I often write about my fears on the economic impact of Brexit on Scotland. Fears about damage to investment, to exports, to workers rights and to vital skilled EU worker immigration – creating a skills shortage while also increasing the age of our population. However, I am now beginning to wonder if the single largest victim of Brexit will be devolution and even democracy itself.
I never did understand why it bothered people that we shared a few powers across the EU to create a working single market and customs union. In a world of global trade all economies are linked and interdependent and therefore modern independence relies on countries being willing to share some small amount of sovereignty to smooth trade and to maintain prosperity.
The UK maintained its sovereignty whilst in the EU. It just shared some of it to remove trade barriers and create a level playing field for exporters. It is just nuts to suggest that this means your country is not truly independent. Such claims rely on thinking so outdated they make about as much sense as claiming any country without a king can’t really call itself a country (which was actually said to me recently).
Scotland doesn’t share its sovereignty with the UK, however. The UK maintains its sovereignty over us – and not the 10 per cent or so the UK shares with the EU, but 100 per cent of it. Any powers Scotland possesses through devolution do not amount to sovereignty, they are only the limited control of limited powers that are not guaranteed to continue because sovereignty still resides at Westminster (in fact, technically, at Buckingham Palace). In practical terms, any new powers Scotland gets, or any existing powers Scotland retains, are at the behest of Westminster.
Devolution viewed from a Scottish point of view is about seeing what powers the Scottish Parliament can have and do some good with. To some, it is a step along the journey towards federalism and eventually independence. But, make no mistake, from a Westminster point of view devolution has been used to confuse us and to make us feel as though we are empowered, when in fact it’s a tactic to retain real power at Westminster and, as such, it serves only to highlight and entrench Westminster hegemony over the regions and nations of the UK. When powers are offered it is to placate demands for more localised decision making, not to facilitate it, because if Scotland’s Parliament had the powers to make a difference and manifestly did so, it would undermine Westminster’s absolute power. For Unionist politicians this trumps any benefit that may be gained for the people of Scotland from properly empowering the Parliament of Scotland.
That brings us to the proof of the pudding. The EU Withdrawal Bill making its way through Westminster effectively takes all the powers returning from Brussels and retains them at Westminster. Scotland was promised again and again that EU powers in devolved areas would automatically become Scottish powers. That has been proven a lie this week.
On April 5, 2016, Tom Harris, the head of the Scottish Vote Leave campaign, stated that “new powers were part of the Scottish case for leaving the EU’’. He added that “fishing and agriculture would be left in the hands of Holyrood if the UK voted to quit”. Scottish Secretary David Mundell has regularly promised a “powers bonanza”, without actually ever managing to name a single power arriving in Holyrood direct from Brussels.
Now Damian Green, who holds the office of the UK Government’s First Secretary of State – Theresa May’s enforcer and most trusted advisor and friend – has confirmed that automatically devolving those powers wasn’t on the menu, justifying it by saying that without Westminster controls “subsidy wars” between the devolved parliaments could “spiral out of control”. He said: “Agriculture is clearly an area where most of the rules were set at European level but those that weren’t are devolved down and we want to continue that.” He also said: “We need to make sure that we don’t have subsidy wars to try to help sheep farmers, some in Scotland and some in Wales and so on.”
Clearly, a classic example of how Westminster seeks a one-size-its-all policy across the UK to the benefit of London and the south-east and to the detriment of Scotland, whose agricultural sector has markedly different needs to the rest of the UK. Seventy three per cent of Scottish farmland is deemed to be “less favoured area” and so receives higher EU grant contributions than farmers in England. Why was the EU able to perceive and react to the bespoke economic needs of Scottish farmers yet the UK cannot?
So we can see that Brexit is not bringing the promised powers bonanza to Scotland. In fact, the UK Government will now decide what powers Scotland retains as it remixes the devolution settlement post-Brexit. But how does it have the power to do that? The EU Withdrawal Bill re-activates powers that date back hundreds of years to the reign of Henry VIII. They will effectively allow Theresa May – who does not hold a majority – to govern by decree and largely remove Westminster’s ability to scrutinise her actions.
Don’t take my word for it. The Hansard Society – the highly respected global charity that works to promote democracy and strengthen parliamentary oversight – stated that “The broad scope of the delegated powers [including Henry VIII powers] within the EU [Withdrawal] Bill, the inadequate constraints placed on them, and shortcomings in the proposed parliamentary control of the delegated legislation that will be made using them, constitute a toxic mix, for Parliament and the balance of power”, that is, the balance of power between Theresa May and Parliament’s ability to hold her to account.
Make no mistake, as well as Brexit in general being an ill thought out act of economic suicide, contained within the EU Withdrawal Bill is an assault on both devolution and on Parliamentary democracy itself. A very British administrative coup d’état is hiding behind the complexity of Brexit legislation, opposition party stupidity, mainstream media ignorance and voter apathy.