunism of the SNP and the complacency of the Tories. Denying this reality will not make it go away; it will only drive mistrust, disrespect and dysfunction deeper into the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. As the seat of sovereignty in our constitution, it falls to Westminster to develop a new settlement that upholds the outcome of the 1997 referendum but repairs the faults that have led us down the path of ever-weaker union.
The UK Government must get bold fast or it will pay the price in endless constitutional crises. The internal market white paper is a good start but it cannot be the end. To borrow a phrase, devolution reform is a process, not an event.