By Steven Paterson former Stirling MP
In a written statement issued by the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley this week, the first instalment of the billion pound bung of our money to be allocated to Northern Ireland was dished out.
No less than £410 million has been paid from UK Treasury coffers, explicitly part of the confidence and supply arrangement that ensures that the Tory Government remains afloat thanks to paying off the DUP. Although ostensibly this is direct rule from Westminster over devolved issues in Northern Ireland, in reality, the DUP is in complete control of this process thanks to the present arithmetic in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, the UK Government is seeking to assume direct rule over one of the other devolved legislatures: Holyrood. Although altogether different in scale, at least for the moment, the attack on Scotland’s devolved parliament resulting from the Brexit vote could have far-reaching and unwelcome implications for the future. In short, if this power grab is allowed to proceed and a precedent is set, this could be merely the thin end of the wedge leading to the aggressive reassertion of London supremacy over hitherto devolved competences.
This is why the Scottish Government is entirely correct to fight this Westminster power grab all the way. Since 1999, the principle of consent has been adhered to when it comes to Westminster legislating on devolved areas and agreement with the Scottish Parliament has been required whenever legislation is being considered at Westminster that has crossed into a devolved area.
Although the UK Government has sought to portray the failure to amend Clause 11 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill as an unfortunate mistake – a muddle, not a fiddle – it now seems certain that the plan all along was to rein in the Scottish Parliament and put it firmly in its place. And that place in Tory eyes is as a subordinate legislature to Westminster. Some will no doubt argue that ’twas ever thus, since the 1998 Scotland Act does indeed reserve the power for the UK Government to legislate on any matter, devolved or not, but in nearly 20 years of practice with devolved governance arrangements in this country, the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament has been respected by successive UK Governments of all political complexions.
However, the Tories have never exactly been devolution enthusiasts, as the recent servile antics of their MSP group on this issue attest to, and there can be little doubt that this opportunity to undermine devolution is going to be fully exploited by imperial Westminster’s most imperial party. We need only remember the fate of home rule during the long wasted years of Thatcher and Major governments, and recall the implacable opposition of former Tory overlords like Iain Lang and Michael Forsythe to all things devolution, to work out what comes next.
All is not lost though, and there are a number of reasons for optimism even in the face of the biggest challenge to devolution since its inception.
Firstly, the Tory Government is inherently weak and unstable and is facing such challenges in securing any kind of Brexit deal that the task may well be insurmountable. The next two weeks will be crucial, but the collapse of negotiations that seems extremely likely at this stage could prove terminal to the current Prime Minister’s disastrous tenure. In short, dismantling or at least undermining Scottish devolution may be highly desirable to the current Tory Government, but not its biggest priority given the existential threat the current regime faces.
And secondly, and more importantly, the court of public opinion will be vital. The opposition to home rule in any form from the Tories in the 80s and 90s was one of the (many) reasons for their electoral annihilation in Scotland in 1997. Scottish public opinion forced the deliverance of devolution from a reluctant incoming Blair government that had promised too much to pull back on, and which feared that doing so would drive voters towards supporting the SNP instead of them.
Just two decades later, the Tories are failing to learn the lessons of history, and their ideological attack on Scottish home rule in the form of devolution promises to see them deservedly roasted once again by the Scottish electorate as they so deservedly were in 1997.
The current struggle between the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments will have profound implications for Scotland’s future and is much more far-reaching than a contest between two political parties or governments. If Scotland’s ability to govern itself is impaired, this could be deeply damaging for an institution long fought for.
However, the very real threat to Scotland’s Parliament might also be that final straw for many in Scotland for whom the prospect of a return to the kind of Westminster rule we endured before devolution is in every sense beyond the pale. If so, the next few months promise much for those of us who passionately believe in completing the powers of the Scottish Parliament and in the fulfilment of genuine Scottish self-government.