Reading the papers yesterday, I came across a couple of stories about two seemingly very different subjects – Scottish farming and the fall-out from the ongoing Covid inquiry – that on closer inspection share an important and common theme about power, and who gets to wield it.
After finding out about possible trade negotiations with the USA through media reports, Scottish Government ministers Mairi Gougeon and Richard Lochhead wrote jointly to UK environment Secretary Therese Coffey and trade minister Nigel Huddleston to outline their opposition to any relaxation of food safety and animal welfare standards resulting from any trade deal.
The letter stated that, while the Scottish Government recognised the benefits to trade and investment in building links with the US, it was concerned about the practical effects on Scottish farming and food, and stated that any relaxation to the opposition to GM crops and chlorine-washed chicken as part of a new trade deal would be “especially egregious”, especially in light of consumer opposition.
The letter asked that Scottish ministers be fully engaged in UK / US trading discussions, and emphasised the need to protect Scotland’s reputation for safety and quality that makes our exports so sought after in the first place.
It’s a relatively small (though, I’d argue, important on several levels) story that perhaps understandably didn’t get much traction in a news cycle dominated by the appalling situation in the Middle East. But I think it talks to some interesting themes. Like, who gets to exercise power? What are the limits of devolved power? And how permanent are Scotland’s constitutional arrangements?
There’s a thing called the Sewel Convention which means that a devolved government (i.e. Scotland) has to give consent to the UK parliament to legislate if anything encroaches in a devolved area (as farming is).
So the US trade talks and the UK’s failure to engage with Holyrood is a classic example of where the convention should have been applied, but wasn’t. International trade (reserved) affects Scottish farming (devolved). And yet Holyrood didn’t hear a peep about it until it read it in the paper.
It’s not that Westminster don’t have form for this.
The post-Indyref Smith Commission, signed off by all parties and which included an agreement that the people of Scotland could vote on their own constitutional arrangements at any time of their choosing, also made some recommendations. One of these was that it need not always be the DEFRA minister attending meetings in Brussels (this was before Brexit), and that it could easily be the Welsh or Scottish equivalents. In 2015 there was an opportunity to enact this sensible approach when there were fishing talks scheduled. The obvious things would have been to have sent Richard Lochhead, at that time Scotland’s Rural Affairs minister, who happened to represent a constituency where fishing was strong. Instead? David Cameron sent his unelected Tory school pal from the House of Lords. You’ll have had your pooling and sharing, as they don’t say at Eton.
The incidents highlight once again the narrow limits of devolution and the need for powers to be deeper and have permanence. And the wider picture is that a Brexit that Scotland rejected has created so many examples of the convention being ignored, despite our leaving of the EU adversely affecting so many aspects of Scotland’s devolved competencies, that we may only conclude that the a very sensible convention designed to prevent devolution being eroded has simply been deliberated abandoned.
So how does this relate to our second story, the Covid enquiry?
For those of us who were involved in campaigning for Independence a decade ago, reading the testimonies from the enquiry elicited mostly wry smiles. In 2014, the patter was always: precious union. Family of Equals. Lead us don’t leave us. Better Together. The kind of passive aggressive language that, if you were in a relationship, you’d be checking the boiling pan for the family bunny.
The Covid enquiry, with testimony under oath from the same people spouting this nonsense in 2014, firmly gives lie to those deceitful fantasies. And, ironically, the guy speaking the truth was a certain Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson.
In a rare moment of candour, Johnson stated that he had refused to meet with both Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drayford during the pandemic was because he didn’t like the optics. He felt that working collegiately would make the UK look like a mini-version of an EU that we were just about to leave. Devolution, he felt, was never supposed to work like that – which was of course precisely the opposite of what he’d said back in 2014. He felt it would look like the union was a federal one – “a potential federal Trojan horse” – where power was broadly shared equally, when in fact ultimate power resides in Westminster. Power devolved is power retained. In this, at least, he was bang on. Devolution is and always has been a unionist construct.
Not surprisingly, the most strident opposition came from the Secretary of State for Scotland – and what a misleading job title that is – Alister Jack, who felt that Covid policy should have been centralised from the start “to avoid the First Minister grandstanding”.
And this is where the Covid story converges with the earlier farming one.in a revealing piece of testimony, Boris Johnson said he regretted not using civil contingencies (reserved) instead of public health (devolved) to legislate over Covid. In other words, he believed – and I’m sure this was the Westminster consensus – that Westminster should have had total control. And that’s something to bear in mind the next time you hear a politician greeting about Holyrood not using all the powers available to it. And it’s also worth considering how much mileage there is in actually lobbying for a second vote on Scotland’s future from a political class that has shown itself, through it’s attitude to Holyrood in the US trade deal talks, through Brexit, through its disregard for Sewel and the Smith Commission, through the Covid pandemic and beyond, to be not just against any further devolution of power but seemingly in favour of an aggressive rollback of a constitutional settlement that in truth they’ve always despised.
When people show you who are, believe them the first time. Follow the Covid testimonies. Their contempt for devolution has been hiding in plain sight for years. Now, it isn’t even hiding.
And equally plain is that Scotland’s democracy can only thrive when all the powers and levers enjoyed by democracies across the world are finally returned to us in full.
Time to bring our democracy home. Because it’s later than you think.
Keep the faith good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.