The Orcadian Column 15 March 2018

For some, it seems, there is nothing quite like the prospect of a constitutional crisis to stir the blood. Those so inclined will have had much to excite them at Holyrood over recent days.

At a time when our economy is lagging behind those of our main competitors; when barely a week goes by without further examples of the extreme pressure on our key public services such as health and education; and when the environmental and demographic challenges we face are growing ever more acute, one could argue that we do not lack for issues to command the attention of politicians and the media.

The fact is, however, that politics at present continues to be dominated by matters constitutional, largely driven by the fall-out from Brexit. Ever since David Cameron’s reckless gamble on calling a referendum backfired so spectacularly in June 2016, his successor as Prime Minister has set about making matters even worse.

Mrs May’s pursuit of a UK withdrawal from both the EU Single Market and Customs Union is lunacy. It also stands, lest anyone forget, in barefaced defiance of every assurance given by the Brexit leadership in the run up to the 2016 vote.

At the same time, in a brazen bid to have and eat cake simultaneously, Mrs May insists that her strategy will not damage our economy nor destabilise the constitutional make-up of our islands. Sadly for the Prime Minister, UK Treasury officials have been busy debunking the first assertion, while anyone who knows anything about the way in which the Irish border functions has been patiently pointing out the absurdity of her position on that issue.

All the while, amidst this generally shambolic handling of Brexit negotiations has been the gently simmering constitutional dispute between the UK government and the devolved administrations.

The EU Withdrawal Bill, making its way through Westminster, includes provisions that would see various powers currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, for example over agriculture and fisheries, retained at UK level in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. UK Ministers argue that this is necessary to “protect essential interests of UK businesses and consumers” but it is hard not to see it as a ‘power grab’.

Indeed, not so long ago, Scottish Tory MSPs appeared to agree and joined cross-party efforts to lobby for changes to the Bill. Despite months of negotiations, however, little progress has been made prompting the Scottish Government to bring forward its own so-called EU Continuity Bill. Much like the EU Withdrawal Bill at Westminster, this would bring EU laws directly onto the statute book in Scotland, ahead of Brexit.

Fascinatingly, Holyrood’s Presiding Officer and the government’s top legal adviser, the Lord Advocate disagree over the legality of such a bill, which may be challenged in the courts. On balance, I think there is an argument for proceeding, though largely to maintain pressure on the UK government to abandon its approach to these devolved powers.

What was not acceptable, however, was the speed with which the First Minister wanted her legislation dealt with by parliament. This risked denying Committees any opportunity to take evidence from expert witnesses and undermining parliament’s scrutiny role. Fortunately, the Scottish Government backed down but even so, the process is truncated.

Despite the short timeframe, however, the Finance and Constitution Committee will meet this week to consider almost 250 amendments to the bill. One area where changes are certainly needed relates to powers that would allow Scottish Ministers to simply introduce future EU law by order over the next 15 years. Effectively parliament would have no say over whether or not such EU legislation, which we would have had no influence in shaping, is necessary or appropriate to Scottish circumstances.

That in itself would seem to represent a power grab by SNP Ministers. It has also helped fuel suspicion that the First Minister intends using her bill to pick away at the UK single market and lay the foundations for indyref2. As I say, constitutional crises may quicken the pulse for some, but most people, I suspect, long for an end to the wrangling.

Share this post on social media: