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Government’s fight over post-Brexit powers is late, but welcome

The big constitutional story this week is the news that the Government is squaring up to the devolved administrations over control of vital ex-EU powers.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson intends to retain control over ‘level playing field’ provisions and state aid at Westminster, in order to prevent different parts of the United Kingdom undermining each other. This has revived specious claims by Edinburgh and Cardiff that London is engaged in a ‘power grab’, seizing powers which are rightfully theirs.

The Scottish Conservatives have come out fighting for the pro-UK position: Ruth Davidson has penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard supporting the move. Douglas Ross, who recently resigned from the Scottish Office, challenged the SNP on this basis:

“If it is a power grab there most be powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament, enacted by the Scottish Government on behalf of the people of Scotland that we the UK Government are taking away.”

Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and now head of Downing Street’s Union Unit, has taken the same line: that these powers have never been devolved (indeed Holyrood was only established after many were already vested in Brussels), so there is no attack on devolution.

This is a welcome shift in position. During the pivotal clash over the misnamed “post-Brexit devolved powers” in 2017 and 2018, several leading Scottish Tories were at the forefront of the campaign to force the Government to scrap the part of the Withdrawal Bill safeguarding ex-EU powers in Westminster. Indeed, senior MSPs lent credence to the ‘power grab’ claim.

Defenders of Section 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, as-was, advanced detailed arguments about the dangers posed by ceding powers necessary to harmonise a common market below the highest level of political authority in that market, and were met with little more than airy rhetoric about the “spirit of devolution”.

Whilst some, such as the Institute for Government, believe the new, more centralised approach is “not a sustainable long-term strategy”, in fact the reverse is true.

It is not sustainable to continue trying to deliver pan-UK rules whilst bending over backwards to avoid our pan-UK institutions setting and enforcing them. It should be taken as read that any devolved administration committed to breaking up Britain will exploit any opportunity to foul up the proper functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through setting different standards or exploiting new consultation and dispute-resolution mechanisms as platforms for grievance.

Any power previously exercised at the EU level should, by default, be executed at the UK level. They were, after all, passed upwards for a reason. Ministers should re-acquaint themselves with the arguments over Section 11, and consider casting their powers net much wider yet.

Separatists attempt to game Holyrood elections with new party

An ex-SNP MSP has set up a new pro-independence party, with the aim of hugely inflating the number of separatist MSPs returned at the next Holyrood elections.

STV reports that the Alliance for Independence anticipates that it might win up to 24 MSPs by running exclusively for the Scottish Parliament’s ‘list’ constituencies.

Under the Scottish electoral system, voters cast two ballots: one for their geographical first-part-the-post constituency, and another for a regional list. When the parties contest both, the list vote is used to ‘top up’ those parties which under-performed under FPTP and ensure something resembling a proportional outcome.

But if the Alliance for Independence only contest list seats, and SNP voters lend it their support en masse, it could result in the ‘official Nationalists’ winning most of the constituencies and the ‘unofficial nationalists’ a huge share of the list, resulting in a chamber in which the unionist parties were seriously under-represented compared to their vote.

Some commentators, such as Kenny Farquharson, have argued that this would undermine the legitimacy of the resulting parliament – a possible boon to the Government if it truly intends to resist calls for a second referendum (as it should). Rory Scothorne, writing on a pro-independence site, sums up the approach as ‘magical thinking’.

There may also be more to the AfI than gerry-mandering. The SNP civil war, which David Leask profiled a couple of months ago, rages on. A new separatist party could provide a rallying point for Nicola Sturgeon’s internal opponents and provide a vehicle for Alex Salmond’s latest re-entry into politics.

On the other side of the argument, George Galloway is carving himself a space in unionist politics with the launch of his new ‘Alliance for Unity’. Based on the Scottish branch of his new Workers Party of Britain, it will provide a vehicle for his particular brand of energetic, left-wing unionism.

Galloway’s decision to return to Scotland and contest elections there might be bad news for Scottish Labour, the ailing giant of the left-unionist quadrant of Scottish politics. But who knows, perhaps the WPB will confine itself to the lists…

Brexit Party shift to anti-Senedd stance

There is now a three-way battle for the votes of Wales’ sizeable devosceptic minority. Mark Reckless, the leader of the Brexit Party’s MS group, has made it his party’s policy to scrap the Senedd.

Whilst differing in detail from the position of rival groups – Reckless’ plan is to hand the Welsh Parliament’s powers to Welsh MPs, rather than wholesale reintegration – this puts him in contention both with the rump of UKIP, led by Neil Hamilton, and the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.

Dividing this vote, which is already reluctant to even turn out for devolved contests, may provide a short-term boost to the Conservatives. But should one of the three emerge triumphant it could pose a serious threat on the Tories’ right-unionist flank.

Op-eds:

  • Sunak was right to bypass the SNP with UK-wide splurge – Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph
  • Devolution is dragging the UK’s economic recovery down – Matt Smith, CapX
  • Six things the Conservatives need to do now – Andrew Waddell, The Majority
  • The Union is in graver danger than ever – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • Stand up for the Union or lose it – Stephen Daisley, Website
  • Sturgeon’s quarantine threat is an anti-English dog whistle – Henry Hill, Daily Telegraph

53 comments for: Henry Hill: Reserving control of ‘level playing field’ provisions to Westminster should be just the first step

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