Ian Swanson: Brexit strategy could mean new powers for Holyrood

The message is clear from one independence supporter at a rally in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
The message is clear from one independence supporter at a rally in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
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WHAT’S this – SNP leaders at odds over a second independence referendum? With Labour divided over re-elected leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Tories falling out over what Brexit should look like, it’s almost as if the Nationalists did not want to be left out of the latest craze for political parties: conflict over key elements of their creed.

Nicola Sturgeon may have said another vote on independence is “highly likely” but she has no intention of calling one until she can be sure of winning it – and the polls suggest that could be a long way off.

But that has not stopped her predecessor Alex Salmond saying he expects a fresh independence plebiscite in “roughly two years’ time”.

And Blair Jenkins, former head of the Yes Scotland campaign, has similarly predicted a new referendum in May 2018.

But former Justice Secretary and Edinburgh MSP Kenny MacAskill has warned against a “headlong rush” to a second referendum, arguing the SNP needs to wait for “the optimum time” to try again.

And MEP Alyn Smith has also cautioned against a “premature” referendum – saying it is too soon to ask voters to back independence when no one knows what kind of UK they would be leaving behind.

Unsurprisingly, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem politicians are quick to denounce any thought of another independence vote.

But now veteran SNP politician Alex Neil has come forward with a new suggestion which tries to move beyond the rather stale speculation about a new referendum.

He claims Scotland could achieve “neo-independence” by forgetting about a second referendum and using Brexit to secure major new powers for Holyrood.

He wants Ms Sturgeon to seize the initiative and fill the void created by the UK Government’s silence on what it wants from Brexit by “setting the agenda” for the negotiations by presenting a list of Scotland’s demands.

He says all the powers related to farming and fishing should automatically transfer to Scotland, but argues Brexit also provided an “ideal opportunity” for Holyrood to take over powers over employment laws and workers’ rights, environmental protection, social policy, consumer protection, transport policy, energy policy, public health matters and even VAT.

Mr Neil believes using Brexit to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament in this way would then provide a platform for achieving full independence in the early 2020s.

For the man once associated with the slogan “Scotland Free by ‘93” that might sound like it is 30 years too late.

But his proposed way forward is the most detailed and arguably most sensible and constructive approach so far to Scotland’s future in the wake of the EU referendum result.

There should be at least a measure of consensus with other parties on the idea that some powers currently held in Brussels should be handed to Holyrood rather than Westminster.

And although the opposition would obviously not want to see it as a step towards independence, they have backed previous transfers of power to the Scottish Parliament to enhance devolution. And there is a strong case for policy on issues such as employment, workers’ rights and social policy, in particular, being decided here.

A second referendum does not look a serious prospect at the moment, no matter how much some people would like it. But Scoltand should still aim to get something from the Brexit talks.