One of the many curiosities of the EU referendum campaign was that the Scottish National Party overwhelmingly backed the Remain campaign. Odd, because voting to leave is also voting for the opportunity for power to be devolved from Brussels to Edinburgh. Once the United Kingdom has control over its laws and its money then it can also make the decision to devolve some of that power that was previously held by Eurocrats.
Today Gordon Brown is giving a speech where he will show his enthusiasm for more powers being transferred to Holyrood after Brexit.
He wants Scotland to be able to vary VAT rates and to have control over agriculture, fisheries and environmental regulation. Brown will address the Festival of Ideas, in Kirkcaldy, Fife, where he will call for the repatriation to Scotland of £800m spent by the EU.
He will say:
“The third option, a patriotic Scottish way and free from the absolutism of the SNP and the do-nothing-ism of the Tories, is now essential because post-Brexit realities make the status quo redundant and require us to break with the past.
“The status quo has been overtaken by events because unless powers now with the European Union are repatriated from Brussels to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the regions, Whitehall will have perpetrated one of the biggest power grabs by further centralising power. employment and energy.”
One could be churlish, of course, and quibble over the way he makes his case. For the UK to become a self governing nation will mean a huge power shift from the EU to Westminster; to call that “centralising power” is a muddled presentation. Furthermore if Brown, as a Remain campaigner, had got his way there would be no possibility of the House of Commons agreeing to pass on any of these powers – as they would still be held by the Eurocrats.
But instead, we should reflect on how to make the most of the democratic opportunities that Brexit offers – which should include more devolution. This was a prospect that Leave campaigners (including the SNP’s Jim Sillars) emphasised. One prospectus said:
“In the event of the UK leaving the EU, important powers will accrue to the Scottish parliament, including the responsibility for fishing and farming, education and industry. These competencies would bring home to the Scottish Parliament the power to address significant issues, such as the management of the nation’s fisheries that could revive local communities, support for our farmers that suits their particular needs and industrial and procurement policies – all of which would at last be accountable to the Scottish people.
“Scottish legislation, such as minimum pricing of alcohol, would be decided for good or ill only in Scotland. Politicians would be directly responsible for their decisions, improving political accountability and respect for our democratic processes.”
As well as noting the chance to “open up markets, such as selling more whisky to India by reducing its tariffs” it added:
“Scottish universities are amongst the best in Europe but EU rules prevent them charging EU students the full fees they charge students from the rest of the UK. Following the UK leaving the EU all Scottish universities would be free to charge students from the EU the capped rate of £9,000 worth £122m of income to Scotland’s universities per annum. Membership of Erasmus+ and Interrail would continue to be available to the UK and Scotland, just as it is currently accessed by Norway, Switzerland and other countries not in the EU.”
Before the Scottish Government cheer too loudly, they might also reflect that the case for decentralisation also extends to local government. Reform Scotland has called for power to be passed down from Holyrood to town halls in Scotland. If, as I hope and expect, the Scottish Conservatives make substantial progress in the Council elections this May, then this is a subject they will probably wish to pursue.
However grudging and grumpy he might be, the speech from Brown today is welcome. It reminds people that Brexit is not about taking power from Scotland – but a discussion about how much extra control the Scots will have the chance to take back.