For my sins I lead for my party against Jacob Rees-Mogg every Thursday morning in parliament. You’ll most likely not have seen it. It is, in many ways, an acquired taste.
Ostensibly, the purpose of these exchanges is to discuss the government’s agenda. For many weeks now I have been pressing Mr Mogg to agree to debate extending the financial powers of the Scottish government to better allow it to respond to the Covid emergency. My pleas have been ignored.
That in itself is unremarkable. It is rare that a government minister would ever give a straight answer to a question. But the level of evasion in this case is unusual and persistent. Now I think I know the reason.
To be clear my exchanges with the Leader of the House have not been about independence – we’ll get to that soon – but about the efficacy of the fiscal framework of devolution. I think it’s fair to say that the rules were not set with a pandemic in mind. They could do with altering, for example, to allow more money to be borrowed to help businesses, switch spending from capital to revenue, and carry over deficits or surpluses from one year to another. The gist of this argument is supported by every party in Scotland bar the Tories.
This is not an argument about money, but about what you can do with money. Yet, if you check the record, every time I ask about powers I get a reply about money and told to be grateful for the strong arms of the union now being wrapped around Scotland. In fact, the embrace is more a strangle than a hug as Scotland is being saddled with its share of a vast UK debt it has had no say in negotiating or agreeing to.
But far from considering extending devolution, the Tories now seem determined to roll it back. And, as so many have predicted, it will be leaving the European Union that is the midwife to this emasculation. Scare-mongering? Unfounded allegations?
Well here’s some foundations. Three recent developments point in this direction.
First, European Structural Funds, which have over the years funded a lot of Scotland’s infrastructure are being replaced by something called the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Until now the money was available to the Scottish government. This week the UK government confirmed that the new fund will be run from London alone. This is not small change. Losing it is a pretty big transfer of power from Scotland to the UK.
Second, the UK government has made it clear this week that it will take sole responsibility for government assistance to industry, cutting out the current work of the Scottish government. Critics surmise that this is in preparation for huge programmes of wage subsidy post Brexit to attract foreign manufacturers. But it will prevent the Scottish government developing our own industrial capacity.
Third, and most ominously, press reports this week suggest that the UK will bring forward new proposals to govern Britain’s “internal market” to help pave the way for free trade agreements. This could include a new quango charged with overruling decisions of the Scottish (and Welsh) government if they are perceived to get in the way. This is where we lose our ability to resist chlorinated chicken and GM foods imported from the US.
Had such a mechanism been in place already it could have been used to overturn decisions on free tuition, smoking bans and minimum alcohol pricing on the grounds that they distorted the UK market.
This is what’s coming folks. And when people see it even more will come to the view that becoming politically independent is a better option for Scotland than tagging along with the new Tory agenda. Currently support for independence is at 54% - the highest it has ever been. I expect it to get higher still. And next May we will all have an opportunity to give expression to that ambition in the Scottish Parliament elections.
Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 17th July 2020