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The next item of business is a debate on defending the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
We have a little time in hand, so interventions should be short, as should the responses, or we will run out of time for interventions. I call on Mike Russell to open for the Government.
Today, we have a debate without a motion. Such infrequent but valuable occasions give members across the chamber the opportunity to express their views on the issue at hand without forcing us into a binary division and a simple yes or no. Today, every party has the opportunity to consider the most important issue that is presently facing the Parliament: how to defend and protect Scottish powers if the United Kingdom Government of the day will not respect the constitutional rules. We can also put forward ideas about how we can move forward and protect Scotland from the chaotic and disastrous Brexit that the UK Government is attempting to foist on us.
We could constrain this open opportunity within 19 minutes, which was the time made available to the House of Commons to nod through provisions in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that fundamentally alter the nature of the devolution settlement. That time was entirely occupied by one speech by a UK minister. No Scottish member of Parliament was able to talk about the UK Government’s proposals, never mind have a proper debate or a vote. The devolution settlement, which was voted for by the people of Scotland in a referendum almost exactly 20 years ago, has been altered—changed utterly—without any input at the final stage by any elected member from Scotland.
For viewers at home who did not catch that, we have just seen the recreation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat alliance, which we thought came to a happy and blessed end in 2015.
As I was saying, the devolution settlement, which the people of Scotland voted for in a referendum almost exactly 20 years ago, has been altered—changed utterly—without any input at the final stage by any elected member from Scotland. However, there was a clear democratic voice from Scotland. On 15 May, here in Scotland’s Parliament, we refused to give legislative consent to the withdrawal bill by 93 votes to 30—that was all the parties represented in the Parliament except the Conservatives. Just as the vote was clear, so are the rules of our constitution. Where legislative consent is required, sought and refused, the UK Government must amend its bill to reflect the views of this Parliament. The English language is clear, too: when someone asks for consent and it is refused, that is not consent.
The real point of devolution was to ensure that decisions are made as close as possible to those affected by them and that those with the most knowledge of the prevailing circumstances take responsibility for moving Scotland forward. It should give real power and real influence to the range of views in all the nations of these islands. Alas, Brexit has proved how illusory that power and influence are in the face of a UK Government that is determined to ignore the views of democratically elected legislatures.
This weekend, I heard Professor Christine Bell of the University of Edinburgh define a constitutional crisis as a situation that cannot be solved by the operation of the existing constitution. We are in that situation: the constitutional crisis in these islands cannot be resolved by the existing constitutional settlement. The weight of Brexit has been too great for the existing constitution to bear. The hostility of the avid Brexiteers, the indifference of the Prime Minister and the failure of the Tories—and perhaps one Liberal Democrat—in this place has allowed devolution to be broken. Now, it must be remade or replaced.
The Parliament and the Government have done their best to avoid such a situation. We have made our position clear again and again and we have negotiated to achieve that position by offer and by compromise. Immediately after the referendum on 23 June 2016 in which Scotland rejected Brexit, the Parliament voted for a motion mandating the Scottish Government to discuss with the UK Government options to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU and our place in the single market. On 14 September 2016, we voted that article 50 should not be triggered without an agreed UK approach. On 17 January 2017, we voted to support the approach set out in “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, including membership of the single market and customs union. On 7 February 2017, we voted that the UK article 50 bill should not proceed in the absence of a clear plan and a joint approach. We presented all those positions to the UK Government and we asked for them to be taken into account and ways found, which we suggested, for them to be folded into the UK Government negotiating mandate.
That has not happened. Indeed, what all those votes have in common is that they were completely ignored by the UK Government. No, not all—I should add that, on 21 March this year, we voted in favour of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. The UK Government did not ignore that vote. Instead, it referred the bill to the Supreme Court.
What can we do to protect this Parliament’s powers and the devolution settlement? My party, of course, believes that the best future for Scotland is for it to be an independent country, free to make its own decisions. Not everyone here—[
.] This is a democracy. Not everyone here shares that view, but I hope—[
“It’s coming yet for a’ that”.
I hope that all of us, as parliamentarians, agree that the Parliament’s power should not be eroded and that its competence should not be altered without its consent. Until now, that protection has been provided by a combination of statutory provisions in the Scotland Act 1998 and the Sewel convention.
I can. I commend to the member, who has clearly not done his homework, the list of 111 of them. [
.] Indeed, not only are there 111 such powers, but the UK Government is able to list any other power and just exercise it. I am afraid that that is the reality.
Let us return to the facts of the matter. The Sewel convention—[
I ask the Conservative members to calm down a little, please. Your time will come. [
.] I should clarify that that is because Mr Tomkins will lead for you shortly.
The Sewel convention is what is known as a constitutional convention—a binding rule of our constitution, although a non-legal rule that cannot be enforced in the courts. The effectiveness of conventions as rules depends, in the absence of judicial oversight, on the actors in the system behaving as they should. It depends, if you like, on trust. However, as the Taoiseach said last week in Guernsey, we have to underpin trust with legal frameworks. That is what makes the European Union work and the absence of it is what now makes devolution not work.
The breach of the Sewel convention has been the result of deliberate, considered actions by the UK Government in the full knowledge that it cannot be held to account by any legal framework. Therefore, it is now crystal clear that we need more than trust to protect us.
There is a type of statutory provision on the Sewel convention in the Scotland Act 2016, but that provision has been tested in the Supreme Court in the case of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and been found to provide no legal protection at all. Therefore, it is now time to revisit the issue of a proper statutory footing for the Sewel convention, as recommended by the Smith commission. As a start, we could dust down the proposals made in 2015 by the Scottish Government and committees of this Parliament, notably the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, which was convened by my friend Bruce Crawford.
In January, the plenary session of the joint ministerial committee, including the First Minster and the Prime Minister, agreed that the existing intergovernmental arrangements should be reviewed. That work should now consider how disputes, including on the Sewel convention, can be resolved and how a legal framework can be established to underpin the necessary relationships between the four nations of these islands.
I put those ideas to the UK Government last week in both informal and formal settings. I am now looking for urgent progress on them, and the ball is in the UK Government’s court. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has fully backed such a process. I would be pleased to hear the chamber’s views on those matters today and as we go forward. I am sure that committees of the Parliament will have views, as will the parties. To solve the current constitutional crisis, we need some new thinking. No one has a monopoly on that, although the simplest solution, as Occam’s razor suggests, is usually the best. The simplest solution is for the Parliament to have all the powers of a normal Parliament.
I turn to a broader issue: the impending June meeting of the European Council and what the Scottish Government wishes to emerge from the various debates there. European leaders will come together to discuss matters of huge importance: migration, economy, security and defence. It is hugely regrettable that the UK seems almost inevitably to have excluded itself from those important meetings after 29 March next year. We will all be the weaker and the poorer for that. The EU 27 will also discuss the current state of play with the Brexit negotiations—namely that serious divergences remain between the EU and UK Government on a solution for the Irish border, among other issues, and that a huge amount of work needs to take place before October. The unthinkable risk of a no-deal outcome continues to increase. Delay means ever-greater pressure on the October meeting of the European Council to avoid such a disastrous outcome.
We are told by the UK Government that a new white paper will provide the answers, but it has already been delayed beyond the June European Council meeting. However, there cannot be answers before the devolved Administrations are properly consulted, and we have not been.
I will be in London tomorrow for the second meeting of the ministerial forum that is meant to be looking at the white paper. So far, I have seen only a draft contents sheet. At this moment, with the meeting tomorrow afternoon, I have not seen another word, even though, apparently, the white paper has been written.
That really says it all. The truth is that, riven by its own internal disagreements, the Government’s engagement with us or any of the devolved administrations has been at best tokenistic. It remains deeply concerning that the UK Government seems determined to continue to pursue wholly unrealistic negotiating positions, wasting precious months in the process of doing so.
I, alongside my Welsh Government counterparts, continue to engage in good faith through the joint ministerial committee (European Union negotiations) to seek to hold substantive and constructive discussions on those negotiations with the EU, which concern matters for which this Parliament is responsible.
Our position has been consistent and clear: if Brexit is to happen, Scotland and the UK should remain in the single market and customs union. Support for our position from people and businesses is growing daily and I remain determined to reflect Scotland’s democratic decision, and to champion Scotland’s interests.
Last week, the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland called on the UK Government to commit to staying inside the single market and customs union. It is the UK Government’s red lines that mean that Brexit would deeply damage our economies. It is time for the UK Government to stop negotiating with itself, face up to the real dangers of the type of EU exit that it is proposing, and listen to our consistent, evidence-based proposals.
No, I want to finish.
As we move into this summer’s recess, we face an uncertain future: uncertain in Europe, with the UK Government’s approach to negotiations no clearer than it has been at any point over the past two years and with time rapidly running out; uncertain in the UK, with the UK Government apparently willing to cast aside the rules of our system of government when it suits it; and uncertain at home, with business, communities and individuals left, still, with little idea from the UK Government about what will happen next year and the year after. Brexit still means Brexit and not much else.
In these times, it falls to us in the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to stand up even more for the democratic institutions that we represent and to redouble our efforts to strengthen and protect them. That is why I laid out last week our next steps and promised that the Scottish Government will do everything that it can to provide information, move forward the repatriation of regulation and secure the only sensible outcome short of staying in the EU: staying in the single market and the customs union.
That is why cabinet secretaries are now bringing forward—as Fergus Ewing did last week—consultations and plans to allow policy to be developed and progress to be made, even if only to mitigate the damage that is inevitable if the UK Government stays on its present track.
I am happy to hear this afternoon other ideas, but I hope that no one will assert that it is possible to have a good or successful Brexit. It is not. Brexit is and will be collateral damage inflicted by the UK Government as a result of the endless internal civil war in the Tory party, aided and abetted by a shadowy bunch of chancers who we now know were in it to make money. Many people were duped by them. My sympathy lies with those people who are already waking up to the disappointment of promises broken and pledges dishonoured.
