Tommy Sheppard | MP for Edinburgh East

I remember someone once telling me that if the lie is big enough it will be believed. You can easily get caught out on little fibs. But be bold and brazen about your mendacity and conviction will overcome facts.

That now seems to be the policy of the UK government. I have just received a ‘Dear Colleague” letter from Alok Sharma, the nondescript Secretary of State for Business. He’s the guy responsible for pushing through the new internal market bill published on Wednesday. He tells me that amongst other things this new law “will continue to protect the Union whilst safeguarding the devolved administrations’ right to regulate as they do now”.

Really? Has he read it? Far from protecting the rights of the Scottish Parliament, the bill will give powers to Westminster to override Holyrood decisions on devolved matters. It is an explicit attack on devolution.

Since the post was established in 1885, Secretaries of State for Scotland – both Tory and Labour - have argued for more decisions to be taken here. No longer. For the first time ever, the office is now held by someone determined to roll back on the devolution of decision-making.

The UK government are not only set to break international law – it is clear they are now set to break devolution.

Much of the bill is concerned with ensuring that goods and services produced in one part of the UK can be sold without restriction in all other parts. The talk is of mutual recognition of standards but, this is a race to the bottom when it comes to consumer and environmental protections.

It would prevent the Scottish Parliament from effectively legislating in a whole range of areas, including laws covering the food people put on their tables, which is currently produced to high EU animal welfare and food safety standards.

That could be undermined by Scotland having to accept lower standards set by a UK Government in pursuit of a US or other trade deals – and could see us forced to accept chlorinated chicken.

The Scottish Government has already pointed out that had such measures been in place a few years ago the Scottish Parliament would not have been able to pass its world-leading legislation on minimum pricing of alcohol. In fact, it’s doubtful that even Scottish licensing rules which prohibit alcohol promotion through discounts would hold.

The same is true in many other areas. The Tories (wrongly) accuse the SNP of not respecting the 2014 independence referendum result. But with these proposals they are overturning the result of the 1997 devolution referendum.

Government ministers claim no specific powers are being removed from Holyrood but that misses the point. You don’t need to take away a power if you can neuter it by qualifying or overturning the decisions the Scottish Parliament might use that power to make.

But there’s more. Inexplicably – for it has no link to the internal market – clause 46 of the bill gives Westminster the power to make financial provision in a whole range of devolved areas such as health, education and transport.

Now the priorities for capital spending in these areas are set in Scotland and funding is allocated from a block grant from Westminster. These new powers allow Westminster to set the priorities. So, we can look forward to vanity projects like Boris’s bridge to Ulster taking precedence over new hospitals and railways.

Little wonder that the bill is opposed by all parties bar one in Scotland. Little wonder too that a clear majority of people now support an independent alternative for how Scotland is governed. With the UK government now openly admitting that it will break international law and making a mess out of everything it touches, you have to wonder why support for independence is only at 56%.

Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 11th September 2020

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