Ian Swanson: Brexit Bill is a powerful threat to Holyrood's rule

The SNP is not alone in trying to defend remit over food and drink, fisheries and farming, says Ian Swanson.

Tuesday, 15th May 2018, 11:03 am
Updated Tuesday, 15th May 2018, 3:25 pm
Michael Russell, the SNP's Brexit minister, has warned the 'power grab' row with Westminster affects areas such as farming, food and drink, and the environment

THE long-running row over Westminster’s “power grab” is set to reach a ­climax this afternoon when MSPs refuse to give ­Holyrood’s consent for the UK ­parliament’s Bill taking the country out of the ­European Union.

Normally, the Scottish Parliament’s agreement is expected before Westminster will legislate on ­matters within Holyrood’s remit. But it is a convention, not a statutory requirement. So when MSPs of all parties except the Tories vote together to ­withhold consent for the European Union (Withdrawal Bill) because they are unhappy about too many powers going from Europe to Westminster, it will not amount to a veto.

It does, however, threaten to ­provoke a constitutional crisis which will test the strength of devolution.

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The governments in London and Edinburgh failed to reach a deal over what should happen to some of the powers coming back from Brussels after Brexit. UK ministers insisted certain key policy areas must be dealt with at Westminster for the next seven years in order to establish common UK frameworks; the Scottish ­Government said all powers in areas of devolved responsibility should come to Holyrood or the devolution settlement would be undermined.

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To emphasise that this really does matter, the SNP’s Brexit minister Michael Russell has pointed out the powers at stake are over farming, food and drink, fisheries and protecting the environment.

At the weekend, Labour former First Minister Henry McLeish claimed the Tories wanted to hoard powers in London to prevent Scotland obstructing a post-Brexit trade agreement with the US, which others have warned could include privatisation of the NHS and imports of chlorinated chicken.

Any constitutional crisis is likely to come as a surprise to voters in ­England, because the ins and outs of the protracted battle over the “Westminster power grab” have failed to penetrate beyond the border. A court case is looming over the related issue of the Continuity Bill, which the ­Scottish Parliament passed in March as an alternative to the UK’s Brexit legislation.

Provisional dates of July 24 and 25 have been set for a hearing. The Westminster government is asking the Supreme Court to strike down the Holyrood legislation.

Westminster would then take the unprecedented step of imposing its own Brexit legislation on Scotland against Holyrood’s will.

Critics accuse the SNP of seeking to engineer a crisis in order to boost the independence cause. But Labour and the Lib Dems, as well as the Greens, are on board with the Nationalists on this one.

Although a constitutional stand-off between Westminster and Holyrood could work to the advantage of Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues, who would be seen as standing up for Scotland, the Brexit issue has not so far been a particularly fruitful one for the pro-independence camp – up to a third of the SNP’s own supporters are said to have backed Leave.

Whether the SNP can rally voters to the cause when the issue moves on to defending the rights of the Scottish Parliament remains to be seen.

But there should be no doubting the threat to devolution from the UK ­Government. The imposition of the Brexit Bill against the will of MSPs could be just the start.