Brexit ‘power-grab’ is unnecessary posturing

Brexit ‘power-grab’ is unnecessary posturing

by Struan Stevenson
article from Tuesday 10, April, 2018

FOR THOSE WONDERING why the escalating stand-off between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May over the alleged Brexit ‘power-grab’ by Westminster hasn’t yet been resolved, let me offer the perspective of businesses in Scotland.  

We are told that the UK government is hell-bent on relieving Scotland of its rightful inheritance from repatriated functions like agriculture and fisheries. Meanwhile we are asked to ignore the fact that London has repeatedly stated that they have no such intention and indeed the Scottish Parliament will inherit more powers after Brexit, making it one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. 

In the interests of achieving a UK-wide framework on issues such as animal welfare, food hygiene and labelling and agri-environment regulations, the UK government is keen to set the standards which will apply to the whole country before handing back these powers to Holyrood. There is a fear that if these regulatory controls came directly to Edinburgh from Brussels, the Scottish government might inadvertently or otherwise set laws that could be different on both sides of the border. 

For the business community, diverging regulatory controls in areas like animal welfare and agri-environment control would be nonsensical and would cause massive and costly confusion to consumers and industry. It could lead to‘gold plating’ in relation to the environment and animal health – where some parts of the UK choose to have more stringent regulations – or alternatively, a race to the bottom with different parts of the UK trying to gain competitive advantage. Indeed this is precisely why farmers’ organisations are arguing for a UK-wide policy framework. 

The narrative that this amounts to a ‘power-grab’ just doesn’t add up. 

Perhaps we are to imagine hordes of protesters on the streets of Edinburgh demanding Scottish control over fertiliser composition regulations, but that seems a far off day, even as Brexit looms closer. Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s Brexit Minister, has claimed that if these powers are devolved directly to Holyrood, they will then consult with London on a UK-wide framework.  The logic of this argument is stood on its head when you consider that these are regulatory powers that devolved jurisdictions, including the current SNP administration have, until now, been happy to see exercised by Brussels.

There is more than a whiff of posturing in all of this that dismay those business leaders who have been paying attention. 

The First Minister has relied on the advice of James Wolffe QC (pictured) – the Lord Advocate – to fast track the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) Bill at Holyrood, despite the Presiding Officer warning that it was ultra vires. The bill, which aims to secure the continuity of devolved issues after EU withdrawal, will shortly become law. 

There is now a general assumption that this will provoke the Conservative government at Westminster into referring the matter to the Supreme Court, where Richard Keen QC, the UK government’s Advocate General for Scotland will be forced into a confrontation on the competence of the bill, with Wolffe representing the Scottish Government. 

If the Supreme Court rules that the Scottish Government had no right to pass the Continuity Bill, we have a freshly confected constitutional crisis; one that leaves a path open for claims that Westminster dominance is thwarting Scotland’s valid rights and therefore must be a prelude to – you guessed it – Indyref 2.

While we appreciate that the First Minister has placed herself under pressure to clarify the Scottish Government’s stance on independence by autumn this year, Scottish Business UK would caution her against this course of action. There is nothing business fears more than risk and uncertainty and the government should be doing all it can here and now to alleviate both.  Beset with worries about Brexit, the last thing Scottish business needs or wants is the threat of Indyref 2. Another referendum remains the single biggest threat to our economy, stifling investment, inhibiting growth and choking prosperity. 

An obvious fact that bears repeating is that the UK market is worth four times Scotland’s exports to the EU – a fact borne out by the Scottish Government’s own figures. Our neighbours south of the border are by far our biggest trading partners. Anything that puts that situation at risk must be strenuously avoided. The whole ‘power-grab’ angle being pursued toward the courts at the present moment just doesn’t ring true. Businesses know it and they won’t thank politicians who put political point scoring ahead of the interests of the Scottish economy.  

Struan Stevenson is Chief Executive of Scottish Business UK, a cross-party, cross-sectoral organisation set up to represent the voice of Scotland’s business community opposed to another independence referendum.

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