Brexit's 'opportunities' are being used by Tories to make a full-frontal attack on Scottish devolution – Tommy Sheppard

This year marks the silver anniversary of the 1998 Scotland Act that ushered in devolution. Much has been achieved in the quarter century since, and there is a lot to celebrate.
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For the first 20 years, things went well. As the new Holyrood government bedded in, successive pieces of legislation transferred more and more powers to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution looked like a living process, and it was only going in one direction.

Then suddenly, in 2017, it was like someone did a handbrake turn. The process stalled. Now it is going into reverse, and Scottish democracy is under greater attack than ever.

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If I’m being generous, some of this can be described as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, rather than a conscious attack on Scottish devolution. Given Scotland is not yet an independent country, it has to work within a larger framework. Take the EU away, and there’s only really the UK left to provide that.

The Tories claim Brexit has meant the transfer of power to Scotland. That’s just not true. What has been transferred is responsibility, not power. Indeed, Whitehall’s new system for allocating funding which once came from the EU has been designed to systematically exclude the Scottish Government, directly allocating money in devolved areas.

If we drifted into this situation after 2017, it got a lot more focus and purpose after Johnson and the Brexiteers won their 2019 election landslide. Brexit’s “opportunities” were deliberately seized upon and, with malintent, used to roll back the gains of devolution.

New framework arrangements were created to allow the UK Government to set the priorities in devolved areas like transport and environment. Whitehall intervention of the like we haven't seen since before 1998. To leave nothing to chance, their Internal Market Act made sure everyone knew who was boss. From improving food standards to workplace safety, nothing was to be done without Westminster’s approval.

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While Brexit started this process, it soon developed a life of its own as right-wing British nationalists, who now control the Tory party, got the bit between their teeth.

UK anti-strike legislation will affect some workers in Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)UK anti-strike legislation will affect some workers in Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
UK anti-strike legislation will affect some workers in Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Take the Tories’ anti-strike bill, which was rushed through parliament last week. It would criminalise workers taking legitimate industrial action if minimum standards are breached in devolved areas like transport, health, and education. Those minimum standards will be set in London, not in Edinburgh. If the Tories’ aim was to call into question the very devolution settlement that gave Scotland its own parliament, they could not have designed a better piece of legislation.

Crowning last week’s slide towards direct rule was the UK Government’s use of the blunt-force instrument of a section 35 order to block Scotland’s new gender bill from becoming law. A bill that was passed in the Scottish Parliament by a two-thirds majority. I know the subject is controversial and provokes strong passionate arguments. But it is an argument to be had here, in Scotland.

In part, this is a Tory government prepared to whip up prejudice against a vulnerable and marginalised group as part of their so-called culture war. But, make no mistake, it is also a full-frontal attack on the right of the people of Scotland to take decisions for ourselves. And we’ve come much too far to allow that to happen.

Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East

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