While Boris Johnson boasts about the 'might' of the Union, his trade plans threaten to undermine devolution – Ian Swanson

The Conservative Government’s ‘UK internal market’ proposals have been widely attacked, writes Ian Swanson
Boris Johnson visited Stromness harbour  in Orkney during his trip to Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry/PA)Boris Johnson visited Stromness harbour  in Orkney during his trip to Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry/PA)
Boris Johnson visited Stromness harbour in Orkney during his trip to Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry/PA)

Boris Johnson came to Scotland last week to talk about how the response to the coronavirus pandemic had demonstrated the “might” of the Union and pledged the UK would “bounce back stronger together”.

His day trip on Thursday was seen by some as a sign of panic over opinion polls showing support for independence now at 54 per cent.

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And Nicola Sturgeon took him to task for trying to use the virus as a “political weapon”. She rejected the Prime Minister’s claim that an independent Scotland would not have had the financial muscle to prevent Covid causing economic disaster and pointed out that other small countries had managed to cope.

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But amid the jousting and speculation on how Scotland might or might not have coped on its own in the pandemic, there is a much more real and far-reaching issue which needs to be examined.

The UK Government has produced a White Paper on what it describes as the “UK internal market”. It argues that mutual recognition of standards and regulations within the UK will be essential when it comes to negotiating trade deals with other countries after Brexit.

But the plans have raised fears about the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved legislatures being eaten away as deals are struck with America, for example, on food standards which could lead to chlorinated chicken and other meat currently banned in the UK, being allowed into UK shops and restaurants.

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There is a consultation period of just four weeks on the proposals and the fear is that the views of the devolved parliaments will in any case be ignored, just as they were over the Brexit agreement.

And as things stand, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have no voice in the trade negotiations which could lead to the potential lowering of standards they fear.

Critics say not just food standards but environmental protections and public ownership could be at risk, as well as Scotland’s ban on fracking and new nuclear power stations and measures like minimum unit pricing, while the proposals would also allow further private sector involvement in the NHS.

And it is not only the SNP who are warning about the threat to devolution from the White Paper plans.

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Labour and the Greens have also been outspoken in their assessments. The Greens said: “These proposals aren’t merely a power grab, they call into question the very notion of devolution itself.”

And Labour condemned the “heavy handed approach by the Tories” which they said was “helping to drive the pro-independence narrative”.

Mr Johnson claims Scotland and the rest of the UK are dealing with the coronavirus crisis in the same way and any differences are “superficial”.

But the public has detected a difference and the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic has cost him support. His net approval rating on the crisis lags a massive 99 points behind Ms Sturgeon’s - his minus 39 points to her plus 60.

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Neither Number Ten’s incompetence on Covid nor the UK internal market plans may prove the deciding factor on independence - there are all sorts of matters people will want to consider.

But Mr Johnson’s attitudes on both these crucial issues look like boosting the case against him and for a new path.

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