United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Published date : 16 September, 2020
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the amount of money available to spend on frontline services in the Aberdeenshire Council area is only £11 below the Scottish average, which includes the high-spending island authorities? To help him with that, 11 is nearly twice six, which is double the number of chips that he had in his dinner the other night.
I rise to support my party’s amendments because I firmly believe that seeking the consent of devolved Ministers represents the absolute bare minimum to respect the devolution settlement in the provisions before us.
Although I am not new to politics, I am comparatively new to this place, and my views on politics and self-government for Scotland were forged in the 1980s and the devolution debates of the early 1990s, well before Scotland had a Parliament of its own. When I speak to young Scots of voting age now, very few of them have any memory of there not being a Scottish Government and Parliament. The idea that there ever would not have
been seems alien and absurd—almost as absurd to them as it seemed to me that those institutions did not exist back in the 1990s.
Although I was supportive of devolution at that time, the arguments that I and others made at that time in favour of independence referred to devolution and its potential weaknesses. Those arguments did not find favour at that time. They were that devolution was going to create a subordinate Parliament to Westminster, that without a written constitution, its powers and status could not be guaranteed, and that power devolved is power retained—all those arguments, whatever their essential truth and accuracy, were lost in the assurances given at the time about permanence and respect.
The fact that those arguments about permanence and respect were made by politicians of the standing and character of Donald Dewar no doubt helped enormously. For the past 21 years, by and large, that is exactly how it has been. Disputes over money and policy aside, both Parliaments have co-existed. As Holyrood’s stature has grown, and Ministers have begun to act with the stature befitting a Government, rather than a regional subordinate Executive, so too has Scottish confidence grown. I think it is that, rather than any concern about the integrity of the UK internal market, that seems to be driving a large part of the motivation behind this part of the Bill.
A number of speakers have talked about the current settlement. One thing that the current settlement does give is clarity: if a matter is not explicitly reserved under schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, it is devolved. Unionists who proclaim the parliamentary sovereignty of this place should know that that is because this place legislated for that. Throughout devolution, the Sewel convention has operated, meaning that this Parliament will not ordinarily legislate in areas of devolved competence without the express consent of the Parliaments. It is precisely to protect that principle of consent that my party is putting forward this amendment today, to ensure that under that principle of consent, no action in respect of these powers will be taken without the agreement of the relevant devolved Ministers.
Turning to clauses 46 and 47, I think of the ancient proverb that one should beware Greeks bearing gifts. Scots, through long years of experience, have come to be suspicious of Westminster politicians pledging similar gifts. Scottish voters have long been wary of that. The proposed powers are so wide-ranging, covering promoting economic development, infrastructure, cultural activity, sport, education and training activities, that their motivation is quite clear. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), who was in earlier, gave the game away: this is nothing more sophisticated than sticking a great big flag on the side of something and saying, “We paid for that.”
There is no money element to these proposals, but I have to say that if they actually represented additional money, we might be having quite a different debate. However, I know from bitter experience that all that will happen is that the Scottish Government’s funding will inevitably find itself top-sliced—a bit like the Scotland Office having to pay for press officers or private polling—and it will be presented as the return of Scottish taxpayers’ money and UK borrowing, and as being somehow down to the largesse of the Treasury and we should all be grateful for it.
The ability that these measures will give UK Ministers of the Crown to bypass devolution and Scottish Ministers —who are also Ministers of the Crown—and to bypass the democratically elected Government of Scotland to make policy and allocate resources in devolved areas, whether that is in line with the priorities of those elected to lead in those devolved areas or not, represents the biggest single attack on devolution imaginable, short of the abolition of those institutions themselves.
Let us take infrastructure as an example. I find it hard to understand the argument that the Bill could improve that situation. Scottish Governments of all political stripes across many years—decades, indeed—have a record of ambitious investment, whether delivered or planned for the future. The magnificent Queensferry crossing was mentioned earlier. We also have the Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements, involving more than £200 million of improvements that benefit my constituents to a remarkable extent. We have the central belt rail electrification. We have the Aberdeen bypass, and the Balmedie to Tipperty dualling. We also have the completion, after 50 years, of the central Scotland motorway network.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because it might have been signed off, but it was signed off in such a way that mired it in protracted legal disputes for years—[Interruption.]