There is no, and can be no, Brexit dividend except in the negative: more costs, less income and a declining economy. The Scottish Government will do everything that it can to protect Scotland from such things. We want to do so collaboratively across this chamber and across the nation. I hope that this afternoon’s open debate is a chance to move forward in that way, for there is much that we need to do and very little time.
Given that this is a debate without a motion, I want to use my remarks to reflect on the events of the past year and then at the end to point to what is perhaps the way forward.
Brexit can and must be delivered compatibly with the United Kingdom’s devolution settlements. That is the starting principle on which the Scottish Conservatives stand and have stood ever since the British people voted two years ago to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. Whatever else it may mean, Brexit cannot mean—it has never meant—that the UK will somehow revert to the constitution of 1972. In 1972, when the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community, there was no devolution. However, reversing 46 years of EU membership does not mean and cannot mean that we reverse at the same time all the other non-EU-related reforms to our constitution that we have seen being made since the 1970s.
Mike Russell claimed last week—he repeated the claim a few moments ago—that Brexit is being delivered in “breach” of fundamental principles of devolution in Scotland. He has made that claim because the bill that is now the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was passed by the Westminster Parliament despite the fact that a majority of MSPs here voted to withhold their consent to it. That, he has claimed, is a
“breach ... of the Sewel convention”.
It is a shame that Lord Sewel does not agree. The Scottish National Party’s misconception about the nature of the Sewel convention, and Mr Russell’s somewhat error-strewn account of what happened in the passing of the withdrawal bill, need to be confronted and corrected, for there has been no breach of Sewel, and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was enacted by the Westminster Parliament compatibly with, and not in defiance of, our constitutional rules.
Does Mr Tomkins agree with the following wise words:
“The requirement in the convention to respect the views of this Parliament and not to proceed with legislation that affects the powers of this Parliament without our consent is “not a nicety” or an “add on”; it is a fundamentally important part of our constitutional settlement.—[
, 17 May 2018; c 21.]
Why has Mr Tomkins changed his mind, given that some of those are his own wise words?
I have not changed my mind. The Sewel convention was effectively suspended by the SNP front bench a few months ago, as I shall explain.
The key point, which Mr Crawford deliberately overlooks—I know that he knows this—is that the Sewel convention provides that Westminster will
“not normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament” or, as the case may be, the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the National Assembly for Wales. Based on a narrow reading of the convention, there is an argument that it should not even have applied to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The subject of that act is the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, which is a reserved matter under our devolution legislation. It is not, and never has been, devolved to this Parliament. To their credit, though, neither Westminster nor Whitehall have ever taken such a legalistic or narrow view of the scope of the Sewel convention. Sewel applied to certain provisions of the withdrawal act because those provisions, among other matters, will extend the powers of this Parliament and of the Scottish ministers.
Let us pause to note that the withdrawal act does not remove powers from this Parliament. When he was asked about that a few moments ago by Murdo Fraser, Mr Russell could not name a single power that is being removed from this Parliament, for the simple reason that there is no such power. The act adds to the powers of this Parliament—but the problem, of course, is that the SNP does not want any of those powers; it wants them all to remain locked away in Brussels.
I will, in a few moments.
When the withdrawal bill was first introduced a year ago, this Parliament was united in viewing its key devolution provision, clause 11, as defective—so defective that, in the unanimous words of the all-party Finance and Constitution Committee, it needed to be “removed or replaced”. The problem with clause 11 was that it would have turned devolution—or one aspect of devolution—on its head. In Scotland, all law-making powers are devolved to this Parliament unless they are expressly reserved to Westminster under the Scotland Act 1998. That is known as the reserved powers model. Clause 11, as introduced, sought in effect to reverse that principle and to convert that aspect of Scottish devolution to a devolved powers model.
However, after hearing our objections, the UK Government undertook to amend clause 11. That happened—later than would have been ideal, but it happened—at report stage in the House of Lords. The amended clause 11—now section 15 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—fully respects the reserved powers model. All powers that fall within devolved competence that are to be returned from the EU to the United Kingdom following Brexit will come to this Parliament, unless it is necessary to hold them at UK level for a limited period so that the vital integrity of the UK’s internal market can be safeguarded.
Holding such a power at UK level does not mean that the UK can change anything; it simply means that for as long as the power is held it will continue to be exercised just as it is now—that is to say, in accordance with EU law.
Our politics might differ markedly—[
]—and we have our disagreements. [
] However, I agree with Adam Tomkins entirely that there is no constitutional attack on the powers of this Parliament, as is implied by the subject of the debate. Does he agree that it is only the SNP that is intent on destroying devolution in the Scottish constitutional system?
I agree absolutely. The nationalists have never believed in devolution and they do not like it. They do not believe in the United Kingdom, whether devolved or not. They want to break up the United Kingdom and to bring an end to devolution.
Section 15 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is manifestly in Scotland’s interests. None of us should forget that Scotland trades nearly four times as much with the rest of the United Kingdom as it does with the whole European Union. Safeguarding the integrity of the UK’s internal market is essential to Scottish business and the Scottish economy. No one who genuinely seeks to be “Stronger for Scotland” should object to that—but the SNP does. The amendments were good enough for the Labour Government in Wales, and for Opposition and cross-bench peers in the House of Lords. They were good enough for everybody who was involved in the process, except the SNP. The story is that the amendments were good enough even for Mike Russell, until he was overruled by his boss.
I am sure that Mr Tomkins would not want to be totally wrong. The
Scottish Trades Union Congress, for example, has indicated that it does not agree with what has taken place, as have a wide range of other bodies. I am sure that he did not mean to suggest that the SNP is on its own in that. In fact, the SNP has considerable support; last week, even the First Minister of Wales indicated how strongly opposed he is to the way in which the UK Government is acting.
From one view, the most critical event in the saga was not the withdrawal bill or the amendments to it, but the unilateral and hasty ill-advised action that the SNP took in introducing its own Brexit legislation. The so-called continuity bill—the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill—which, in reality, was a wrecking bill that was designed not to deliver continuity but to sow the seeds of legal confusion and chaos, was both a tactical error and a huge strategic mistake on the Scottish Government’s part. It was a mistake that was compounded by Mike Russell’s insistence that this Parliament enact that legislation under fast-track emergency procedure. Even Mr Russell knows that we do not legislate using emergency procedure in normal times; we legislate using emergency procedure when there is an emergency.
Therefore, it was no surprise that, when moving the motion on the fast-tracking of his continuity bill, Mr Russell insisted that
“these are not normal times.”
Oh, dear. What a blunder. Let us go back to Sewel—this is the answer to Mr Crawford’s question. Sewel says that Westminster will
“not normally legislate on devolved matters without” our “consent”, but it was Mr Russell himself who insisted that
“these are not normal times.”
The SNP cannot have it both ways; it cannot pull stunts in the House of Commons, screaming from the rooftops that Westminster has breached the Sewel convention, while insisting at the same time that this Parliament uses emergency legislative procedure because
“these are not normal times”.—[
, 1 March 2018; c 29.]
To make matters even worse, the continuity bill was enacted in the face of legal advice from the Presiding Officer that the bill was beyond our legal powers, and the bill now awaits trial in the Supreme Court, whose verdict we expect in the autumn.
What have we learned? Through its own actions over the past 12 months, the SNP has undermined Scotland’s interests and has weakened this Parliament’s hand in the Brexit process in three ways. First, by refusing consent even to the amended withdrawal act, the SNP has isolated Scotland by breaking not only the consensus in this Parliament, but the joint working with the Welsh Government that had enjoyed considerable success until the nationalists broke it.
Secondly, by rushing ill-conceived Brexit legislation of its own through this Parliament, the SNP sold the pass on the Sewel convention, undermined the integrity of this Parliament’s emergency law-making procedures, wilfully ignored the legal advice of our Presiding Officer and exposed this Parliament’s legislation to unprecedented legal challenge in the country’s highest court.
Thirdly, by refusing to give consent to Westminster legislation that will protect the UK’s internal market, and by enacting its own legislation that attempts to undermine the UK’s internal market, the SNP has acted directly contrary to the business and best economic interests of the people of Scotland. That is the SNP’s record over the past 12 months.
However, it is not too late—it is not too late for the SNP to change course. It could take its lead from the Welsh and drop its objections to the withdrawal act. It could drop its belligerent attempts to undermine Brexit at every turn. It could work with and not against the UK Government in ensuring that future Brexit legislation—including on trade, agriculture and the environment—is properly compatible with our devolution settlement. Constructive engagement in the process is likely to yield a far greater return than the shouting from the sidelines that Nicola Sturgeon seems to prefer.
It has been a disappointing year from the SNP. Let us hope that ministers take the summer to reflect on how little they have achieved in the past 12 months, and that they return here in September ready to get on with the job at hand—which is to work with and alongside the UK Government to secure the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland and the whole UK.
T he past nine months have been extremely frustrating. Across our public services, we have a host of problems that are impacting on people’s lives and their communities. The same issues come up time and again in surgeries, emails from constituents and conversations on the doorstep.
In my region of Lothian, general practitioner practices are closing and waiting lists have been closed to new patients at around 40 per cent of practices. The system would collapse without locums, who are paid £1,400 a day. There is a mental health crisis, there are waiting times of 54 weeks for orthopaedic treatment and care homes are closing, but that is waved aside as market failure. Our older and vulnerable people are not some casino chips to be played in a game of chance; they have contributed to our society all their lives. Next week, it will be a year since the children’s ward at St John’s hospital closed its doors to in-patients out of hours, with families being forced to travel 30 miles for hospital treatment.
On top of that, we have child poverty, rising class sizes, a shambles of an education bill, the growing attainment gap, cuts to bus services and a housing crisis. Those essential public services that civilise our society are under pressure as never before, yet all the focus over the past nine months has been elsewhere: it has been on the increasingly polarised and divisive debate around the devolution of powers post-Brexit.
Prior to Christmas, the Cabinet’s invisible man, David Mundell, gave a commitment that the UK Government would table amendments in the Commons to resolve the issue of consent. We were told that it would be resolved at the committee stage; we were then told that it would be resolved at the report stage. During the debate, the Scottish Conservative MP Stephen Kerr said:
“it sticks in my craw to think that unelected Lords will make the vital amendments to this vital constitutional Bill. It is not really good enough, and as a Member of the House of Commons I hang my head to think that we have somehow dropped the ball.”
