United Kingdom Internal Market

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 18th August 2020.

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Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

Only a Government with contempt for democratic decision making could have produced the internal market white paper proposals. There is nothing proportionate about these plans. I say that not just because of the white paper’s attack on this Parliament, which the convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee and the minister have outlined. The contempt for devolution in the UK Government paper is indiscriminate and it seeks to misrepresent any devolved system.

Take, for example, paragraph 85 of the white paper. In grasping for an illustration to justify its power grab, the UK Government has used the very unlikely example of Germany, where it claims that there are trade costs between the Länder. It is widely understood and admired that Germany has one of the most successful federal systems in the world. I say that as someone who wants more than federalism for Scotland. Länder such as Lower Saxony and Bavaria are economic powerhouses. All German Länder have access to the largest free trade zone in the world—the European single market—an advantage being stripped away from Scotland. That misrepresentation of German federalism in paragraph 85 has not been as widely publicised as it should have been but it sums up the absolute absurdity and inaccuracy of the white paper, which is based not on facts and analysis but on ignorance and ideology.

When I looked for a reference to justify the nonsense claim that German states are crippled by internal trade barriers, there was no evidence and the footnote said that the comparison modelling was “hypothetical”.

Hypothetical could describe the entire contents of the white paper. It is also mendacious because of a false comparison between the European single market and what it calls the UK internal market. The Royal Society of Edinburgh paper that was released ahead of this debate, which has been quoted by Alex Rowley and others, outlined the difference between the two very different systems—the EU single market and this so-called internal market—and bears repeating for that reason.

The society pointed out that the European single market treaties enshrine the principles of subsidiarity—that action should be taken at the most local level practicable—and proportionality, which is that the action should be broad enough only to achieve its aims. No such principles of subsidiarity or proportionality currently exist in the UK. It also pointed out that free trade operates smoothly across the UK already without the need for the legislation that is proposed in the white paper.

As I have said, this assault on devolution is unnecessary and ideologically driven. The anti-European extremists who chanted “take back control” are now imposing command and control from London. In the EU, Scotland was afforded the same discretion as a member state in interpreting EU regulations and implementing EU directives. In contrast, the white paper means that any law in a devolved area that this Parliament makes could be challenged, as Ms Gilruth outlined.

Even areas of Scottish legislation that predate devolution are at risk, such as building control. The white paper says:

“If England and Scotland diverged on their approach to building regulations ... it would become significantly more difficult for construction firms to design and plan projects effectively across the UK.”

Those differences already exist and for very good reasons. There are traditional differences between England and Scotland’s building needs, such as weather, building materials, topography and traditions, and there is also the very contemporary need to improve standards.

In the wake of the terrible Grenfell fire, the UK and the Scottish Government both brought forward proposals to regulate the use of combustible material in new buildings. The new safety certifications are more wide ranging in Scotland; the new regulations and standards in England apply to new residential buildings with a storey at 18 metres above ground but in Scotland to buildings with a storey at 11 metres above ground level. That is just one example of significant difference. No doubt there will be developers who do not like it, but a big developer grumbling about a safety measure is no barrier to trade. Under the UK Government proposals, they could go to court to stop the Scottish Government from protecting its citizens in that way.

I will comment on the Labour amendment. The power to subsidise key sectors of the economy is currently not reserved and this law will snatch that power away. Professor Michael Keating made that clear in committee last year, when he pointed out that state aid was reserved in the unsuccessful Scotland Act 1978, which some members might remember, but not reserved in the Scotland Act 1998, which established 20 years later the powers of this Parliament. Professor Keating observed that

“Somebody must have known what they were doing.”—[

Official Report

,

Finance and Constitution Committee

, 19 June 2019; c 25.]

That somebody in 1998 was the late Donald Dewar. He deliberately devolved state aid because he knew that one of the biggest drivers of devolution was the mass industrial closures and control of key industries that Scotland had seen for the 20 preceding years.

When Scots see powers that were designed to protect them against a repeat of Thatcherite vandalism being snatched away from Scotland’s Parliament by the anti-European Thatcherite children, they will not remain quiet. This white paper is the greatest ever threat to devolution. It is also the greatest threat to the union, and the Tories will reap what they sow.