United Kingdom Internal Market

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

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Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

It was useful when, in opening the debate, the minister, Jenny Gilruth, brought us back to “the dawn of devolution”, as Adam Tomkins described it, in 1997. When we discuss devolution and the referendum in 1997, an oversight that we are all guilty of is that people in Scotland voted not only for devolution within the United Kingdom but for devolution within the United Kingdom and the European Union—that was clearly understood. That position was reaffirmed by the people of Scotland in 2014 and 2016. When we consider the question of whether the drafters of the Scotland Act 1998 were ignorant of the potential for the UK to leave the European Union and whether, therefore, powers that should automatically flow back to the Scottish Parliament would not flow back to the Scottish Parliament, we have to remember the circumstances in which the people of Scotland voted for devolution. It was devolution within the UK and the European Union.

With the proposals from the UK Government, we now face a fundamental threat to the settlement that was agreed in 1997, legislated for in 1998, brought into effect in 1999 and that has been enhanced since. There is the direct undermining whereby powers that should flow back to the Scottish Parliament have been frozen and taken to Westminster, but there is also an indirect threat emanating from the proposals for a UK internal market—the threat to, in effect, render meaningless aspects of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament through a mechanism of mutual recognition, or the market access principle. That is of grave concern to me and many people across Scotland, as we have heard this afternoon, because, fundamentally, a mutual recognition principle has the potential to be a Trojan horse. Regardless of what standards we chose to set in Scotland, we would ultimately be at the mercy of standards that were set elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

That comes back to a fundamental problem in seeking to transpose the language of the European single market into the notion of a UK internal market: England makes up 85 per cent of the UK population, so it is not a straightforward transposition. The aspiration should be—this has been touched on by Alex Rowley, Willie Rennie and Adam Tomkins—to ensure that there are sufficient checks and balances. Agreement could be found by moving towards a position of co-decision making and making the Scottish Parliament not subservient or subsidiary but a sovereign equal to the Westminster Parliament. I think that that state of affairs could command support from people who support the union, and those of us who want to go further and see Scotland become independent could at least accept it just now.

We heard from Alex Rowley and others that the UK Government is taking an approach that involves, in effect, imposition and that renders aspects of devolution meaningless. That will increase support for independence, because it will give the people of Scotland a clear sense of the UK’s direction—that is, no longer to be a union state but to be a unitary state.

Debates have been going on for more than 300 years about the nature of the union and whether there should be an incorporating union or something approximating a federal solution. The UK Government’s proposals, and its attitude and conduct around Brexit over recent years, have signalled not only a lack of understanding of what the union historically has been for many unionists—that is, a partnership—but a fundamentally different approach that is about incorporation and undermining Scottish autonomy.

If we want to take the matter forward collectively as a Parliament, we should at least try to agree some principles. We could agree, first, that there should be no roll-back of devolution. As we heard from Willie Rennie and Alex Rowley, although our parties disagree on how far we want to go down the road of constitutional change, we are sure that we do not want to go backwards. That position will command majority support across Scotland.

I think that even opponents of independence would concede that, if there were an independence referendum tomorrow, the likelihood is that Scotland would vote to become independent. However, that is by no means certain, whereas if we asked people where in the United Kingdom the powers should lie on decisions that are relevant to Scotland—the kinds of decision that will flow from Brexit—an overwhelming majority of people in Scotland would want those powers to lie with the Scottish Parliament.

I recognise that Mr Lockhart has a job to do. He is his party’s spokesman and he has to stand up and defend a position. However, I remind him that, like me and every other member in this chamber, he is a member of the Scottish Parliament and we have an obligation and a duty on behalf of our constituents to protect the powers of this Parliament and not see them rolled back. The UK Government’s proposals threaten to do exactly that.