He also said:
“Let me be absolutely clear about the clause: we must have an agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments to allow for the ?passage of a legislative consent motion.”—[
House of Commons
, 16 January 2018; Vol 634, c 821, 816.]
Paul Masterton MP boldly claimed:
“On Second Reading, I said that I would not allow legislation to pass that undermined the Union or the devolution settlement, and that remains my position today.”—[
House of Commons
, 4 December 2017; Vol 632, c 729.]
To cap it all, we had the ludicrous situation whereby just 15 minutes was set aside to debate the impact of the withdrawal bill on the Scottish Parliament and the people we represent. The UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill was rushed through, but it took up a significant amount of the time and effort that we could have used to debate and discuss the issues that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech.
Later, the Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe thought that he had a deal similar to the deal that was reached with Wales but, of course, it was kiboshed by the First Minister, which left Mr Russell high and dry. No matter how many times he tries to tell us all that that was not the case, everyone knows that it was the case.
That is no surprise to me. Mr Stevenson is off in another world—he lives in a parallel universe somewhere.
We all know that, for the SNP, it is not really about the powers of this Parliament and the disputed areas such as fertiliser standards, pedigree sheep or academic qualifications—it is about stoking up a sense of injustice and a sense of grievance to further the reason why it exists, which is to secure independence.
As those two nationalist parties have scrapped it out, the Labour Party has sought repeatedly to find a way through the mess while protecting the principle of devolved power and the Sewel convention. All the way through, Labour has tabled constructive amendments in the Commons, which were rejected when the Scottish Tories were whipped to vote against them, with Paul Masterton and Stephen Kerr among the many who broke their previous commitments.
Labour amendments in the Lords were then rejected by the Government, and we tabled further amendments to the devolution element of the bill that would have brought some sanity to the definition of consent and reduced the sunset clause from five to three years after we leave the EU. Also, the only time that the UK Government could legislate without the permission of the Scottish Parliament would be when it had reason to believe that not so acting would leave it in breach of international obligations—a provision that is already contained in the Scotland Act 1998.
Even now, we seek constructive ways to bring about a solution. We have tried many times to bring some sanity to proceedings, and each time that has been rejected. We have worked closely with the Scottish Government when it has sought to bring parties together, and we will continue to do that. We are available to speak at any time. Today, my colleague Lesley Laird is still attempting to make progress on the matter, but we see such approaches rejected every time.
Why is that? We are not naive; we know that both Governments are putting their narrow party advantage before the national interest. The UK Government is stoking up constitutional conflict, which fits its narrative—sowing division in order to secure the unionist votes. That is the game that is being played; it is as plain as the nose on your face. The SNP, of course, seeks to further that division because it keeps its supporters angry enough to be diverted away from Nicola Sturgeon’s tactical dilemma over a second independence referendum. As the two sides become more shrill in their approach, it becomes ever more evident that that is the game that is being played out.
Nevertheless, we will continue to be constructive. We will continue to support, defend and enhance devolution, because we are the only party here that actually believes in devolution. We will try to assist in finding a way through this mess.
It is good to see that Mr Dornan turned up. I will tell him why—it is because this is a debate that has no motion. It is a talking shop. Why did we not make it a substantive debate? If we had, we could have debated the motion and made a decision, but there will be nothing to vote on at the end of the talking. Mr Dornan was probably not even aware of that.
The mess has been created by the Tory party and exploited by the SNP. If we look at what is happening in the Brexit process, we see that Theresa May has been pushed by Labour to change her position on the customs union, and she changes it by the day. She is also moving on single market alignment. She is weak and vulnerable, so we should continue to pressure her on that issue, too.
In the days and weeks to come, we still have the opportunity to see the real change that we want in Scotland, which is the end of this rotten Tory Government. Let us see a Labour Government for the many, not the few.
Debates without a motion, such as this one, can be good opportunities to explore a new issue and allow free debate across the political spectrum when there is not yet a consensus or clear party positions. However, when the Scottish Government suggested that approach for this debate, I made it clear that I thought it was a mistake.
It was suggested at one point that the debate would offer a chance to have a calm, reflective discussion of the issues, but I do not think that that is terribly likely from some members. I do not believe that it is an adequate response to the constitutional crisis that we find ourselves in. As we prepare to break for the summer recess, we should pass a robust resolution to oppose the UK Government’s actions.
This is an unprecedented situation. The Brexit crisis is bad enough. It is an economic crisis, a political crisis, a democratic crisis and potentially a security crisis for our friends in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Now, as a result of deliberate UK Government choices, it has led to a devolution crisis as well.
The UK Government’s approach is supported in this chamber only by the Conservatives, who stand alone in that position and yet accuse others of breaking the consensus in this Parliament. What an absurd claim.
I have previously argued that the principle of legislative consent needs to be clearly understood and clearly defined. If it is to be meaningful, the word must surely carry the same meaning that it carries in our everyday language. Consent must be freely given or withheld without coercion or threat; it must be capable of being withdrawn at any time; and, most fundamentally, it must be respected. The UK Government has shown contempt for those principles.
Professor Tomkins tells us that the phrase “not normally” is the clinching issue for him. He hangs everything, it seems, on the idea that it will trigger in the current situation. What does the phrase mean? It is perfectly understandable to suggest that, prior to the creation of this Parliament, it was thought necessary to plan for a scenario in which legislation was urgently needed but the new mechanisms were not functioning properly and not capable of meeting that need. However, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are functioning normally.
Let us contrast the situation that we have here with what is happening in Northern Ireland, where there is clear human rights abuse, as was found recently in the legal ruling on abortion rights in Northern Ireland. There is a rising tide of public campaigning and impatience to change that iniquitous situation. There is a moment of opportunity but no functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. Yet, in that context, the UK Government says that it will not legislate on abortion rights—it will not take the responsibility to resolve that human rights abuse—because that is Northern Ireland’s responsibility and it must do that through the Assembly.
Here in Scotland, meanwhile, devolution is functioning normally. Both the Parliament and the Government are operating. There is an emphatic political majority shared across four political parties, and a devolved legislative response to the Brexit crisis is available, having already been agreed overwhelmingly by this Parliament. Yet, in that context, the UK Government has decided to override this Parliament and trigger a never-before-used power to legislate without our consent—in fact, in defiance of an explicit refusal of consent.
In that context, there is no case for our pretending that the principle of legislative consent exists any longer. It has been unilaterally abolished by the UK Government. If the UK Government has any interest in restoring normal relationships between the two Governments and the two Parliaments, there must be a concession on its part. The cabinet secretary’s suggestion that that involves putting the legislative consent principle on to a statutory footing would be one way of doing it. That would be a concession to this Parliament’s legitimacy, and I would welcome a discussion on that.
However, I believe that there also needs to be a concession to Scotland’s national interests, which are being shown such contempt by the UK Government. One way of providing that concession would be to agree that there will be a moment of opportunity in the Brexit crisis to cede at least some control over things such as immigration to allow us to meet Scotland’s economic and social needs in the face of the threat that Brexit poses to our public services, culture and economy as a result of the UK Government’s ideological hostility to people’s freedom to move.
Those two measures—a concession to the Scottish Parliament’s legitimacy and a concession to Scotland’s national interests—would offer some chance to normalise relationships again and move forward. However, I see very little evidence that the UK Government is remotely interested in achieving that.
Westminster is archaic. That is not news. We have the unelected House of Lords—there is a greater debate about this whole issue than the elected House of Commons. One Conservative MP can veto a sensible bill on upskirting with just one shout, not even a contribution to the debate.
What was new was that the Conservatives mishandled the whole affair from beginning to end. They promised that there would be extended debating time in the House of Commons at numerous stages and that it would be inappropriate for the House of Lords to have the final say on the issues. Despite all those promises and David Mundell repeatedly promising that there would be extra time, all that there was was 19 minutes. There is no doubt that that was cack-handed management by the Conservatives, and that started months ago.
I was also disappointed by the SNP’s response. Walking out of the chamber at Prime Minister’s question time was a waste of time, and potentially lost a long debate to explore these very issues. That was grandstanding, and it did not help. Criticising the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party for abstaining on the clause 15 progress that had been made was wrong, too. The SNP said that there was unity in Scotland bar the Conservatives but, in the next breath, it criticised us for breaking that unity. It cannot have it both ways: there is either unity or there is not unity. The SNP needs to be careful about the collaboration and co-operation that it seeks and claims that it has in Scotland.
The whole episode has been marred by macho chest beating on both sides. We need a much more mature approach to resolving disputes.
We have put forward proposals. We put forward proposals to try to get a mature dispute-resolution procedure in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. The SNP Government rejected those proposals. It did not want any other Government in the United Kingdom to have any say on the collaborative arrangements in the United Kingdom; only Scotland’s voice mattered. We should seek genuine partnership in areas of common interest in the United Kingdom. I am in favour of a federal structure because that would embed the co-operation that we all seek in the United Kingdom. I am afraid that I do not support a so-called Scottish veto.
I also do not support—Conservative members need to listen to this—a Westminster diktat. If there is disagreement between different partners in the United Kingdom, Westminster should not have the final say. We need something like a qualified majority voting system and an independent arbiter to bring together the different parties at times of dispute. One party claiming that it should have all the power is not the way to proceed.
That potentially creates a precedent for other areas of co-operation. The UK Government did not bother to consult the Scottish Government or the Scottish Parliament on the industrial strategy for the United Kingdom, but it should have. It should have been required to do so. Such co-operation should have been embedded in the structures of the United Kingdom. That is why there has been a big missed opportunity in a cack-handed process from beginning to end. We saw that coming. The Conservatives were warned about that right at the beginning, but they played right into the SNP’s hands. The whole thing has been one big macho, chest-beating exercise, and everybody in the UK has lost out as a result.
Another big opportunity has been missed in the SNP Government’s inability to get off the fence. I agree with Mike Russell when he talks about the Brexit exercise being a shambles from beginning to end, that we are on a cliff edge and about the potential for economic damage to be done to our country. If that is all the case, why is he not coming off the fence and backing a people’s vote, which would be an opportunity for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal? If it is going to be that bad, why not put the matter to the British people? All the polls show movement towards people wanting to have that final say and to their saying that the Brexit deal is not good enough.
The member is aware—I have made this very clear, and I did so again on Sunday—that I am not unsympathetic towards that, but we need to find a way to ensure that we do not repeat the experience of June 2016 when Scotland voted to stay in the EU but was overruled. That cannot happen again. If the member is willing to discuss the matter on those terms—he is a good liberal; he likes to negotiate, to be positive and to discuss—I am quite sure that we can make progress. I have said as much to him, and I say it again here.
It is uncharacteristic of Mr Russell to be shy and cautious—he is normally out there beating his chest, demanding that the rest of the UK follow exactly what he wants to happen. Why is he not doing that in this case? Why does he not stand up and say that the British people should have the final say on the Brexit deal? As I said, there is movement towards that. Look at the massive protests in London at the weekend, where people were speaking out and demanding a say. Why does he not get off the fence and say something about it?
Mike Russell’s proposed declaration is one big compromise too far. I want to stay in the European Union—I make no bones about that. To accept a compromise of just staying in the single market or the customs union is not good enough. We should scrap the whole thing. Let us have a people’s vote; let us reject the Brexit deal.
We should not be discussing this topic in Parliament today—or ever. We should not be in the position in the first place of having to defend the Scottish Parliament’s powers, but here we are and, like a growing number of people across Scotland, I am angry. I am angry that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will; I am angry that, since the vote and throughout the Brexit process, our Parliament has been repeatedly treated with contempt; and I am angry that a Tory UK Government ignored the expressed will of this Parliament and, in doing so, dismantled the core principles on which the devolution settlement is based.
There is another reason why we should not be in this position today. If we were to take the Tories at their word, which is probably never a good idea, we would be convinced that we are in a partnership of equals. Theresa May told us we had
“A future in which Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England continue to flourish side-by-side as equal partners.”
But then, Brexit, and the Prime Minister stated her vision for working with the devolved Governments during the process. What was her wish? To create a
“relationship built on principles of mutual understanding, consensus and co-operation”.
That led to the establishment of the joint ministerial committee (European Union negotiations).
As a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, I am aware from our sessions with Mike Russell the extent to which those objectives were met, if at all, from a Scottish perspective. He alluded to some of that in his opening speech.
“agendas arrive less than 24 hours before the meeting takes place. When you leave Cardiff to attend a meeting, there is not even a room identified where the meeting is going to happen. Minutes are not produced, so we are unable to track progress against things that have been agreed ... the JMC has been a vehicle for managing and suppressing difficult issues rather than addressing and engaging with them.”
The JMC failed to meet for nine months out of the whole of last year. During that time, papers outlining the UK’s position on a number of areas that were used as a basis for negotiations with the EU were submitted. Some of those papers related solely to devolved areas.
It is hard to reach consensus and co-operation when one side will not come to the table. There was not even a word to the devolved Governments when article 50 was triggered—one would have thought that that was a fairly pivotal moment to discuss with equal partners.
That covers the intergovernmental relations. How about relations with the Scottish Parliament? Despite numerous attempts to contact David Davis, the Brexit minister, and numerous invitations to him to attend the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, we are still waiting. After cancelling three times, Michael Gove is videoconferencing the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee tomorrow.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, was due to appear at the Justice Committee to address our concerns but cancelled, rescheduled and then cancelled again with less than 24 hours’ notice. I give Mr. Mundell his due—he has attended the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee on two previous occasions. On the first occasion, he informed the committee that there was no Scotland-specific Brexit analysis, only for that very same Scotland-specific Brexit analysis to be leaked to BuzzFeed shortly after. Our Secretary of State for Scotland was either deliberately misleading a parliamentary committee or showing complete incompetence, by the very fact that he did not know. I do not know which situation is worse.
That, as with the experience of the JMC, perfectly characterises the UK Government’s attitude towards the devolved Administrations, which culminated in the withdrawal bill debate two weeks ago. It is an attitude of arrogance and no respect. The devolved Administrations have been treated with disdain and ignored.
However, given the power dynamic, I do not think that this could have ended in any other way. In committee, we took evidence from Professor Michael Keating, who told us:
“The last resort is always that the UK Government can get its way, and our knowing that changes the whole dynamic of negotiation ... I do not know of any other system of intergovernmental relations in the world in which that is so comprehensively true.”—[
Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee
, 3 May 2018; c 10-11.]
It was the privilege of my life to be elected to represent my home region in our Scottish Parliament two years ago. I did not stand for election to stand by as the Tories and their UK Government trample over the democratically expressed will of the people in this country and ignore the expressed will of this Parliament. To do that would be a complete dereliction of our duty as elected members. Yet that is exactly what the Tories in Scotland have done.
We have all seen the impact in Scotland when powers rest in a Tory UK Government’s hands. On universal credit, on immigration, on the bedroom tax and on the rape clause, policies have been rolled out regardless of what we say or do here in the Scottish Parliament and have left a string of human catastrophes in their wake.
This is no different—in fact it is worse, because it involves assuming control of the powers that we have, which, more often than not, we have had to use to mitigate the damage that the Tory UK Government is doing across the country. We have been failed by the Secretary of State for Scotland—the man whose sole job is to promote and protect the devolution settlement but who trampled all over the settlement when he walked through that voting lobby. We have been failed by the Scottish Tory MPs and we have been failed by the Tory members of this Parliament.
While the Tories continue to strip our powers away, my party will always continue to do our job, standing up for the people of Scotland and defending the powers of our Parliament.
I want to talk about respect: respect for the people, for Parliaments and for politicians. I believe that we need to act with the decorum and diligence that reflect the office to which we have been elected.
Undoubtedly, constitutional uncertainty has strained respect almost to breaking point, but there is still an opportunity to put the interests of the people first. We must respect democracy. If we are to do that, we must respect the democratic will of the Scottish people, who voted, first, to remain as part of the United Kingdom and then, as part of that single entity, to leave the European Union. That is where we are. We must accept it and move on. I say that to colleagues in Holyrood as fervently as I say it to colleagues in Westminster. We all need to focus on getting the best deal and we all need to leave egos and ideology to student politics.
No, that was voted on not in 1998—I know this because I was not old enough to vote in that referendum—but in 1997. The powers of the devolved Government have been vastly extended by David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, which is something that we should applaud.
We must also show respect for Holyrood, Westminster and the interlinkage between both Parliaments and Governments.
Let me be clear: I am passionate about defending the powers of this Parliament and being a champion of devolution. The SNP is committed to independence—a position that I can respect even if I disagree with it—but the trouble is that the SNP is using Brexit as a weapon to advance the cause of independence, thus showing a lack of respect. Claims of a power grab are completely untrue. Not one power will be grabbed—not one. It is quite the opposite: more than 80 new powers will flood to this Parliament, with many more to come.
Everyone acknowledges that we must agree common frameworks for certain returning powers to ensure the continued smooth operation of the UK internal market. That makes sense, but instead the SNP has been opportunistic and has created needless confrontation and grievance by utilising guerrilla tactics and non-co-operation. SNP MPs claim that they have not been given sufficient time to have their say, but the issue has been debated for 95 hours at Westminster, which is longer than we have debated any bill here at Holyrood.
Mr McMillan should recognise the fact that a whole host of UK ministers are coming to the Scottish Parliament to appear in front of committees; indeed, it is notable that they have done so over the past few years.
Furthermore, members of this Parliament must recognise that we have a fixed parliamentary business schedule, while Westminster’s system is vastly different as regards decision time and how and when progress is made. SNP members must recognise and respect each system before making such calls. However, it is no wonder that they make those calls, because their Westminster colleagues showed a complete lack of respect for their chamber by deciding not to ask questions on behalf of their constituents when they staged a humiliating walkout at Prime Minister’s question time. Just last night, the farce continued, with SNP MPs voting against up to 16,000 jobs coming to Scotland.
We must respect one another as politicians. I respect the fact that the SNP has attempted to take some of the heat out of the argument by setting up the debate as it has done today. I urge moderates in that party to calm their more tribal colleagues. It was disappointing to see Ian Blackford resurrect the nastiness of his past to attack the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, in what can only be described as an appalling and ill-judged tirade.
Looking to the future, this Parliament is about to gain control of a raft of new powers. Our time and energy should be spent on exploring how best to use them to drive Scotland forward. The impasse must end. In the Brexit process there is no room for anything other than the national interest and respect between Parliaments and politicians.
I begin by picking up on Maurice Golden’s point in which he said that the Scottish Government and the SNP are weaponising the issue of Brexit to promote the case for Scottish independence. The fact that we are having to have this debate today promotes that case. However, the reason why we have to have the debate in the first place is that the Conservative Party is using Brexit to attack Scottish devolution.
I will answer the point. We are debating the potential for Scotland to lose 111 powers—if not more—because the Tories are taking the power to legislate on devolved issues without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
According to the Conservative Party, there are now two types of devolved powers: those that we enjoy exercising in this Parliament at the moment; and those that will come back from Brussels but should somehow stay at Westminster or in London. It is as though there are perhaps different types of fishing powers, for example—some that will come back from Brussels and some that will stay with the Scottish Parliament. There are not: there are devolved powers and reserved powers. Fishing powers are devolved, whether they come from Brussels or have been here since 1999. Once those from Brussels come to the UK, they meet the Scotland Act 1998 and devolution. Therefore, we are having this debate because the Conservative Party wants to re-reserve powers that should be exercised in this Parliament. If I get the chance later, I will come on to why that is such an important issue, and the Conservatives’ motivations for that approach.
