During a pre-lockdown trip to Glasgow, I was strolling by the Buchannan Gallery and happened upon the statue of Donald Dewar, which of course had the obligatory traffic cone on the celebrated First Minister’s head: Scotland has always had a healthy disdain for pomposity. He was, of course, known as the “Father of the Nation”, although as no-one can recall him going by that name when he was alive I suspect the title was deliberately ironic. In any case, whilst he helped to deliver the devolution settlement that led to the reconvening of Scotland’s parliament after a three centuries long hiatus (something that his boss Tony Blair was mightily indifferent to, not that it stopped him taking the credit for it), he was of course a unionist to his bootstraps and was complicit in moving the sea border north to endure that even more of Scotland’s oil wealth came south, and also helped author the section thirty order that currently hampers the growing movement for self-determination despite a series of polls showing Yes narrowly but significantly in the lead. His colleague George Robertson famously – and wrongly – claimed that devolution would “kill independence stone dead”. That was of course its purpose, and there’s no doubt that Dewar – a Union man to his bootstraps – would have endorsed the sentiment. That nothing is ever as it seems is a true of political giants as it is of everything else, and it occurs that it isn’t just old Henry Dundas who needs his statue re-appraised.
Still, fair play to him. He didn’t want independence, but he wanted a Parliament – “the settled will of the Scottish people”, he called it – and he wanted it to be permanent. He delivered on the promise inscribed on his statue: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament” it reads. And there is.
I thought about Donald Dewar this week. On Wednesday of this week, the Financial Times ran a story with the headline: “Scotland threatens to defy UK’s post-Brexit legislation”. The story outlined how the SNP administration planned (quite rightly) to oppose Tory plans to pass legislation forcing Scotland to accept, amongst much else, whatever food standards emerged from post-Brexit trade deals, as it emerged that the UK Government was planning to enshrine the so-called “UK internal market” in law. While hugely troubling, such moves are simply the natural next step of a government that knows it can’t reach a deal – any deal – with Trump’s America unless they “level up” the UK: hence the defeat of the Parish amendment in May which all but guaranteed lower food and welfare standards, including permitting chlorinated chicken, hormone treated beef and an asthma drug in so dangerous that it’s banned virtually everywhere – ractopamine- into your pork.
The word “threatens” really bothered me. The headline should have been “democratically elected government promises to fulfil its minimum and fundamental duty and protects the people of Scotland that voted for it”. I say this repeatedly – the first responsibility of any government is the safety of its people. Saying you aren’t accepting something that poisons sixty million Americans every year isn’t a threat. It’s doing your job.
Not that Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw saw it that way. He told Sky News that it was “absolutely right” that powers over food and environmental standards – currently held by Scotland – should be invested in Westminster after a Brexit that Scotland voted against and, were the question to be asked again today, would reject by an even higher margin than that from 2016. If you are looking at this omnibouroch and seeing anything remotely resembling democracy then your eyesight is poorer than Dominic Cummings on a trip to Barnard Castle.
It’s really quite extraordinary when you think about it. This guy – Carlaw – and his team owe their positions and their salaries to the people of Scotland and the taxes we pay. And yet they sell out the very Parliament we pay them to sit in. The Parliament they wished did not exist. We are actually paying for our own belittlement. Scottish Democracy is being routed in plain sight, and we are footing the bill. There Shall be a Scottish Parliament?Maybe there shan’t. That distant rumble you’re hearing? That would be Donald Dewar, birlin’ in his grave.
So what’s happening? Allow me to attempt to summarise.
In short, you can have devolution or you can have post-Brexit trade deals, but you cannot have both. These two things cannot exist in the same sphere. And, secondly, America has been clear from the get-go that without lowering food and welfare standards – such as allowing highly dangerous asthma drugs into your pork – they aren’t coming to the table, which would explain the decision of the Conservatives – including my own Alister Jack and every other Scottish Tory MP – to vote the amendment to protect UK standards down, although it is reported that Boris Johnson had already told America that standards would be lowered anyway. This is what Taking Back Control looks like.
So, because you can’t negotiate when powers are devolved, you therefore have to remove those powers by effectively ripping up a two decades old devolution settlement by enshrining the so called UK internal market in law. In practice, this means that any legislation in any area brought forward by Holyrood would be subject to scrutiny from an unelected body that would decide whether it passes the “UK internal market” test before it is approved, which means that one country’s parliament has a veto over another country’s parliament. We are in uncharted waters here.
What this means is that, while previously rules – over food standards and everything else – were agreed by all twenty-eight EU members were enforced by Brussels, post-Brexit it falls to London to do so – which means cutting across devolved areas like food, farming, the environment and health. And make no mistake, the NHS that Boris Johnson made a big show of applauding every Thursday is also up for sale.
So, as lower standards emerge (and they will) Scotland could either accept getting food poisoning or refuse to do so and see its farming industry collapse under a tsunami of cheaply produced hormone treated beef. We lose either way.
Furthermore – and this is important – we wouldn’t just be talking about new legislation, but existing stuff. Scotland has overachieved under the devolution straitjacket, introducing progressive measures like minimum pricing of alcohol and free tuition fees. America could argue these things were anti-competitive, and under the London proposals they’d be gone in a brazen act of constitutional vandalism. And a parliament that can’t pass laws isn’t a parliament. In truth, we might as well turn the lights off and shut the door.
So what do we do? Here’s my proposal – and you might have others.
The last few opinion polls have seen Yes with an eight to ten point lead. Largely, but not entirely, because of the Scottish Government’s handling of Covid, Yes is now seen as a safe haven from the appalling incompetence and mismanagement of Downing Street. Independence is beginning to look, if you’ll pardon the Donald Dewar, like the settled will of the Scottish people, and it isn’t about to change. The paradox, of course, is that the greater the lead, the less the likelihood of being granted a second plebiscite – because Westminster know they’d be trounced. By their reckoning their only option is to weaken us, politically and economically, to the point where we wouldn’t be in a position to assert our right to decide any again. That day is closer than you might think, and a ten point lead means nothing without a parliament to turn democratic will into political reality.
I’ve long thought that the May 2021 Holyrood election should essentially be Scotland’s de facto vote on independence – a plebiscite election where if we return a majority of pro-independence MSPs (and we would) then we simply use that as a mandate not to ask for a vote on self-determination but to begin the process of becoming a newly independent country.
But this weeks events – in particular the plans to enshrine the neutering of Scotland’s democracy in law – means that May will be too late. Brexit will have happened, our powers will be in London, and we will have lost the protections afforded by the EU.
What me must therefore do is something that is within our power to do, and bring the election forward to this Autumn. We’d then return a majority and begin the process.
This is no longer just a question of yes and no. It is, rather, a question of whether we want a fully functioning, vibrant Scottish democracy with every available power – or direct rule from a political culture at odds with our worldview, democratic culture, aspirations, health and economic wellbeing.
What this week shows is that the choice really is that stark. “There Shall be a Scottish Parliament”, said the great man. Twenty-one years on, we have the biggest decision of our lives to make. Our choices will determine whether history sees his words as an eternal truth, or as a lament.
The stakes could not be higher.
You know what to do.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.