Strengthening devolution and protecting the Union

12 Jun 2018

As a Scottish Conservative and Unionist my role is to deliver for the moderate majority in Scotland, who want to see devolution succeed, and the Union protected.

The proposals for Scotland in the Government’s Withdrawal Bill today, voted on by the House of Commons today, do just that.

All returning powers that fall in areas under devolved competence will now go straight to Holyrood. However, before long-term UK wide frameworks are agreed, the UK Parliament – not, and this is important, the UK Government – will have a time-limited power to make regulations that freeze the existing UK-wide framework. It will be used if it is necessary to protect UK wide rules while all sides work on a long-term solution.

Preserving that internal market is exactly what these Government amendments do. And we must not forget that the SNP agree with the UK’s Government’s analysis of where legislative frameworks are needed.

To take an easy example, without pan-UK rules on food labelling, separate rules could be created in each nation of the UK. Given this would make doing business across the UK harder for retailers and farmers, all parties – including the Scottish Government – agree it is better to have a UK-wide rules in place.

Their opposition has nothing to do with the end state of any of these powers or frameworks. Instead, it focuses on how to manage the short-term period before these frameworks are set up. During this time, it’s vital for business and consumers across Scotland that different parts of the UK don’t develop different rules which end up fragmenting the UK internal market – which, remember, is four times as important to Scotland as the EU.

What the SNP wanted, and what cannot be given to any Scottish Government, whoever makes it up, or any other devolved administration, is a veto.

A veto, something the devolution settlement has never contained, over arrangements to protect the internal market affecting the whole of the United Kingdom. That would result in a fundamental re-writing, and re-balancing of the constitutional set-up of this country and of the devolution settlement. It would, to coin a phrase, amount to a power grab. And I think the SNP should be careful about what they wish for because the logic of their position is that it would be possible the Northern Irish Assembly or the Welsh Government to end up blocking a temporary freeze in an area where the Scottish Government want it.

A veto of the sort demanded could, and I fear would, be used to undermine the internal market.

That would go against everything Scottish MPs are being told by businesses in their constituencies, and Scottish interest groups such as the Food and Drink Federation Scotland and the Scottish Retail Consortium, who continue to emphasise the importance of the UK internal market.

I still have not heard an explanation from Labour or the Liberal Democrats as to why Welsh Labour, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, the Labour Lords, the Liberal Democrat Lords, the Welsh CBI, the Federation of Small Business in Wales, and the Farmers Union of Wales are wrong.

The UK Government’s proposals ensure that all powers coming back from the EU which, in line with the devolution settlement should be under Holyrood’s control, will come to Holyrood. At the same time, it ensures that the UK market can be protected where needed. It creates the ability to maintain consistency across the UK in the short term, while parties continue to work on the long term frameworks.

Mark Drakeford, Welsh Labour’s Finance Secretary said: ‘Our aim throughout these talks has been to protect devolution and make sure laws and policy in areas which are currently devolved remain devolved and this we have achieved.’

Former Lib Dem Deputy First Minister of Scotland Jim Wallace told the House of Lords: ‘What has been brought before us represents a considerable advance with much better arrangements for dealing with retained EU law after exit day’.

Lord Steel stated that “this is really quite a good deal.”

Lord Griffiths of Bury Port stated that: “We rejoice at the place we have reached, which is honest, open and takes things forward.”

The question remains for Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs, and Scottish Lib Dems – why are they wrong?

As more powers return to the United Kingdom, more decisions over agriculture, fisheries, the environment and law and order will come closer to people in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

We know that Nicola Sturgeon just wants to pick a fight and concoct another reason for another independence referendum. With the SNP – everything is always about independence.

But I really thought that Labour, even under this leadership, and certainly the Liberal Democrats, were better than that. I didn’t think they would give the SNP a helping hand in pursuing this manufactured grievance, and for what? Opposition for oppositions sake. Terrified of being seen as being on the same side of the argument as the Tories even when it is the right thing to do for Scotland and for the Union.