The scenes that we have witnessed in Westminster over the past week or two just widen the gulf between that institution and the people of Scotland. It is no wonder that an official statistics publication that has just been published in the past 24 hours or so shows that 61 per cent of Scots trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests, and 20 per cent trusted the UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests. That is an enormous gulf. The publication goes on to say that, whereas nearly three-quarters, or 74 per cent, of people said that the Scottish Government should have the most influence over the way in which Scotland is run, 15 per cent said that the UK Government should have the most influence over how Scotland is run. I can see all the Conservative members looking down at their desks, but those are fundamental points.
The Conservative Party at Westminster is taking powers away from the Parliament that people trust and passing them into the remit of the Parliament that the people of Scotland have less trust in. They are going against the grain of Scottish democracy and the will of the Scottish people. I will come on to their motivations for doing that shortly.
What we are witnessing in Westminster is not just a perception of the gulf widening between Scotland and Westminster, but actual reality. I was surprised that other people were surprised when the minister Steve Brine got to his feet after the emergency devolution debate and said that he was glad that there was a debate on devolution because it gave him time to go and watch the England match. I was surprised that other people were surprised by that comment because it is just a fact of life that that is the attitude of most Westminster politicians who do not represent a Scottish constituency, particularly the Conservative members in the UK Parliament.
When I was in the Cabinet and was negotiating with UK ministers and with Brussels, we had to have regular meetings—if we could persuade the UK ministers to attend them. The body language of the UK ministers always showed that they would much rather be out at the fine restaurants in Brussels than have to sit down and discuss issues with ministers from the devolved Administrations. When we had regular meetings at Whitehall in London with UK ministers, their body language showed that they were ticking a box and would much rather be elsewhere—perhaps getting their teeth pulled—than have to find time in their diaries to discuss issues with ministers from the devolved Administrations.
As has been shown again at Westminster over the past couple of weeks, Scotland is simply not a priority for many of the Westminster politicians or for the Conservative Party. At best, devolution is a thorn in their side, and that is simply the fact of the matter. I absolutely congratulate the SNP group at Westminster on walking out of the House of Commons, because sometimes we have to take a stand if people are not listening to us. That is the problem at the heart of the matter: at the moment, Westminster is not listening to Scotland.
Members may have noticed the stand outside the chamber hosted by the charity Listen Well Scotland. I am delighted that two of my constituents are there—Alana Smith and Kayleigh Dalgarno from Keith grammar school are supporting the charity in Parliament today. Ironically, the charity’s leaflet is something that we should send to the Westminster politicians, the Conservative Party and the Conservative UK Government. It is about a training programme on how to listen—I think that the Scottish Government should pay for the Westminster Government to go on it. The leaflet states:
“Within us all there is a need to:
Listen Well Scotland is a very useful charity, because it helps people with mental illness—not just young people but other people. Listening is also important in the political world and for politicians, and at the moment there is no respect between the UK Government and the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives should start listening. If they do not listen, it will come back to haunt them at the next Scottish election. It is very important to start listening.
I agree with Maurice Golden’s call for respect in the debate, but we cannot be selective about what aspects of the debate we are prepared to respect. Lest we forget, the Brexit two-year anniversary has come around. It has been the biggest single decision affecting our domestic interests in most people’s lives, and we still do not really know what it holds in store. The men and women leading us out of Europe and its agreements and treaties spend their days falling out over whether a hardline Brexit is enough, or micromanaging the negotiations that Theresa May is meant to be leading.
Only this week, Jeremy Hunt criticised Airbus for saying that it might leave Britain, and Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has criticised him for commenting at all, and the Prime Minister has had to intervene between feuding ministers.
We have had the starkest warnings yet from major manufacturers. BMW made a U-turn today, but others have said that they might leave Britain if no agreement is in place for their industries.
Despite all that, as a remainer I have agreed to honour the referendum’s outcome, which I respect. However, like most people, I disagree with the Tory party’s antics in leading us out of Europe, and I do not agree to the devolution settlement being undermined in that process.
“I hang my head to think that we have somehow dropped the ball.”—[
, 16 January 2018; Vol 634, c 821.]
We have also heard that Paul Masterton said strongly that he
“would not allow legislation to pass that undermined ... the devolution settlement”.—[
House of Commons
, 4 December 2017; Vol 632, c 729.]
The clever words of Murdo Fraser, who asked Mike Russell to name a single power that is currently exercised that will be removed, ignore the fact that the principal model of the devolution agreement is that such powers are not reserved. All the powers that are vested in the European Union by dint of our membership of the EU are not reserved to Westminster, so they should come back to Scotland in the first instance. As Patrick Harvie said, if the UK Government wanted to control all the powers that are vested in the EU, that should have been discussed during the passage of a previous Scotland Bill.
The people of Scotland also voted in a Scottish referendum, which must be respected. I agree that the UK interest in the internal market should be respected, but that should involve Scotland being an equal partner and not being dictated to by the UK Government.
How serious is the power grab? As someone who supported the devolution settlement and worked in its early days, I believe that the power grab is pretty serious. It will undermine the Scotland Act 1998 and the devolution arrangements, which are nearly 20 years old, by preventing the Parliament from legislating in areas that it was agreed that the Parliament would absolutely control.
What Wales does in reaching an agreement is a matter for the Welsh; that is what devolution is about. However, judging whether the devolution settlement has been adhered to is a matter for the Scottish Parliament.
The way in which Brexit has been handled between Governments has created unnecessary internal battles. Dragging Lord Sewel into a discussion about what he really meant by the Sewel convention does not take us anywhere, and meddling with the principles of the Scotland Act 1998 does the Tory party no service. Is that the level of debate that anyone on any side hopes for as we try to manage the Brexit situation?
We have had all that, and we do not even know what our future trade arrangements will consist of. We do not know what the consequences of Brexit will be for ordinary people. We do not know what the immigration model will look like or how it will serve Scotland’s interests. I worry about the impact of Brexit on ordinary people’s lives.
How seriously we take the power grab is fundamental. The Labour Party brought devolution, which was endorsed by the Scottish people. The principle is important, and every member of the Parliament should be prepared to stand up for it. I will not stand by and see the devolution settlement undermined in any way. I am no nationalist and I am unlikely ever to vote yes in an independence referendum, but if Tory members want to serve the interests of those who believe in the union, they must protect the devolution settlement.
There are some things that we take for granted and which are part of our world view, until something happens to shake that perception—something that clearly demonstrates that what we thought were solid foundations can crumble beneath our feet. That is the situation that we find ourselves in with respect to the devolution settlement. The idea that the views of the people of Scotland matter has been challenged like never before, for a reason that is not of our making—to decide the outcome of a civil war in the Tory party.
Let us be clear about what the people of Scotland think; 61 per cent trust the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests—three times as many as trust the UK Government. Most people think that the Scottish Government has more influence over how Scotland is run than the UK Government does and fully 74 per cent think that the Scottish Government should have the most influence over how Scotland is run—five times the number of people who think the same about the UK Government.
That is because, when it gets right down to it, devolution matters to the people of Scotland. Meanwhile, as the Brexit bus hurtles towards the cliff edge of impending economic catastrophe, we have a UK Cabinet who cannot agree among themselves on where they want to go and a foreign secretary who is the laughing stock of his peers. His boss cannot remove him from post for fear of the whole rotten edifice coming tumbling down and finding herself buried in the rubble. They are buying time while the economy burns.
Businesses are leaving these shores, fearful of the illiteracy of a hard Brexit, or worse, no deal at all. Meanwhile, all that Boris can do is to tell those businesses to go forth and multiply. We have a Secretary of State for Scotland who promised that devolution would be protected but failed to deliver, stitched up by his own side, and instead of resigning and apologising, he now confesses all: that Scotland is simply a part, not a partner. He is a man who fails to understand the meaning of the word “consent”—a man with no credibility left.
Meanwhile, others fail to understand why Scotland should have a say. We have a UK Government minister telling us that she would not grant any ability to the Scottish Government that she would not also be granting to Lincolnshire County Council. We have a Scottish Tory MP making it clear on Twitter that
“The UK Parliament can legislate for the whole UK. No ifs, no buts.”
We have a Tory party that has never believed in devolution, was dragged into it by the will of the people and is forever looking for an excuse to clip the wings of this Parliament, which is elected by the people of Scotland. Feel the love, Scotland.
If there is one thing that the events of the past weeks have taught us—where words are redefined to make their meanings suit the ambitions of the UK Government of the day, where the meaning of “consent” is expanded to include precisely the opposite, where “normal” is redefined to mean anything that the current UK Government says that it means—it is that power devolved is indeed power retained.
The Sewel convention—the fig leaf that was supposed to protect the devolution settlement from the realpolitik of Westminster—has been cast aside. Let us be clear why this is the case. The Scottish Parliament, and the will of the Scottish people, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of future trade deals that the UK will strive to reach, however vainly, with Trump’s America and others—be that to put at risk our environment, our food standards, or indeed our health service.
When Gordon Brown is brought out to defend the union, we know that the stakes are getting high. The last time that happened, lest we forget, was in the run-up to the vote in 2014. The Broon is being deployed much earlier this time, but the context is oh so different. Not only is “the vow” history, its promises, cobbled together in a last-minute panic, lie in ruins, their credibility shattered. The very architect of the vow has moved to yes. Gordon Brown is still preaching a federal solution but now we see that that solution lies in tatters because the reality is that in a country with no proper constitution, there is only one rule—
Because, as Mr Findlay well knows, things have changed. That is precisely why we are here debating today. Things have changed and things have moved on and the people have the right to decide, based on the general understanding that Brexit is happening.
In a country with no proper constitution, there is only one rule—that Westminster is sovereign. Nothing else matters, and everything else is illusion. In that context, where no Westminster Parliament can bind the hands of another, where 85 per cent of the population and the power lie in one part of this disunited kingdom, there is no hope at all for a truly federalist solution.
This is where we find ourselves today. The UK Government, through its obsessions elsewhere, has ripped away the middle ground. The truth is laid bare. Power devolved is power retained. With trust destroyed, and the mechanisms that underpin devolution shown to be worthless, there is no standing still. The choice before us is to go forward or to go backwards. The people of Scotland will make that choice, and given those options, there is only one outcome.
There was a time in my political journey, quite some time ago, when I was sceptical about the existence of a Scottish Parliament. Although that scepticism was partly attributed to the fact that I had some sympathy with those who feared that devolution would be a stepping stone to independence, my main concerns were much more pragmatic and were to do with Scotland’s economic performance.
I had witnessed what had happened to the UK and world economies in the 1970s, so my no vote in 1979 was based on my fears that devolution could result in the economic fragmentation of the UK, rather than on any opposition to a Scottish Parliament per se. However, I fully appreciated that there were issues with the status quo and that there was a logical argument to be made for devolution. Therefore, I became interested in what conditions would be necessary to convince a sceptical public that there should be a move away from that status quo.
We now know that, of course. Devolution’s failure in the 1970s, not just in Scotland, rested on the fact that it was seen to be designed by remote politicians in the corridors of power. Now, despite what some people argue, it is seen to be owned by the people of Scotland. That was enshrined in the principle of the Edinburgh agreement, which was signed jointly by David Cameron and Alex Salmond. Over time, there has been a radical movement away from devolution being debated only in the corridors of power to its being owned by the Scottish people. In my view, that is a good thing.
I believe that most Scots are comfortable with devolution. Despite all the huffing and puffing among politicians—there is certainly plenty of that—deep down, most people are comfortable with that dual identity, because there is a philosophical belief that we are stronger together. Why? I think that it is because the Scots want the best of both worlds. They want enhanced devolution, which, as time has gone on, is exactly what they have been getting.
People are comfortable with the Scottish Parliament and they want it to work well in the context of a stronger United Kingdom in which both Governments work together. Those Governments did that in the Scotland Act 2012, which gave new powers over income tax, stamp duty, landfill tax, borrowing and more; in the Scotland Act 2016, which gave full devolution of the Crown estate and transport policing and a new benefits structure; and in the fiscal framework. There is a whole raft of examples in recent times, whether involving city deals, welfare powers, bottle deposit schemes, exports or immunisation, of the two Governments having worked effectively together—sometimes, it has to be said, at the request of the SNP—to ensure a smooth transition to legislative competence for Holyrood.
People in Scotland do not want divisive and intolerant politics, the constant bitter and very public battles between politicians or the on-going uncertainty with constitutional wrangles. They rightly see devolution as a process and not as a single event. It is a process of gaining increasing constitutional maturity and stability and one in which they can have growing and ultimate trust. That is what I believe the vast majority of people in Scotland actually want, and it is the basis of what changed my mind, a long time ago, when I was sceptical about the existence of this place. I have come to see that I was perhaps misguided. I now feel that devolution is very much the right approach and one that not only enhances the nation of Scotland but allows us to be comfortable in our own skins.
The Parliament has grown in maturity. I am one of the members who have been here for some time and I value the institution, despite the fact that I have many political differences with a lot of people across the chamber. I value what the institution stands for, what it has become and what I believe it can be in the future. For that reason alone, we should always be very careful about the language that we use in a constitutional debate and remember that we are here because of what the people demand.
This debate on protecting the powers of the Parliament is in stark contrast to the time that was afforded at Westminster to the same issue. The 1998 devolution settlement, which bestowed legislative powers on the Parliament, is based on the principle that every policy area is automatically devolved unless it is explicitly reserved by the UK Government, and it is on that foundational principle that the Scottish Parliament has proceeded.
The late Donald Dewar described the Scottish Parliament as:
“the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal.”
Our attendance in the chamber as members of the Parliament recognises that and confirms our belief that Scotland has the ability to govern itself, to act on the Scottish people’s priorities and to enact change and make progress for their benefit.
Therefore, it is a great shame that, nearly 20 years on, we are called on to defend the Scottish Parliament’s powers and protect the devolution settlement. Instead of celebrating the result of that referendum and the upcoming anniversary of the Parliament’s re-establishment, we must act in the face of the UK Government, which has fundamentally undermined the devolution settlement.
Over the past 20 years, the Parliament has accomplished a great deal for the people of Scotland. Scottish values run through this place like lines through marble and are reflected back at us in the changes that have been made here. In its first session, the Parliament scrapped tuition fees, thereby widening access to tertiary education for all and ensuring that students were not saddled with crippling debt because of them. It also undertook land reform, introducing the right to roam, and was the first Administration in the UK to limit the hunting of foxes.
In 2005, Scotland led the UK again in introducing the ban on smoking indoors, thereby putting the health of its citizens first. Further powers that were devolved in 2012 and 2016 have enabled the SNP Government to mitigate the worst of the UK Government’s welfare cuts and freezes, helping to keep many people across Scotland out of poverty.
Ash Denham might just be coming to this but, in the current session, thanks to my friend James Kelly, who is sitting next to me, the Parliament has also reversed one of the most illiberal pieces of legislation that it has passed by repealing the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.
The member is entitled to that view, but I do not share it.
We enforce effective bans on onshore drilling, thereby protecting the Scottish environment. We have also scrapped prescription charges, ensuring that individuals do not need to choose between food and medicine, and we have set new tax bands, creating the most progressive tax system in the UK to support some of the best public services in the UK.
We have provided a baby box for every new child that is born in Scotland. That policy is not about cardboard boxes or thermometers but tells every child that is born in Scotland that they are ours, that we care about them and that we want the absolute best for them.
We have invested in Scotland’s infrastructure and transport links to build a Scotland that is for the future, and we have introduced minimum unit pricing to tackle Scotland’s difficult relationship with alcohol—again, leading the world in progressive policies.
All of that has been possible because of the decisions that we have been able to make only because of devolution. They are Scottish solutions for Scotland. As a result, we see a different, more confident and more self-assured Scotland.
Bringing political decision making about Scotland into Scotland has resulted in a resurgence of trust in politics, and, after 20 years, there is no wish to go back. More than 70 per cent of Scots trust the Scottish Government. That figure is the highest since the Parliament was established, and it is three times the level of trust there is in the UK Government. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Scots believe that a Scottish Government should have the most influence over the way in which Scotland is run.
We must and we will trust that the Scottish electorate elected the Government that it wanted to deliver for Scotland. That means defending the Parliament’s powers against any efforts to undermine them.
When I questioned the Secretary of State for Scotland over his Government’s wish casually to derail devolution, he said to me, “Scotland ... has two Parliaments.” However, the Scottish people have only one Parliament that acts in their interests. This Parliament and devolution belong to the Scottish people and it is the duty of every member in the chamber to protect its powers. The Scottish Parliament is worth protecting and worth standing up for.
When a million of our fellow Scots voted to leave the European Union, they did so in the knowledge that powers that were currently held in Brussels would come back to the UK and that, for the Scottish Government, that would mean a host of powers coming here. For some of us, that was an attractive proposition. For me, it was not the main reason for voting to leave—that came down to a simple matter of democratic accountability—but it was an added bonus. For many nationalists, such as Alex Neil, voting for Brexit was the only logical course to take if they really wanted this Parliament to have more control over affairs in Scotland. Grumbling about powers being held at Westminster but being over the moon about their being held in Brussels was and is illogical and hypocritical.
The UK voted to leave the EU, and that is what is going to happen. It is incumbent on all parts of the UK to ensure that Brexit works. Mature politicians would sit down and do the deals that are necessary. Mature politicians do not stamp their feet, throw their toys out of the pram and scream, “I will never agree with you.” However, that is where we are now. We have had the staged walkout in the Commons, led by an appalling, boorish character, shamefully applauded by the First Minister. We have had vicious attacks on the Secretary of State for Scotland, who, whatever others might think of his politics, is a thoroughly decent man who does not deserve such insults. Further, we now have Michael Russell saying that this Parliament will not give consent to any more Brexit-related legislation. Where does that leave the parliamentary scrutiny process?
I agree with much of what the member has said, but does he acknowledge that the Conservative Government has mismanaged the process from the beginning? Does he have any regrets about any of that?
I have no regrets, but I have some ideas, which I am coming to.
All of that has happened because the First Minister believes that those tactics will fire up grievance among Scots. She is making Mr Russell look stupid—he is not stupid—and she looks like the grudgemeister that she is. Worst of all, Scotland looks to the outside world like a childish nation of impudents, and we are not that.
So, what of this power grab? This Parliament is not losing any powers—SNP members have not been able to name any—it is gaining lots of them. Because we are part of the UK, common frameworks are needed. There are just 24 areas where agreement needs to be reached. Sensible heads would be able to do that—Mr Russell would be able to do that but, when he is being harangued from Bute House, his hands are tied. There is no power grab. If there is a constitutional crisis, it is one that is entirely of Nicola Sturgeon’s making.
Last week, I represented this Parliament at the latest meeting of the interparliamentary forum on Brexit. Unfortunately, Bruce Crawford could not be there as a counterbalance, as his flight never took off. There is an appetite for cross-parliamentary working. We had a very interesting discussion with the Institute for Government on how devolution might work after Brexit. Of course, all Governments of the UK have to want devolution to work. Sadly, this one does not, and the poor souls from the Institute for Government had rather overlooked that fact.
The forum previously recognised that the current system of intergovernmental relations is not fit for purpose and is in urgent need of substantial reform. Last week, we discussed the need for intergovernmental mechanisms for UK common frameworks and the importance of effective scrutiny of those processes. We discussed a number of ideas, such as an overhaul of the JMC structures; formalising intergovernmental relations mechanisms; having the reformed JMCs act as the forum for discussion and decision making on common frameworks; clearly setting out decision-making structures for JMCs; establishing clear arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny of intergovernmental relations mechanisms; and encouraging interparliamentary working. Those are the kind of serious proposals that we should be discussing, but we are not. Instead, we are stuck in a trumped-up grievance groundhog day.
It is time for the SNP to get on with the serious business of government. It is time for the SNP to grow up.
“We have a right, with all our separate national characteristics, to manage our own affairs in our own way.”
He went on to say that that
“might sound like a line from Yes Scotland’s latest campaign leaflet, but it was actually said over a century ago.
