SNP ‘Power-Grab’ hysteria leaves them with few friends

SNP ‘Power-Grab’ hysteria leaves them with few friends

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 4, May, 2018

THE WORLD’S most boring constitutional crisis has taken a few new twists in the last couple of weeks. This all relates to the provisions in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, currently being discussed at Westminster, which impacts on devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Bill deals with “EU Retained Law”, in other words powers currently being exercised at an EU level that will be returned to the UK, post-Brexit. A number of these powers relate to matters, such as environment and agriculture, which fall to devolved to Scotland and other parts of the UK. The essence of the disagreement that has existed between the UK Government and that of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales has been around the basis on which these powers will be held in Westminster, to allow joint decision making, or returned directly to the devolved governments. 

Substantial progress has been made in resolving the difficulties. The UK Government has now accepted that of the 111 powers under discussion, all but 24 will now be directly devolved back to Wales and Scotland. The remaining 24 will be subject to common frameworks to be agreed across the whole United Kingdom, and powers in these areas will be held by Westminster only on a temporary, time-limited basis. This ensures, for example, that food labelling regulations will continue to apply uniformly across the UK, rather than being set up along regional lines.

The concessions that made by the UK Government have been welcomed by the Government of Wales. Last week, the Welsh Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford, put out a statement saying “This is a deal we can work with which has required compromise on both sides. Our aim throughout these talks has been to protect devolution and make sure laws and policy areas which are currently devolved, remain devolved, and this we have achieved”. 

He went on to say: “The original draft Bill meant powers already devolved would have been clawed back by the UK government post-Brexit, and only Ministers in London would have had the right to decide if and when they were passed back to the devolved parliaments. This was totally unacceptable and went against the will of the people of Wales who voted for devolution in two referendums. We are now in a different place. London has changed its position so that all powers and policy areas rest in Cardiff and Edinburgh, unless specified to be temporarily held by the UK Government. These will be areas where we all agree common, UK-wide rules are needed for a functioning UK internal market. London’s willingness to listen to our concerns and enter serious negotiations has been welcome”.

The warm words from the Welsh Government were a stark contrast to the stance being maintained by the SNP in Edinburgh, who continue to object to what is being proposed. Speculation is rife that the Brexit Minister, Michael Russell, was himself quite happy to sign up to what was being proposed, but was over-ruled by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Last year Russell said of the relationship between the Scottish and Welsh governments: “We are working very closely with Wales, and we cannot envisage a situation in which Scotland would be content and Wales would not be, or vice versa”. On other occasions, he talked about how he “worked in lockstep” with Mark Drakeford, and how the Scottish and Welsh Governments were in “exactly the same position”.

So for the Welsh Government to sign up to what is now to be agreed, but the Scottish Government to refuse to do so, not only breaks the long-running and very close partnership that Michael Russell established with Mark Drakeford, but it now leaves the Scottish Government isolated. Of the three parties to these discussions, the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments, two are now in agreement and have found a way forward, whilst only one stands outside that.

The SNP’s response to this isolation has been to ramp up the rhetoric. Writing in the Sunday Herald last week, Nicola Sturgeon used hysterical language to describe the current situation, claiming that UK Conservatives were intent on “demolishing devolution”. The irony of these comments coming just days after the Scottish Parliament passed a new Social Security Bill, assuming responsibility from Westminster for a whole range of welfare powers, will not have been lost on many observers. Indeed, the current UK Conservative Government has delivered not only welfare powers to devolution, but very extensive powers of tax and borrowing. To any objective observer, the idea that the Tories are about to demolish devolution can only be seen as irrational ranting.

SNP claims of a Westminster “power grab”, were firmly put in their place this week at the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee. Michael Russell claimed to the committee that the EU Withdrawal Bill would mean that powers over the likes of GM crops and fracking would now be held by UK Ministers, rather than in Scotland. But, as the Secretary of State David Mundell stated very clearly, this is simply nonsense. 

The EU Withdrawal Bill deals only with “EU Retained Law”. It has no impact whatsoever on powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Ministers, and indeed this point has been explicitly stated by no less than the Welsh Government. So it is at best inaccurate, and at worst irresponsible scaremongering, for the SNP to claim that the Scottish Parliament will lose its responsibilities in these areas.

So if the Welsh are able to sign up to this deal and see it as strengthening devolution, not weakening it, then why are the Scottish Government still holding out? And why did Nicola Sturgeon overrule Mike Russell, if indeed that is what happened? All this has to be seen through the prism of the SNP’s single-minded focus on pursuing independence, by trying to engineer circumstances that would justify holding a second independence referendum.

While all this is going on, we have a deputy leadership battle happening in the SNP: a battle that increasingly is about the timing of the second independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure from her grassroots to deliver on this, fearing that if it runs past 2021 there will no longer be a Scottish Parliamentary majority to take a referendum forward.

So unlike the Welsh Government that has genuinely acted in the best interests of the people it serves, the SNP Government in Scotland has no interest in finding a solution. All it wants to do is provoke further grievance, whip up its fanatical supporters by making outrageous claims about a constitutional crisis, and hope that public opinion will shift its way. Sadly for the SNP, but fortunately for the rest of us, there is no evidence whatsoever that the public are buying it.

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