Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Fig leaves and vision


The Scottish Tories are probably breathing a huge sigh of relief following the news that the PM will not, after all, be visiting Scotland to ‘support’ their campaign for the Scottish Parliament elections. Given Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland, it’s the sort of ‘support’ that they can well do without. They are perfectly capable of losing votes and seats all by themselves without the PM turning up to accelerate the process. The reason given – coronavirus restrictions – is a fig leaf at best, given the cavalier disregard the PM has shown for such restrictions previously and his campaigning activities elsewhere, but they’ve gone past even bothering to try and come up with a half-credible lie any more.

The Scottish Tory campaign itself seems to be based entirely concentrating all pro-union votes behind a single party by maintaining an outright refusal to allow a second independence referendum under any conceivable circumstances. It’s based partly on the almost certainly false assumption that Labour voters in Scotland hate the SNP more than they hate the Tories, and partly on an equally flawed assumption that they can indefinitely refuse a referendum because ‘the law’ allows it. It means that they are left trying to argue that there is no legal or democratic means of holding such a referendum. Despite what they say, it is far from clear that any referendum organised by the Scottish government would be unlawful, and labelling it as either illegal or ‘wildcat’ is a desperate act. It’s true that constitutional matters (including independence) are reserved to Westminster, but it doesn’t follow that organising an advisory (as opposed to binding) vote on a reserved matter is also outside the remit of Holyrood; it’s something which has yet to be properly tested in court. Even assuming that they are either right about it being unlawful currently or that they bring forward legislation at Westminster to make the situation crystal clear, telling people who currently seem almost certain to vote in a pro-referendum majority of MSPs that it doesn’t matter how they vote seems an astonishingly inept way of proceeding if the intention is to win those people over. Depending on the force of law – backed up, presumably, by actual force where necessary – to compel Scotland to remain part of the union seems almost deliberately designed to have the opposite effect.

The problem that they have, however, is that they have nothing more positive to offer. There was a time when turning the UK into some sort of federation might have satisfied enough people, even though it would never have been enough for some of us. But if all they can offer is that what the Scots vote for doesn’t matter because London will decide, their cause is hopelessly lost. Here in Wales, Mark Drakeford faces a similar problem. He argued this week that, “… the experience of coronavirus has strengthened in people’s minds the extent to which we have had independent powers and use them independently … because that’s what I think devolved Wales would be, an entrenched devolved Wales with powerful, independent right of action to take decisions on behalf of people in Wales on things that only affect Wales”.

He may well be right – in principle. There might well be a majority in Wales supportive of such a position, perhaps not indefinitely, but probably for some time to come. The problem is, though, that a “powerful, independent right of action” is not on offer – certainly not from Johnson who is busily undermining such right of action as does exist, and not, as far as I can see, from Starmer either. Drakeford’s position therefore amounts to saying that:

‘in the improbable event of England electing a Labour government in the foreseeable future, we can ask the Labour PM to entrench Wales’ powers in law, and there is a remote possibility that (s)he might even agree to do so’.

It’s not much of an offer and without significant reform (of the sort for which neither Drakeford nor Starmer seem to have any appetite) even if there was any chance of them being in a position to do something there is no guarantee that the next English nationalist government in London wouldn’t simply reverse or over-rule the law, as they have with the existing devolution settlement and the Sewell convention.

Drakeford’s difficulty is that he is putting all his eggs in the basket of improbability labelled ‘Labour Government at Westminster’, and that he neither possesses a Plan B, nor seems capable of constructing one. It's another figleaf; it will probably be enough to keep him in power at this election, albeit leading a lame drake administration until his pending retirement as First Minister, but it’s not much of a vision for the future.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Johnson is probably keeping out of the Scottish campaign because as you suggest he has nothing of value to add and might even damage something where Scottish Tories have the capacity to do enough damage on their own ! However it may have occurred to Tories that standing back and prodding the fire occasionally is a wiser stance as recent schisms within SNP and the attitudes of leading SNP figures to Alba may be sufficient to derail the drive for a working pro-indy majority. Shame if that's how it turns out as a lot of effort will have been wasted.