In 1913, William Cowan presented a successful Scottish home rule bill to Westminster, but the outbreak of World War One prevented the creation of a strong Scottish parliament which could have completely changed Scotland’s modern history.”
So, 105 years ago, we could have had that home rule, that near federalism, and the most powerful of all devolved Parliaments.
Summing up on his home rule bill, William Cowan said:
“I should like in conclusion to say a few words on some of the details of the measure I am asking the House to read a second time. The Government of Scotland Bill is introduced on the footing that it represents a further instalment of the Government's policy of devolution. It would be easy to give evidence that this is the Government’s policy. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said so, and other Members of the Government have made similar statements. We are proposing this Bill as a further instalment of that policy. The powers delegated to subordinate Legislatures under a federal system are those at which we must aim; those powers must be similar, if not identical.”—[
, 30 May 1913; Vol 53, c 479.]
Let us p edal forward 86 years to 1999, when Donald Dewar proudly proclaimed:
“There shall be a Scottish Parliament.”
From that day on we have taken up our role and right to make some decisions for ourselves—decisions that we have never wanted to give back, but decisions and powers that we have wanted and successfully extended. They are decisions that mean Scottish resolutions for Scottish issues—many of which have seriously deviated from the path of our neighbours. We have had commissions such as the Calman and Smith commissions, all of which have spoken to and, in limited ways, advanced the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
I have seen no, or very little, expression of that from people who want to end the powers of the Scottish Parliament. William Cowan said the same in his summing up. He also said:
“you cannot nowadays take up a Scottish newspaper with very much chance of finding no reference to this burning question. I do not care who goes to Scotland to-day, if he speaks to anybody, if he goes anywhere, if he consults the people, he will find that ... this is the most absorbing political topic in Scotland.”—[
House of Commons
, 30 May 1913; Vol 53, c 474.]
That was true 105 years ago and it is true today. The majority of the Scottish people prefer decisions about Scotland to be made in Scotland by their democratically elected Scottish Parliament, irrespective of what political colour the Government might be.
If Oliver Mundell were to look at the functioning of the Treaty on European Union he would know that all 27 nations are independent and have the choice to do whatever they like. They do not give sovereignty back to Brussels.
We had 105 years of stuttering progress, but what do we see now? We see 19 minutes—yes, just 19 minutes, or 1,140 seconds—having been dedicated to Scotland:
1,140 seconds to wipe away all that progress, and a debate that included a UK minister who has no understanding of, and very little interest in, the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
That is why I welcome the debate without a motion or a question being put because, sadly, any question now from the Scottish Parliament will be wiped away by Tories in London demonstrating their deep and utter contempt for the Scottish people and their Parliament.
We have dedicated a whole afternoon to this debate. Compare that with the 1,140 seconds of contempt from Westminster, which suggests, “Scotland—know your place”. [
.] The chuntering from the sidelines proves my point.
Lord Steel of Aikwood, the former Presiding Officer here at Holyrood, told his fellow lords that the UK Government’s flagship Brexit bill “dispensed with” the powers of the Scottish Parliament and cut across the devolved settlement. I agree with him. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to our constituents to ensure that neither our voices nor our powers are dispensed with. Our voices will be heard here today and will ring out to Westminster. Scotland will not be silenced.
For my generation, the conception and realisation of this institution—our Scottish Parliament—heralded the beginning of a more positive era for our country, and an exciting new chapter in our nation’s story. Since 1997, 1998 and 1999, when I watched Donald Dewar, Winnie Ewing and others turn a new page in Scotland’s democratic story, we have, as a country, achieved so much together for the common good that simply would not have happened without devolution.
Devolution has delivered progressive and pioneering new policies. Across political parties and society, we have worked together to enhance the public services that we value and that support the most vulnerable people in our communities. We have developed our economy where we have the responsibility and power to do so, and we have protected our environment. We have made Scotland fairer and more successful, despite imposed austerity and challenging global events.
So much has been achieved since I was a boy, in 1999. I think about that in the context of this being the year of young people, and in relation to the young people who are growing up in Scotland today for whom this Parliament is part of their normality. When I speak to school groups here in Parliament and in my constituency, I really feel that. I am sure that it is the same for other MSPs.
In this time of unprecedented flux and ever higher Brexit-driven uncertainty, how we protect and enhance the strength of Scotland’s Parliament matters to us all. It matters not just in the here and now: it matters, too, for future generations. We must move forwards and not backwards, which is why the debate about the scenario that we are in, and time being made for it, are so important, because the UK Government’s EU withdrawal act seeks to take us backwards. The Westminster bill on the effect of Brexit on devolved powers, which was passed in the House of Commons with very little debate, includes what professor of public law Aileen McHarg called
“a radical re-reading of the Sewel Convention which would seriously undermine the protection it offers for devolved autonomy.”
Ben Macpherson has eloquently defended devolution, saying that it has done really effective things for Scotland since 1999. However, is not it true that he does not want devolution to succeed, because he wants to end it? I give him credit for that, because that is what he wants to do, but will he make that clear?
I was reluctant to take Mike Rumbles’s intervention, because I expected the same sort of debasing intervention that has been made on other members. While we are in the devolved framework, we all want to protect and enhance devolution. Until the Scottish people, through their sovereign right, vote for independence, we in the SNP will proudly and strongly stand up for the powers of this devolved Parliament.
I will get back on to the debate in the House of Commons, because my time is limited. When consent for the UK Government’s bill was not granted by this Parliament on 15 May by 93 votes to 30, which was across parties, the withdrawal bill should not have progressed in Westminster in its existing form. Instead, the UK Government went back on its word and ignored the Scottish Parliament and, by extension, the Scottish people. That should not have come as a surprise to us because, as others have said, since the EU referendum the UK Government has shown a lack of respect to the Scottish Parliament by cancelling meetings and not putting up ministers to appear before committees, despite the fact that Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the EU.
Scotland wants more powers. It is on a journey of increasing confidence; it does not want more Westminster interference or oversight, which is what the UK Government’s withdrawal act proposes. In the undemocratic and highly disrespectful way in which it has acted, Westminster has refused to listen to the people of Scotland. Westminster is trying to ignore Scotland. We will not accept that, nor will the people of Scotland, and they will not forget the attempts that have been made to dampen their voices and ignore their preferences.
There is no doubt that this afternoon’s debate, despite the SNP’s attempts to hype it up, has had an element of the last week of term about it. Patrick Harvie was right to pinpoint the fact that a debate without a motion was unlikely to shed much further light on the situation, and that has been very much the case.
Although the Tories have packed their benches, there is no doubt that they will have sat uncomfortably through another afternoon of debate on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, in which we have shed light on the fact that it was—
Not at this point.
It was the Tories who created the situation that we face with Brexit. We should not forget that it was David Cameron who called a referendum in 2016 in order to placate the right wing of the Tory party, arrogantly thinking that he could win it for remain, but that backfired on him. As well as costing him his career, it has been chaotic and disastrous for the country. Two years down the line, we still face massive uncertainty, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK, with regard to our relationship with the European Union and the impact on the economy. That has been underlined by the Tories’ mishandling of the withdrawal bill, the legislative consent memorandum and the issue of consequential powers for the Scottish Parliament. Before Christmas, Tory members told us confidently that a deal would be reached and the situation would be resolved, but when it came down to it, as Neil Findlay pointed out, David Mundell did not even table any amendments in the House of Commons. The Tories have failed the country on that.
It has been interesting to listen to the speeches of SNP members such as those great defenders of devolution Ash Denham and Ben Macpherson, but it should be remembered that in 1997 the SNP was somewhat reluctant—certainly in the initial stages of the process—to support devolution.
He has come all the way from Bute house.
Mr Swinney and his colleagues should not forget that, in 2014, he and his colleagues wanted to smash the devolution settlement and tear it up altogether.
I am certainly going to educate Mr Kelly in a moment. I was a very enthusiastic member of Parliament who voted for the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997 and the Scotland Act 1998. I am very proud of the fact that I used my parliamentary voting strength to support the establishment of this Parliament. In the light of that educative contribution from me, will Mr Kelly change his remarks?
No, thank you.
My final point on the debate is that there is a fundamental issue for Parliament. I get the fact that it is very important to consider Brexit, and there have been occasions over the past eight months when Parliament has had to look at its legislative consequences. However, as Neil Findlay pointed out, over the past eight months this Parliament has not spent enough time looking at the fundamental issues for which we were sent here to represent people.
In the health service, for example, there continues to be a growing GP crisis. Yesterday, the British Medical Association told us that the national health service is in a worse state now than it was a year ago. The housing waiting lists continue to stand at 150,000 and we continue to have a housing crisis. Only this afternoon, we had a climbdown from Mr Swinney, who was not able to publish the education bill, and there are real issues about access to university for kids from underprivileged areas and areas of social deprivation. There are also the issues with rail, which mean that people in Scotland are on occasion not able to get to their work on time because the train services are not working properly.
The Government might want to reflect, as it puts its new team together and when it comes back after the summer, that what we need in Parliament is more meaningful debates about the fundamental issues that affect people’s lives and less of the grandstanding that we have seen from the SNP benches this afternoon.
People are now heading off for the summer recess, some of them to new jobs and others losing their jobs. Let us accept our responsibilities as parliamentarians and come back seriously committed to making the differences to people’s lives in Scotland, rather than to the posturing that we have seen from some this afternoon.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I start on a note of agreement with what James Kelly just said about this debate. We had hoped for a helpful and enlightening debate, but after two and a bit hours I do not think that we are any further forward than when we started. All that we have heard from the SNP members this afternoon is the same as we have heard from them here and at Westminster over the past few weeks. It is simply sound and fury, with their near hysterical rhetoric about power grabs demolishing devolution. To quote a famous Scottish king, in the words of Shakespeare, it is
“sound and fury,
When is a power grab not a power grab? When no powers are being grabbed. The simple fact is that, when we cut through all the bluster, noise and hyperbole, not one person in the SNP can give us a single example of a power being removed from this Scottish Parliament.
Mr Harvie wants to give an answer on behalf of the SNP. Mr Stevenson will give me the answer. I ask him to name one power exercised by this Parliament today that will be removed.
