David­son needs to heed fall­out from 1997 ref­er­en­dum

The Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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