I am accustomed these days to reacting with irritation, annoyance and even anger to statements from Scottish Ministers and leading figures in the SNP. But as I read The National’s report of Mike Russell’s comments opening the Scottish Parliament debate on the British government’s Internal Market Bill (MSPs vote to withhold consent from Tory Brexit power grab bill) it wasn’t irritation, annoyance or anger that I felt but astonishment. I was truly astounded that the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs could be so unaware of the implications of what he was saying.
After noting the unchanging nature of the British political establishment by means of a cliché about the permanence of the leopard’s distinctive markings, Mr Russell went on to say,
… they are still seeking to take a wrecking ball to the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s democracy. That wasn’t in their manifesto, but it was clearly in their mind and always has been.
What is shocking about this is not the fact that the British state intends to “take a wrecking ball to the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s democracy”; nor that the British Conservative & Unionist Party omitted to mention this nefarious purpose in their manifesto for the December 2019 UK general election. What made my eyes involuntarily widen in a manner so theatrical as to be worthy of a silent era movie actor was the way Mike Russell casually mentions that he has always known of this villainous intention. Despite the Tories having neglected to give notice of their malicious designs on Scotland’s democratic institutions, Mr Russell was clearly aware of what was “clearly in their mind”; and just as clearly had reason to believe that the British state’s dastardly purpose was not a recent development. I wonder what was his first clue.
Given his belief that the leopard cannot change its spots, I wonder also how Mike Russell can insist that Boris Johnson will change his mind about a Section 30 order. Bit of a jarring contradiction there. But that’s another matter.
If Mike Russell knew of this then presumably so did all his colleagues in the Scottish Government along with the privileged few in the party who are privy to the thinking of the party leadership. They knew what was going to happen. And they have done nothing to prevent it. That is what is shocking. What is astounding is that Mr Russell should be so nonchalant about admitting to prior knowledge of the British government’s intentions. Knowledge which has not been acted on by the Government we elect, in important part at least, to protect us from such threats. By any measure, this is a remarkable admission.
But Mike Russell wasn’t telling us anything new. It is hardly a revelation that the British consider the devolution experiment to have failed and are intent on closing it down. This writer has sought to draw attention of this over many years.
I opined that the Scottish Parliament was put on a shoogly peg by the outcome of the 2007 Holyrood elections which first put the SNP in government. Our Parliament’s fate was sealed when the voters broke the system to elect a majority SNP government in 2011. Everything that has happened since bears out what I said then. Everything!Why won’t they see?
Of course, this desire to control Scotland goes back much further into the history of the two nations. England and subsequently England-as-Britain has always regarded Scotland as a threat. The shackles were put on Scotland with the Union, which gave what came to be the British ruling elite the means to override and/or the power to ignore Scotland’s interests in pursuit of their own. That is the whole purpose of the Union. Nothing has changed.
Not even the advent of democracy altered the power relationship. The massive asymmetry is ‘built into’ the Union. England-as-Britain is able to overrule or disregard Scotland’s democratic choices just as easily as they are able to override or ignore our interests. The Brexit fiasco is evidence enough of that even if we didn’t have Scotland’s relative powerless being demonstrated quite so often in quite so many ways. As The National tells us in the same report,
However, despite Holyrood rejecting the bill by 90 to 28, their vote can ultimately be ignored by the UK Government.
Having observed and written about Scottish politics for a number of years it might be expected that I might become inure to the many frustrations involved. But it still rankles that the SNP do not talk enough about the Union and what it entails for Scotland. It grinds on my sensibilities that the party paid so little public heed to the constitutional implications for Scotland of the UK leaving the EU before, during or since the referendum in 2016.
From the moment the EU referendum was called I tried to persuade people that they should be at least as concerned about the constitutional implications of what would come to be called ‘Brexit’ as with the economic consequences. Most were too obsessed with trade agreements and the like to listen. I warned that leaving the EU would necessitate a constitutional redefining of the UK and that the British would inevitably seize on this as an opportunity to lock Scotland into a new Union on terms imposed with no meaningful consultation far less negotiation and over the top of all objections. Is that not exactly what is happening?
Now Mike Russell tells us that he knew all about this. The Scottish Government knew about it. Anyone whose vision was not impaired by the blinkers of British Nationalist privilege knew about it. So there’s nothing at all surprising there. What requires explanation is that knowledge of this threat has failed to prompt effective action to defend Scotland’s democracy and our Parliament as well as our right to maintain our national identity and develop a distinctive political culture.
