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Will Scottish stance force English tae think again?

Nicola Sturgeon - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

By disregarding Scotland in its pursuit of Brexit, the Westminster government could yet foment a full-blown constitutional crisis, says PETER HETHERINGTON.

Who cares about Caledonia? Amidst the chaos over the impact of Brexit on the Irish border, simmering resentment in Scotland has been quietly sidelined by UK ministers. While many Scots harbour a deep grievance over the cabinet’s indifference to lingering discontent in a nation that voted to remain in the EU – by a 62-38% margin – Downing Street seems to think that talk of another constitutional crisis is overblown. They should think again.

The Scottish government feels its concerns about the dire consequences of living outside the single market have been ignored by Theresa May.

In her recent key speech on Brexit she warned ominously that ‘life is going to be different’ outside that single market – code for much tougher, in the minds of many in the Scottish political class. For them, it all seems at variance with a memorandum of understanding from the Cabinet Office in 2016 setting out the terms of a Joint Ministerial Committee, or JMC, for the Scottish, Welsh and UK governments promising ‘collaborative working’ and a common approach in negotiations with the EU.

In reality Mike Russell, minister for Brexit talks in the SNP-run Scottish Government – and his opposite number in the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government, Mark Drakeford – insist the Westminster cabinet has ignored both the letter and the spirit of that memorandum. It promised to work towards a ‘UK approach’ in Brexit objectives as well as providing an oversight in negotiations. In practice, the UK government has ploughed ahead with scant regard for the devolved nations.

The JMC has met infrequently – a recent session chaired by David Lidington, de-facto cabinet Brexit coordinator, was inconclusive – with no timetable for meetings and apparently little enthusiasm on the UK side.

Russell told the Scots Parliament last month that, since publication of the UK Withdrawal Bill last July, Westminster’s approach to the devolved administrations has been both careless and lacking in understanding – despite ‘clear and agreed terms of reference’ for the JMC. ‘There was no consultation on the content of the bill, contrary to good and established practice,’ he complained.

The issue for Scotland, and for Wales, strikes at the heart of the 1997 devolution settlement agreed between Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

The devolved governments have accused the UK cabinet of using the UK’s departure from the EU as a power grab, particularly over the devolved areas of farming, fishing, environmental policy, and food safety. While Brussels is mainly responsible for these areas, through – for instance – the Common Agriculture and Common Fisheries Policies, the Scots and Welsh governments tailor them to meet particular needs, such as greater support for hill farming.

The stakes have now been raised in an escalating constitutional dispute. The Scottish government has unveiled an emergency bill – and the Welsh government is following suit – to sidestep Westminster by giving the Holyrood parliament direct control over the repatriation of up to 111 EU powers rather than seeing them transferred to Westminster.

A mighty legal row might be looming. UK law officers could ask the Supreme Court to strike down the bill to protect Westminster’s powers over Brexit. No matter that Lidington has insisted the UK government will only be involved to introduce a ‘pause’ while a wider framework is worked out. Edinburgh and Cardiff insist this will still restrict powers of the devolved governments.

Under an agreed convention, Westminster should seek consent if it wants to legislate on areas devolved to Scotland and Wales – although legally it can carry on regardless.

In truth, the spat exposes a deep ideological divide beyond Brexit. ‘We must hammer home the case for staying in the single market and retaining our rights, over social and environmental protection,’ adds Harvie. ‘Talk of a ‘hard’ Brexit is a self-destructive course of action to all aside from the delusional hard-right.’ As it is, Scotland is refashioning state provision in the UK. Already it provides free personal home-care for the elderly alongside free NHS prescriptions for all. With local councils and housing associations, it has begun building 30,000 social homes over a five-year period and, unlike England, it has abolished the sale of council houses to tenants. Its SNP government has pledged to lift the public sector pay cap. And all that is before the impact of a modest income tax rise for the better off is factored in to fill a gap left by a falling block grant from Westminster.

Scotland has also parted company with Westminster over immigration policy (an area overseen by the UK government) – hence its campaign to stay a single market underpinned by freedom of movement for labour, goods, capital and services. It needs more EU migrants to sustain a country which was historically losing population.

By the 2001-2011 decade its population rose by 5.3% when countries, mainly from eastern Europe, joined the EU. In the subsequent decade the trend continued. But crunch time is approaching. Whether Scotland is ready for Nordic-style cradle-to-grave provision – and the impact of substantially higher taxes to sustain it – is an open question.

The SNP government is gambling that Scots will display more enthusiasm for a bigger, interventionist state than the English.

At long last, it has the means to become at least partially self-sufficient thanks to the Scotland Act of 2016, which transferred control over the rates and the bands of income tax to the Holyrood parliament. Spending per head is already higher than the English average.

How far will ambition take the Scottish government? Nicola Sturgeon’s address to the last SNP annual conference gave a clue. Policy-rich in tone, it headlined a commitment to create a publicly-owned Scottish energy company by 2021 which will buy electricity and gas either wholesale or generated directly from national sources to give choice to people ‘particularly those on low incomes,’ according to the First Minister.

She has just announced plans for a Scottish government-owned £2 billion national investment bank to support smaller businesses and strategic projects from 2020. All this has come alongside a pledge to double spending on early years education to £840 million annually by 2020 – ‘a commitment unmatched anywhere in the UK,’ Sturgeon proclaimed – as well as doubling free nursery provision for under-fives.

Twenty-one years after the 1997 devolution referendum, the Scottish Government’s finance secretary Derek Mackay has laid out plans to add 1p in the pound to higher tax rates this year. The tax will add under 1% to the Scottish government budget for day-to-day spending.

In truth, the modest hike will buy the SNP government just a little time for one year. The IPPR Scotland think-tank has warned that the rise will simply protect key departments from spending cuts in 2018-19.

‘We are not yet clear what the government’s tax and spending are beyond this,’ it adds.

But, on Europe, its priorities are clear: staying in the single market is a thick red line not to be crossed – the ultimate imperative to sustain both the economy, public services and essential migration. And Theresa May has charted a distinctly different course.

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