Tory leadership contest: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak both pose a threat to Scottish devolution – Ian Swanson

It's no big surprise that Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have both made it clear they will not agree to a second independence referendum.
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The change of Prime Minister could have been an opportunity to adopt a more conciliatory approach, recognising that a permanent “just say no” policy will only increase constitutional tensions.

However, knowing they have to win votes from a Conservative membership deeply hostile to any softening of the current stance, both contenders have opted for outright rejection.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have both said no to another independence referendum (Picture: PA Wire)Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have both said no to another independence referendum (Picture: PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have both said no to another independence referendum (Picture: PA Wire)
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But listen to what else they say about Scotland and there is something more disturbing to consider. Not only will the new Prime Minister block any referendum, both candidates are hinting strongly that they plan to mess with the current and accepted operation of devolution.

It was Theresa May, when she was at Number Ten, who first signalled Westminster encroachment on devolved areas of responsibility, promising to reverse what she described as the "devolve and forget" approach, and the theme continued under Boris Johnson.

There was the Union Connectivity Review looking at transport across the UK, which the SNP labelled a power grab. And now there is the Levelling Up fund, which sees the UK Government giving funding direct to councils in Scotland, bypassing the Scottish Government.

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But it seems the Tories want to go further.

Rishi Sunak told the leadership hustings in Perth last week he wanted “proper accountability and scrutiny about what the SNP government is doing”, including Scottish officials being quizzed at Westminster.

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He also questioned the SNP’s use of Scotland’s funding, saying the Scottish social security budget would increase by 50 per cent over the next five years.

“That is wrong. We are a party that believes in people working hard and we want that hard work to be rewarded. That’s what the priority should be – cutting people’s taxes, not putting more money into the welfare system.”

Devolution has allowed Scotland to make its own decisions – rejecting the internal market approach for the NHS and the academy road for education.

And now on social security, benefits are being increased in an attempt to meet people’s needs and there is the chance of a more humane approach instead of the cruelty of benefit sanctions and disabled people being subjected to constant assessments. These are important choices which affect people’s lives and represent the essence of devolution.

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But former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, tipped to get a key role in a Liz Truss government, articulated the threat most blunty.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “The devolution settlement is not written in stone. It has evolved – all in one direction – since 1999. It can evolve back, too.”

He complained about the Scottish Government using public health laws to control entry to Scotland during the pandemic despite immigration being a Westminster responsibility and Scotland having a string of international offices to promote Scottish interests despite foreign affairs also being a reserved power.

And he added: “If the UK Government does not police these boundaries, soon they will no longer exist.”

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Nicola Sturgeon reacted to Lord Frost’s comments by warning: “The Tories are coming for devolution." But it’s not only the SNP who should be concerned.

Anyone who values devolution, people of all parties and none, have good reason to be afraid.

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