We can argue the toss about what should have been done. But we surely must agree that something had to be done. There is no argument about it not having been done. Because here we are! The legislation that largely achieves The British state’s nefarious purpose is being laid. Whatever the declared purpose of the legislation – as parroted by Boris Johnson’s greasily sycophantic man in Scotland, Alister Jack – the actual deleterious impact on various sectors of Scotland’s economy can be reckoned from comments featured in articles produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) such as this one; and on Scotland’s economy more generally here.
To demonstrate how far-reaching the implications of the Internal Market Bill are I would draw your attention to an article in the Architects’ Journal in which leading Scottish architect Peter Drummond has warned that the legislation could result in Scotland having weaker building regulations.
Stipulations regarding origin of materials would mean that a carbon modelling means of calculating material performance, for example, could be construed as favouring home-grown materials over UK or foreign trade agreements,’ he said. ‘The current emphasis on zero-carbon models in Scotland would potentially be illegal.Architects fear UK trade bill will water down Scottish building regs
We know also that the British Government has admitted that the Internal Market Bill would contravene international law. And that they have denied accusations of both a “race to the bottom” in terms of standards and of a “power grab” – particularly in relation to the Scottish Parliament. This article in The National illustrates the reaction to such denials. For example, this from the Welsh government’s Counsel General, Jeremy Miles,
This bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions. The UK Government is explicitly seeking to rewrite the devolution settlement. The fact that they are also seeking primary legislation shows they are taking those powers from us.
All of this was foreseeable. All of this was foreseen. All of this is happening. And while Mike Russell is rightly outraged by the assault on our democracy that he admits was well anticipated, he seems quite untroubled by the fact that the Scottish Government of which he is a part has done nothing to protect the people that Government was elected to serve. It is this apparently relaxed attitude to a serious failure that I find astonishing. And not a little offensive.
My hope is that it is not too late to make amends. I am persuaded that the harm done can be rectified and that further harm stemming from the Union can be avoided. But I am painfully aware that this would require bold, decisive, assertive action of a sort that the First Minister and her Government have shown themselves extremely reluctant to venture. Had they been more inclined to resort to the hard – and if necessary, aggressive – politics that is required to extricate Scotland from the Union then perhaps our present predicament might have been averted.
What is not in doubt is that Scotland stands on a vertiginous precipice. And that the British Nationalist regime in London is determinedly hacking away at the last foothold of our democracy while its agents in Scotland push us ever closer to the fall. I do not want to obsess about what might have been. I don’t want to get hooked on wishing things were different. I am furiously resisting an urge to dwell on the mistakes and failures of the past lest I get mired in the pointless liturgy of blame against the SNP into which too many have wandered already – and seemingly become stuck fast.
I want to look to the future. Not the more distant future of an independent Scotland that is another distracting train of thought, but the immediate future. No further than the Scottish Parliament elections on Thursday 6 May 2021 – a mere 210 days from now. That’s less than seven months. Pause for a moment to consider all that has occurred in the last seven months. If a week used to be a long time in politics, seven months now seems like a geological age in terms of its capacity for encompassing tumult and dislocation. It seems that anything can happen.
But we know that much of what will happen is predictable with a high degree of accuracy. We know this because so much of what is happening now was foreseen. What is needed is not the power to predict so much as the will to act. We know what’s coming. We also know that to avoid the fate that the British political elite intends for us we must rid Scotland of the Union which empowers and emboldens them. For that to happen we must rid ourselves also of the mindset which prevented us acting sooner to defend Scotland’s democracy and identity.
If I might indulge a brief moment of that wishful thinking I urged that we forsake, I can’t help thinking that if we, the people, had been bolder and more assertive then maybe that would have had an energising effect on our Government. If we had decided sooner that independence is not just this nice thing that we might have if the British allow us but something that is essential if the Scotland we know is to be saved and the Scotland we aspire to is to be achieved, maybe then Mike Russell might not now be mourning what is being done to us. Maybe we would all be celebrating the fact that, with the Union have been dissolved, we no longer had to endure its dire effects.
I have to believe it’s not too late. I have to believe we might yet avoid that wrecking-ball.