Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Owing to particularly unsettling polling statistics which were said to have startled even the Prime Minister, a hastily organised trip north of the border was meant to show Scotland it was not being forgotten. Mr Johnson’s visit, landing in Stromness, Orkney, followed some unease amongst the UK Cabinet caused by a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times which had found Scottish support for leaving the UK at 54%.
As Scottish TV screens were filled with pictures of the PM grappling with freshly caught Orcadian crabs, it was obvious that the nipping and poking of Scottish nationalists, ever a thorn in his side, had more than got to him.
The Prime Minister’s response? Our “union is stronger than ever”.
The remarkable irony is, despite his almost laughable scramble to the Highlands, his actions in recent weeks and days have dealt nothing short of a crushing blow to the pro-Union cause. The government’s Internal Market Bill does more than damage the fragile “good faith” between the UK and the EU; it further erodes the already paper-thin trust between the UK government and many Westminster-sceptics.
It is deplorable enough that Johnson sees fit to break international treaty obligations. The bill in its current form would give ministers the power to unilaterally disapply EU standards to ensure goods and services from Northern Ireland have access to the rest of the UK. This clearly contravenes the terms of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It was something admitted brazenly by the Northern Ireland Secretary when he – now infamously – declared that the government would break international law in a “very limited and specific way”.
There is another threat, equally significant but perhaps more looming and less likely to make the headlines. This bill amounts to a plundering of powers from the Holyrood Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Stormont Assembly and as such, is a devastating attack to our Union.
On the Monday morning of the 14th of September (almost six years to the day since Scotland’s Independence Referendum), speaking live from Westminster on BBC News, Ian Blackford of the SNP said something which should be a stark warning to defenders of the Union everywhere: “This is going to be the best recruiting sergeant that we could possibly have had for the cause of independence”.
And he is absolutely right.
The Tory government, unwittingly or not, empowers the SNP’s independence cause.
The bill, which passed the first stage in its progress through Parliament on Monday by 77 votes, will write into law the principle of “mutual recognition”. This holds that any good or service which can be sold lawfully in one area of the UK can be sold lawfully in another.
The underlying clauses hide a sneaky and unjustifiable Tory power grab. In areas like food and environmental standards, the passing of this “mutual recognition” principle could give rise to a situation where one part of the UK must receive goods or services of lower standards than had previously been considered permissible by regional parliamentarians. In essence, the principle undermines the authority of the devolved administrations to legislate on various significant – and currently devolved – matters.
The Welsh Government’s Counsel General described the bill as an “attack on democracy and an affront to the people…who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions”. The Scottish First Minister similarly denounced the “blatant move to erode the powers of the Scottish Parliament in key areas”.
This bill comes with a high cost for our Union. By threatening the powers of our democratically- elected devolved administrations, the Johnson administration is doing the opposite of what it purports to support. These so-called defenders of the Union are taking a sledgehammer to our constitution.
The devolution settlement must be protected at all costs to defend our Union. In the words of Scottish Labour’s Constitutional Statement of June 2020: the “distribution of powers to the Scottish Parliament” offers “a far better alternative to an even greater accumulation and centralisation of powers in Whitehall and Westminster”.
Every hurdle this bill overcomes is another Union-destroying canon in the Independence-obsessed armoury of the SNP government in Scotland. Ripping up the Sewel Convention is tantamount to shredding the 1707 Act of Union insofar that it stokes an already intensifying fire of pro-Independence sentiment.
Whilst one of the most hubristic of recent power grabs we have seen, arguably this bill is just adding insult to injury – a wound inflicted by the hijacking of what could have been (as was for a long time) a collaborative, intra-UK project between devolved administrations and the UK government to protect the internal market.
Since October 2017, all four governments of the UK began work on “Common Frameworks” on an issue by issue basis to minimise trade barriers within the UK as well as meet any international treaty obligations. Indeed, a communique dated 16th October 2017 for the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) recorded that all four nations felt “positive progress” was already being made. All ministers from all nations agreed the necessity of enabling the “functioning of the UK internal market, while acknowledging policy divergence” and ensuring “compliance with international obligations”.
The communique even reads that the common frameworks will respect “the competence of the devolved institutions”.
Reading this now is painful. Whatever happened? How tragic that the spirit of this intra-UK cooperation seems to have been so hastily overridden by the Tory power-grabbing attitude to which we have sadly become so accustomed. The current Tory leadership should hang its head in shame that such a positive, collaborative effort has been so ruthlessly trampled.
Now we can only appeal to parliamentarians that the progress of this bill, at the very least in its current form, must be halted.
The PM’s compromise on Wednesday with Tory rebels simply does not go far enough. Labour’s shadow Attorney-General is right that the amendment does not remedy the issue. Agreeing to give MPs a vote only takes the decision directly out of ministers’ hands in the first instance. It also leaves the devolution settlement just as vulnerable as before.
For those who want to keep the family of nations together, this Tory strategy of unilateralism and disregard for convention should be a grave concern.