Brexit has thrown up the biggest challenge to the Scottish Parliament since it re-opened in 1999 and it has been a thorn in the Conservative party’s side, leading many to wonder how the Tories plan to deal with Scotland in the event of a UK General Election win
“THIS will get the Scottish Conservatives in trouble,” Professor Michael Keating says.
The academic and head of the Centre on Constitutional Change has been following Scottish politics in very close detail for a long time, and he’s convinced the Tories are walking into a trap. He repeats this several times.
“This will give them difficulties.
“They are going to get themselves in the same position as the Labour party did, not being seen as an autonomous Scottish party, making its own decision on policy.”
Keating is referring to a political earthquake he believes is on the way.
“It seems to me that London will insist on common framework UK policies across areas like agriculture and fisheries and the environment.
“It seems to me that London will insist on common framework UK policies across areas like agriculture and fisheries and the environment.” Professor Michael Keating
“That will mean a change in the devolution settlement, it will mean effectively a centralisation. The Tories will say ‘oh no we are not re-centralising, we are just taking powers back from Brussels, it doesn’t affect the Scottish parliament’ – but it does.”
Yet in the midst of the General Election, this is an argument that hasn’t broken into the public consciousness very easily, he concededs.
“That’s an argument that at the moment doesn’t have a lot of purchase, with people it seems a bit abstract. But the SNP will make a big thing out of it.”
In the UK’s increasingly complex constitutional spaghetti junction, the procedure that Brexit follows could see the decades-long journey of devolution for the UK’s smaller nations ended, even reversed.
In Scotland, areas of policy are now largely split between three governmental institutions. The UK Government retains the bulk, with a substantial devolved settlement now residing at the Scottish Parliament. The UK is also subject to EU influence – mainly in areas which involve the harmonisation of markets, standards and regulations across the EU – though this influence is less than in most EU countries.
Professor Michael Keating adresses an audience on the UK constitution
This means that the process of extracting competencies from the EU has implications for Westminster and Holyrood, and the relationship between the two. In theory, this goes beyond the simple repatriation of powers from Brussels – whole industries like renewables, agriculture and fisheries could find their commanding centres in one of the two legislatures. And these powers are vital for the planning of key Scottish industrial sectors.
And what about the Scottish Conservatives? The party has spent recent months establishing itself as the main opposition party in Scotland, coming second in the May 2016 Scottish elections, and second again in the local elections a year later.
Most polls predict them taking seats from the SNP in the forthcoming General Election on 8 June, a contest utterly dominated by constitutional issues.
Keating, who is the author of several standard university texts on constitutional issues from the Scottish national question to the EU, believes the Scottish Tories will have no choice but to back their London parent party, and expose themselves to the risks.
“If the Scottish Conservatives, as they seem to do, simply follow London’s line, and say whatever London tells them to say, then they will end up defending a claw back of powers by Westminster.
“If the Scottish conservatives, as they seem to do, simply follow London’s line, and say whatever London tells them to say, then they will end up defending a claw back of powers by Westminster.”
“That’s just another reason why the recovery in Conservative votes is just not going to go on for ever and ever. There are serious problems – one is that Scotland seems more pro-Remain than Leave, and they’ll be supporting Leave. The other is that they will be seen to be lining up with the UK Government when it wants to take powers from Holyrood and that’s going to give them problems, that’s going to be an opportunity for the SNP.”
Keating also believes this is one of the reasons that May called the snap General Election in April.
“People are not really aware of it. One of the many reasons why May is having the election now is to get it over with before these questions come to the boil,” he says.
Why the angst over the parliament and it’s powers? In a Scottish political era dominated by independence as the key constitutional issue, it may be difficult to remember how important the Scottish Parliament has become as an institution of Scottish civic life.
After the Scottish Parliament voted to request the right to organise a second independence referendum in March, 61 per cent said that the parliament shouldn’t even have to request – a mark of how support for the parliament transcends divisions over national independence.
The idea of a Scottish Parliament was once the controversial nub of Scotland’s national ambitions in the UK. It’s a story usually told from the point of view of its key protagonists, the Labour party, with the Scottish nationalists then a smaller force, playing an agitational role.