I am glad she finds that funny, but that was what delayed it more than anything else. It is only thanks to the diligence of the present Scottish Government that it got through at all. The dualling of the A96 and the A9, the Borders railway and the future rail decarbonisation are all major big-ticket investments that are happening under the current arrangements, which do not require any tinkering with the devolution settlement.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I intend to deal with some of those points later in my speech.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) said on Second Reading:
“I want to see our two Governments working together as they do on city and growth deals the length and breadth of the country.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 89.]
I absolutely agree with him: for as long as we have two Governments for Scotland, they should indeed work together.
However, citing that argument in support of the Bill is, I believe, fundamentally flawed because these deals already work and there is no need for a further encroachment on the devolution settlement to make similar deals work better.
As I was about to say—the hon. Member was doing so well until he said he would not back the borrowing powers, which is very disappointing because it could change so much—legitimate criticisms can be made of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities funding formula. I voiced them myself when I was the council co-leader in Aberdeenshire. However, the Bill will not resolve or change that. I hope that the
hon. Member would agree that if we are to make changes to that, they should be based on factual analysis and evidence, rather than just recycling old tropes.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I say, if this were backed up by additional resources, we might be having some different discussions, but it still would not make the case for this encroachment on devolved powers.
On the contrary, there is every reason to do that precisely because I have been making the argument—I do not know how carefully the hon. Member has been listening to it—that there is absolutely no need to encroach on the existing devolved settlement to deliver all the things that we are being told need to happen.
Frankly, this is nothing more than an arrogation, a usurpation and a trespassing on the principle that the decisions taken exclusively for Scotland should be made in Scotland by those who are directly accountable to the people of Scotland, taking us back to the bad old days prior to devolution, when Ministers of a party elected on a minority of the votes and seats could nevertheless rule the country without going to the trouble of winning an election beforehand.
Devolution was once described as
“the settled will of the Scottish people”—
as a way to accommodate legitimate desires for growing democratic aspirations within an old Union. That was certainly how it looked until 1997, and it is how it has looked for many in Scotland until recently, but the Union that Scots were invited to vote for in 2014—the balance that existed between Parliaments, Governments and institutions in London, Brussels and Edinburgh—has already gone. The failure to back an amendment of this nature shows that the very principles of autonomy, consent and respect that lay at the heart of the devolution settlement are also about to go.
People who voted in 2014 to be part of two Unions—the European Union and the British Union—can now see that they can only possibly be part of one. If this amendment falls and is not taken on board by the Government, it will show that the entire basis of devolution—that
decisions should be taken for the people of the devolved nations and regions by those elected by and directly accountable to them—is being similarly trashed.
If the UK Government wish to depart from the EU and to deploy their majority to crush these principles, there is very little that I or my colleagues can do in practice to stop that, although there is plenty that can be done outside this place. For all that I used to make the argument that one day, the Scottish Parliament might have its wings clipped by a politically motivated activist Conservative Government, I never imagined for one day that a Government would come along so stuffed full of John Bull as to make it actually happen.
The polls across Scotland—I am sure that private polls in the Scotland Office confirm what the public polls say—show that increasing numbers of Scots know and understand that to re-attain EU membership, independence is required. If the Bill is passed unamended, it will become equally clear that independence is also required to preserve Scotland’s hard-won democracy and autonomy. It will give me no satisfaction to be proven right, from back in 1997, about where devolution might end up. There is if not yet a settled will, very definitely a settling will in Scotland that that is the case. If yet more of the Scottish people reach the conclusion that independence is now the only way to protect Scotland’s Parliament, this Government, having acted in haste, will be left to repent at leisure and in not very splendid isolation.
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