SNP’s Brexit Bill is smokescreen for another tilt at independence
By Graham Grant
AS campaign slogans go, it’s hardly up there with ‘for the many, not the few’, or ‘it’s Scotland’s oil’.
‘What we do want? Control of animal health and chemical regulations – when do we want it? Now!’ Mm, it may need a little work…
Yet according to the SNP, we should all be very concerned about the great Westminster Brexit ‘power-grab’.
Well, I haven’t seen many placard-waving protesters in the public squares, far less that other harbinger of constitutional crisis – Tommy Sheridan with a megaphone.
And if your local pub hasn’t shut down as a result of the smoking ban and the reduction in the drink-drive limit, it’s unlikely that the ‘power-grab’ has been the main topic of chat among the regulars.
This is surprising because under our noses, Nicola Sturgeon and her Brexit minister Mike Russell tell us, the Tories are preparing to snatch key powers from the Scottish parliament.
As a result, we could be denied control over animal traceability and food hygiene – and some other highly esoteric areas.
The Braveheart cry of ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound quite as exciting when it’s suffixed by: ‘to decide on fertiliser composition’.
Holyrood was supposed to be in line for a lot of shiny new powers once the UK had severed ties with the EU.
Some of those are indeed coming to Edinburgh, but a few of them are going to remain at Westminster, pending a UK-wide agreement on how they should be used.
Cue outrage from the Nationalists, who have been negotiating with Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington to ensure Holyrood doesn’t lose out.
In the case of 83 powers – including water quality and carbon capture and storage – the Scottish Government will take control immediately, from the day we leave the EU.
But in another 24 areas, the powers are effectively frozen, temporarily, to protect the vitally important UK single market.
The ground that is being fought over is therefore limited, but Miss Sturgeon is furious and wants MSPs to withhold legislative consent for the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill.
It is currently going through Westminster with the aim of turning EU law into UK law, ensuring there are no gaps in our statute book.
The wheeze she and Mr Russell have dreamt up is to rush a Continuity Bill through the Scottish parliament, to bring those contested powers to Holyrood – despite the Presiding Officer warning it isn’t within MSPs’ legal competence to do so.
Hardly a good omen for emergency legislation: let’s face it, even when MSPs mull over laws for months on end they get it wrong (Named Person and the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act spring to mind).
So just imagine the mess they’re likely to make of expedited law-making – and already the Bill is turning into an ungainly behemoth almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court in London.
In total, more than 230 amendments to the Continuity Bill have been lodged from all parties, with nearly 150 of them submitted by the Tories, who want the SNP to ditch the entire project.
Adam Tomkins, the Tories’ constitutional spokesman, has rightly warned Holyrood risks being turned into a ‘laughing stock’ if the Bill – in reality an attempt to wreck Brexit – is allowed to continue on its current schedule.
After a debate on the ‘generality’ of the amendments tabled today (TUES), MSPs on the finance committee will meet at 5.30 pm to decide on which ones should be taken forward.
Members have vowed they are prepared for an ‘all-nighter’, pressing on into the early hours, if needs be – something of a shock to the system for the ‘family-friendly’ parliament.
That said, Holyrood will probably be a pretty lonely and indeed eerie place at 1 am, after hours of wrangling over the finer points of this Frankenstein’s Monster of a Bill (particularly with Mark McDonald lurking in the basement).
After the parliamentary process, the Lord Advocate and the Advocate General will have 28 days to refer the SNP’s Bill to the Supreme Court.
If this happens, the Nationalists are certain to claim that the Tories are turning to the courts in a bid to frustrate the will of MSPs – playing into the SNP’s paranoid mindset of grievance manufacture.
Tomorrow (WEDS) Miss Sturgeon will meet Theresa May, but no-one is expecting a breakthrough in the Brexit tug-of-war.
Mr Russell, who was brought back into Miss Sturgeon’s top team after making a hash of the education brief, is doing his best to stoke the row.
It’s a forlorn hope, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if every now and again we had a little co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster – and not a constant, toxic stand-off caused by Nationalist intransigence?
What neither Miss Sturgeon nor Mr Russell will ever publicly acknowledge is that the SNP, if it got its way, would cede all of these hard-won powers back to Europe, in the event of independence.
This fact alone exposes its current trench warfare with the UK Government as nonsensical, and indeed hypocritical.
Independence supporter and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch says, with some understatement, that ‘fertiliser composition and food hygiene may seem unusual triggers for indyref2’.
But she warns that ‘just as Al Capone was finally convicted for tax evasion, so the tone deaf Tory government could yet be hoist by its own petard’.
It’s entirely possible that some SNP strategists see the Continuity Bill as a ‘dry run’ for emergency legislation for a second independence referendum, when the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal become clearer in October.
Mrs May will refuse permission for another poll, and Miss Sturgeon will then cite the Continuity Bill as a precedent for fast-tracking legislation without Westminster’s consent.
Or Miss Sturgeon, if she does emerge victorious in the phoney war over Brexit powers, could play a game of poker in the autumn – only agreeing to hand any of them back to the UK Government if it gives the green light for indyref2.
It’s an electoral gamble, because Miss Sturgeon knows voters of all persuasion have lost patience with her party’s separatist obsession – but her activists won’t wear it if she tries to dump the party’s eternal mission.
Nearly a year ago, parliament was snarled up with a gruelling debate on a Scottish Government motion seeking support to call for UK Government permission for a second poll on independence.
Now history is repeating itself, and once again Holyrood is engaged in a time-consuming act of needless introspection that means precisely nothing to the vast majority of voters.
Many of them care more about the powers the SNP already has – such as the one which enabled it to mount a tax raid in the midst of economic stagnation.
The Nationalists are fighting constitutional battles that were lost long ago.
But it’s about time they emerged from the parallel universe where a nation’s destiny rests on which legislature controls fertiliser composition – and listened to voters who are sick of their endless posturing.