Davidson needs to heed fallout from 1997 referendum
WHEN you’ve grown used to conflict, peace can be confusing. So it wasn’t surprising that when the First Minister gave a speech this week on the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum, it raised more eyebrows than expectations. It was disturbingly consensual.
Harking back to the autumn of 1997 when the SNP campaigned alongside Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the odd Green for a Yes-Yes vote, the First Minister appealed for a return to that same “spirit of consensus” to meet the challenges ahead.
Her immediate goal is working together to stop the UK Government pushing through its dubious vision of Brexit in the form of the as-yet unamended EU Withdrawal Bill.
Ms Sturgeon rightly complains this smashes a bedrock principle of devolution – that powers not explicitly reserved to Westminster automatically belong at Holyrood.
The Bill, as drafted, would instead see all powers being repatriated from Brussels at Brexit head to Westminster, including those in devolved areas such as agriculture. Westminster would then decide which to keep, and which to trickle down to Holyrood, timescale TBC.
Labour (including the government in Wales), the LibDems and Greens are with the First Minister on it being a “power grab”, seeing it as an affront to devolution.
Ms Sturgeon also proposed working in the “national interest” on a case for devolving powers on trade, employment and immigration, as well as drawing up a new social security system.
There was scepticism aplenty. Scotland has been on a mad electoral treadmill in recent years. Since 2010 there have been three General elections, two Holyrood elections, two council elections, one European election and two constitutional referendums.
Conflict is the norm. Now along comes the party that has been the most relentless, most successful votereaping machine over that period, to say “let’s all go for a pint”. And yet, the day after Ms Sturgeon gave her speech, her Brexit minister Michael Russell went through an extraordinary minuet with Tory MSPs in the Holyrood chamber, agreeing to their offer to hold talks about reaching consent on the EU Bill. He and John Swinney are due to meet Jackson Carlaw and Adam Tomkins, the Tories’ in-house legal expert, next week. What’s going on?
The SNP isn’t holding its breath just yet. Ministers are ready for a chat with the Tory MSPs, but neither has any authority to make decisions. What SNP ministers really want is for the UK Government to start talking about changing the Bill, but so far it hasn’t budged, and relations are increasingly strained.
But there is strong internal pressure for the Tories to make a deal, and 1997 reminds us why.
In theory, the UK Government could press on regardless with the EU Bill and ram it down Holyrood’s throat, consent or no. That would be very dangerous territory. There is no precedent for such an imposition since devolution. It would be a fullblown crisis, and the Scottish Tories would pay the political price for it.
In particular, it would destroy any hope Ruth Davidson ever had of becoming First Minister. Personally, I think it’s a faint hope, but it’s a possibility nonetheless, and one she has made her declared mission.
But remember 1997, when the Tories were against the Scottish Parliament and sat out the referendum campaign.
They were not forgiven. I remember their then leader, David McLetchie, being shredded by a TV audience around the 2003 election on this point. Because his party was on the wrong side of the devolution argument, it lost its right to be heard. Voters rejected the Tories because they rejected the institution. They are only just recovering.
With Holyrood entrenched at the heart of Scottish politics, that sense is even stronger today. No party can afford to be on the wrong side of such an argument. We’re all devolutionists now.
Imagine if the Tory Government stomped all over devolution with an aggressive EU Bill that hollowed out the 1997 settlement and snatched away powers that rightly belong at Holyrood. The Scottish Tories would suffer the same kind of backlash they endured 20 years ago, and Ms Davidson’s reputation would take the biggest hit.
If she backed the UK Government, she’d be damned as part of the problem, and if she disapproved she’d be damned as an impotent bystander. So Ms Davidson needs a deal. She has to cash in a chunk of her political capital to secure an amended Bill Holyrood can approve. If not, she’s toast.
Hence Mr Carlaw and Mr Tomkins cosying up with the SNP leadership. They might not be decision-makers, but opening up new channels of communication when the others seem jammed makes sense for Ms Davidson.
An imposed EU Bill would cripple her party and be milked by the SNP all the way to the 2021 Holyrood election and possibly into another independence referendum, by which time voters would have turned a deaf ear to Ms Davidson. A Tory-SNP consensus on the Bill won’t be easy, but the lessons of 1997 are hard to ignore.