Sit down, Mr Harvie.
There is nothing that this Parliament is doing today that it will not be able to do after the passage of the EU withdrawal bill at Westminster. [
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
That is because the bill makes it perfectly clear that it deals with EU retained law—in other words, laws that are currently dealt with in Brussels, and those alone. Nothing that this Parliament does today is affected.
The Scottish Government was concerned, quite rightly, about some 111 powers that were covered in the EU withdrawal bill. Of those, more than 80 are being devolved immediately. That is a power bonanza by any definition. Of the remaining 24, there will be UK-wide common frameworks, which it is widely agreed are necessary. Trade bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation Scotland, the Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Bakers, NFU Scotland and the Federation of Small Businesses have all recognised that common frameworks across the UK are essential to protect the integrity of the single domestic market in the UK—a market that, as Adam Tomkins reminded us, is four times more important to Scottish business than is the EU single market.
I will not at the moment.
The real issue of contention is whether the Scottish Government and indeed the other devolved Administrations should be given a right of veto over the terms of the common frameworks, which will apply across the United Kingdom. The UK Government’s view is that they should be reached by discussion and consultation and that neither the Scottish Government nor any other Government should be given a right of veto.
Nor should we forget that not just the 24 powers that are subject to common frameworks but all of the 111 powers are powers that the SNP does not want to be exercised here at all. It wants every one of them to be returned to Brussels, as Graham Simpson reminded us. Powers over the environment, agriculture and fishing would be returned to Brussels at the first opportunity. That is the real power grab—taking away powers that Scotland should have and giving them back to the EU.
The member sits, as I do, on the Finance and Constitution Committee. We have spent hours taking evidence from expert witnesses about the common frameworks and intergovernmental relations, and not one of them, at any point, said that clause 11, which is now section 15, was necessary in order to agree common frameworks. Can the member explain why it had to be done in that way when it was completely unnecessary?
It is entirely reasonable for the United Kingdom Government to say that it is not going to give a right of veto to the Scottish Government, or to the Governments of Wales or Northern Ireland, over the terms of common frameworks. External bodies, those who are interested in trade, farmers and fishermen want common frameworks to be set up and established. They do not want them to become political playthings, which is what the SNP is trying to turn them into.
No, thank you.
We heard a lot in the debate about the Sewel convention, so it is worth reminding ourselves what the author of that convention, Lord Sewel, has had to say about the current situation. If anyone has an opinion on the matter that is worth listening to, it is surely the man who gave his name to the convention that the SNP is so exercised about. What he said, in an interview with the BBC, is that this is not a power grab. He went on to say:
“It’s not a constitutional crisis.”
However, let us listen not just to Lord Sewel. Let us listen to those who are connected to the SNP, because even the former SNP depute leader Jim Sillars—[
.] They do not want to hear from him now, do they, Presiding Officer? Even Jim Sillars could not have been clearer when he wrote this in
“Let me be blunt: the stand-off between Holyrood and Westminster is primarily the fault of Nicola Sturgeon ... Castigating the Tories for a ‘power grab’ of repatriated powers, while acting like a fifth column for the EU in Scotland, has left the SNP in the ludicrous position of demanding powers from Theresa May that Nicola Sturgeon promises an independent Scotland will hand back to Jean-Claude Juncker.”
Jim Sillars got it right, and SNP members should listen to him. This is all about a grievance agenda from the SNP, stoking up constitutional tensions with Westminster, and trying to drive up support for independence and a second independence referendum.
We do not need to debate protecting devolution, because devolution is not under threat. It is being strengthened with more than 80 new powers coming to the Parliament. We would think that the SNP would welcome that. As Jim Sillars has stated, those are the powers that the SNP wants to send straight back to Brussels.
In the meantime, the Conservatives will get on with the job of strengthening devolution and strengthening the powers of the Parliament.
In a considered contribution, Liz Smith reminded us of the journey of devolution. That journey is still going on. A Conservative Government has already delivered fiscal devolution, control over income tax, control over landfill tax, and control over the land and buildings transaction tax. The assignation of VAT is to come shortly. A Conservative Government has delivered the devolution of social security—a bill on that was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament just a few weeks ago—and it is now delivering an additional 80 new powers over forestry, carbon capture and franchise legislation, to name but a few things. Devolution is not under threat; it is being enhanced, and it is time that the SNP dropped its ludicrous rhetoric—its
“sound and fury,
I remind Mr Fraser and other members that it is the Presiding Officer’s job to tell people to sit down, and I remind everyone that there should be courtesy to fellow members at all times.
When I listened to some of the Tory contributions in particular, they confirmed the impression that I have had for some time in dealing with UK ministers that the Tories no longer live in the same world that the rest of us live in; rather, they live in a completely artificial but rather noisy world in which they simply assert things and believe them to be true. The most astonishing assertion this afternoon came from Adam Tomkins. Who tore up the constitutional settlement? According to Adam Tomkins, it was not the Tories; it was me. I did that by using my special powers.
Neil Findlay knew that. I have special powers because I managed to destroy the constitutional settlement just by using a six-letter word in the chamber. According to Adam Tomkins, my using the word “normal” suspended the Sewel convention.
I was completely unaware that I have those overwhelming special magical powers that influence the UK Government in that way. We are heading towards the recess. I intend to use a substantial part of the time during the recess flexing my muscles and learning how to use those powers. If I can do that to magic away the Sewel convention, maybe I can magic away Brexit and all the Tories. I shall be practising. That might take more than a six-letter word; it might take Boris Johnson’s four-letter word, but I will do my best to do that.
This has been a debate of contrasts. In a moment, I want to contrast two sets of speeches, but first I want to comment on two or three things that deserve an answer. Quite a lot of what we have heard does not deserve an answer, but useful things have been said that do.
I disagree with Neil Findlay’s analysis of the Scottish Government, of course, and with what he believes we are doing, but I agree that we need to keep on talking and having a debate and a discussion, and that we need to look at ideas to see how we can move forward. Those ideas are valuable.
We heard some of those ideas from Graham Simpson, but unfortunately—or, rather, fortunately—the ideas that he came up with were the very same ones that I put forward last week. I seem to have influenced him subliminally so that he now understands what I was talking about. That could be my magic powers again; they could be working on Graham Simpson. We need to talk about the Sewel convention and find out how to put it into legislation and how to put the relationship between the Governments on a statutory footing. We should move forward in that way.
Patrick Harvie added to that process in his contribution. He was right in saying that, when I spoke to him, he did not want to have a debate without motion; the other parties agreed to that, but he did not. I hope that we have got a few additional ideas out of today on which we can work together in order to try to make progress.
I want to highlight some contrasts. I will start with one between two members with whom I do not agree and who said things in their speeches with which I do not agree: Pauline McNeill and Liz Smith. Pauline McNeill has been in this Parliament, with a brief interruption, since 1999—I, too, have had a brief interruption, so I know what that is like—and Liz Smith has been here since 2007. Both come to this question from entirely different perspectives from mine. Pauline McNeill says that she is unlikely to ever vote yes; unfortunately, Liz Smith says that she would never vote yes, but she has changed her mind once on the constitution and, as far as I am concerned, where there is life, there is hope.
However, both members talked about the operation of devolution in a positive way. To that I add that all parties in this Parliament have operated devolution in a positive way—this Government has, the Liberal Democrats and Labour did when in coalition and the Tories have. The difference now is that all the Tories in this Parliament and one of the Lib Dems—he is not here; he has clearly been so horrified by this speech that he has gone away—are colluding to undermine the devolution settlement. This is not a question of moving on devolution—I want to do that, to the full powers of a normal Parliament—but a question of reversing devolution and sending it backwards, which is precisely what the Tories are doing. Unfortunately they are doing that with the support, or at least the collusion, of their party here.
I am grateful to the minister for giving way, given that no Conservative member was willing to hear from me when they constantly asked what existing powers would be taken away. Is it not clear that, whether someone sees devolution as an end result or as a step in a journey to independence or to federalism, all of us have to rely on the fact that this Parliament’s fundamental underlying power is to say yes or no freely on a matter of devolved competence and to have its say respected? It is that fundamental power that is being taken away.
Patrick Harvie puts that well.
I will make two points in my remaining time. The second contrast that I want to make is between the two MGs—Mairi Gougeon and Maurice Golden, who spoke after her. I hope that we cut the video and show those two speeches to every school and in every village hall in Scotland, because there could not have been a stronger contrast and a better illustration of what this debate is about.
I am sorry to say that, although I respect Maurice Golden’s position, his speech was passive, bloodless and process driven. He just accepts what exists; he said nothing could change in that regard. At one stage, Neil Findlay shouted out to Maurice Golden, “Is that it?” I rarely commend Mr Findlay’s comments but, at the end, I, too, regrettably felt the same. I was left wondering, is that it? Is that the result of 19 years of this Parliament?
However, Mairi Gougeon gave a tremendously strong and passionate advocacy not just for this Parliament, but for the rights of the people of Scotland. That is what counts; that is what this debate is about. It is the people of Scotland to whom we report and for whom our efforts are, in the end, judged.
Let me come to the canard of the debate, which was constantly repeated by somebody who likes such things—Murdo Fraser—and the Tories curious admission that there are powers that we are not getting. He spoke in these terms, “You just want to hand those powers back to Brussels”. [
.] Ah! They confirm it. Think about that for a moment. That does two things. It confirms that there are powers that we are not getting; it also says that they cannot trust the Parliament to use those powers and that it will not get them because they do not like how it would deal with them.
It also shows—Christina McKelvie was absolutely right about this—no understanding of how the EU works, but let us pass over that. The reality of that line is that it says everything that this Parliament needs to know about the Tories’ attitude. Just as consent does not mean consent, or maybe means consent, the Tories’ position on this issue is that they are not giving the Scottish Parliament the powers that it should have because they do not like things that it does with them. That is not devolution but its antithesis. In that regard, Murdo Fraser’s point was unfortunately not accurate, because it is the Tories who are threatening devolution and we have to resist that.