The defeat of the 1979 referendum on devolution for Scotland failed to dim ambitions among Labour’s Home Rule faction. New Labour’s 1997 election landslide came with a built-in referendum pledge, and the subsequent vote went in favour of establishing a parliament with power over important devolved areas such as health, education and transport.
The parliament’s ceremonial re-opening in 1999 – Scotland’s last sitting parliament had its final meeting almost 300 years before – was followed by two terms of Labour domination before the SNP won its first majority in 2007, and the terms of the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future began to shift to independence.
Following the No vote in the 2014 independence referendum, Scotland’s devolution story continued, with the Smith Commission delivering fresh powers, including over some income tax and welfare spending.
But what does this journey look like from a Scottish Tory perspective? The party, Keating says, has a real knack for pragmatism.
“The Tory party has historically been against devolution and home rule, with just a minority home rule tendency with in it in the mid-20th century.”
This included the likes of then Conservative party leader Edward Heath with his Declaration of Perth in 1968, which announced the party’s acquiescence to some form of devolution, as demands for home rule began their post-war uptick. But this tendency was weakened with the radicalisation of the party.
“The devolution people more or less disappeared during the Thatcher years. Some of them re-emerged after 1997,” Keating explains.
“All opposition to devolution disappeared after. The Tory party are very good at changing their minds,” Keating says.
With a Tory party heading to the right today and stonewalling the Scottish Government on the question of a second independence referendum, that might give some voters pause for thought.
Scottish political journalist David Torrance
But Scottish political journalist David Torrance, sees a more nuanced picture, with differences between recalcitrants and modernisers pushing different kinds of adaptation to the post 1997 world.
“They accepted the outcome of the 1997 referendum, obviously, but the majority of the party still wasn’t comfortable with it. Folk used to ask [then leader] David McLetchie how he’d vote if the 1997 referendum was re-run and he found that difficult to answer.
“Internally, Murdo Fraser and Brian Monteith argued from day one that the party ought to regain the initiative on the constitution and argue for more powers, fiscal autonomy, or whatever, get ahead of the curve like the Welsh Tories, but they got nowhere fast.”
Recent months have seen new threats to the devolution settlement emerge. In January the UK Supreme Court decided that devolved administrations, including Holyrood, could not trump the primacy of the Westminster Parliament, even in areas that effected areas of government already controlled by Holyrood.
Responding to CommonSpace on Keating’s comments, an SNP spokesperson says it is “increasingly clear [the Conservatives] want to strip powers from Holyrood in a Brexit power grab”.
Torrance, the author of a study of Scottish Conservatism in the period that saw a widening gulf between Scotland and the party, ‘We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a cold climate’, is sceptical of the notion of a power grab, which he says is being over-sold.
“This is hopelessly over-hyped, mainly by the first minister for obvious reasons. Brexit doesn’t – can’t – affect already devolved powers, but there’s a grey area when it comes to ‘shared’ powers like agriculture and fish subsidies, which Holyrood co-operates with Westminster on,” he says.
“Certain Leavers promised these would come to Holyrood – though why it’d want responsibility for giving already wealthy farmers billions of pounds is beyond me – but the UK Government has equivocated. The devolution settlement does not hinge upon agriculture and fish subsidies.”
“This is hopelessly over-hyped, mainly by the first minister for obvious reasons. Brexit doesn’t – can’t – affect already devolved powers.” David Torrance
As for the Scottish Conservatives and their role in this situation, “there’s not really anything for the Scottish party to resist,” he says.
“The UK Government has said several times that no currently devolved powers will be clawed back – although for tactical reasons the party knows it has to indicate ‘independence’, ironically, to voters. Thus Davidson will continue to flag up her influence with the UK party; her ability to get things changed.”
The Scottish Conservatives themselves eagerly asserted that Keating’s comments are “baseless, utterly inaccurate and don’t deserve to be taken seriously”.
Whatever the reality, things certainly cannot remain the same, and we have as yet been given no indication of what the new settlement might be.
With the second independence referendum looming large in the General Election is Scotland, voters will have to decide for themselves whether the Scottish Parliament, as presently constituted, also hangs in the balance.
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